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The Burden of Being Boutique

The Burden of Being Boutique
Defining and defending boutique cigars in an age of overwhelmingly incessant production
Part One

Among the countless ways in which technology has affected our generation lies the increase of access to cigars and cigar-related content. New blend and brand releases, new personalities, new content platforms, new industry meet-ups and events, and so much more can be found simply by perusing the right hashtags on Instagram. With these trends come more individuals promoting more brands, on more platforms, to wider and wider audiences every day. And as if social media and its affinity for the “new” isn’t enough, over the past several years, the FDA has inadvertently prompted several major “before it’s too late” blends to (re)enter the market, a reality that has led to an unnecessary market saturation of blends that are either too young, too forced, or otherwise too unexciting to be taken seriously (more on that another time).

The quality of this mass quantity of content and product notwithstanding, there is such an inarguable wealth of it that it makes being “in the know” fertile ground for FOMO. Despite this ease of access to information, however, there seems to be an inverse correlation regarding access to actual product, particularly with regard to boutique blends. But why?

To respond to these thoughts will require a definition of boutique cigars that can adequately inform an exploration of its current standing within the cigar community: one of intrigue, passion, and – to put it plainly – lack of appropriate support. Here, I consider the yet unofficial categorical definition of boutique cigars – a task that proves itself unnecessarily yet unavoidably complex. Once that’s been settled, I look forward to sharing my thoughts on why they’re so darn elusive in a follow-up post or two. So let’s get cracking.

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SOME BACKGROUND

To be painfully but necessarily elementary, the word boutique is defined by Google dictionary as follows:

noun

  1. a small store selling fashionable clothes or accessories.
  2. a business or establishment that is small and sophisticated or fashionable.
    “a boutique film”

mid 18th century: from French, ‘small shop’, via Latin from Greek apothēkē ‘storehouse’

On its surface, it may seem that this definition is a bit incomplete with regard to the cigar industry in particular, but a more thorough thought experiment might prove otherwise. So let’s just sit that aside for later.

Now, others before me have approached the task of defining the genre for the community. Cigar Advisor’s John Pullo, for example, offered some thoughtful responses to the notion, arguing that for all intents and purposes, “boutique” and “small batch” are relatively interchangeable terms that reference small productions of truly premium smokes. Small Batch Cigar, on the other hand – after listing a number of previously-rendered, seemingly haphazard definitions of the term – purports simply that “a boutique cigar is one that is made with meticulous care”. Before any of them, a 1999 report by Smoke Magazine acknowledges the sophistication of boutique cigars while ultimately asserting that any cigar production totaling less than 1.5 million cigars was by definition boutique.

In every case, an acknowledgement of the nuanced categorical nature of boutique cigars is made, but somehow leads to a concrete definition rejecting those very valid nuances. In my estimation, it is the intersection of numerous factors that inevitably defines the essence of boutique cigars as a genre, especially as the variances between “small batch” and “boutique” multiply over time.

CURRENT AFFAIRS

Presently, while defining boutique as it relates to cigars might prove avoidably tiring, knowing one when you see it isn’t nearly as mind-wrecking. Very few cigar companies explicitly market themselves or their cigars as boutique; you just kinda know it when you see it. But for the purposes of education in a community whose participants are wildly curious and refreshingly engaged, it seems fitting to put the concept into more accessible terms.

So what comes to mind when considering notions of the boutique cigar?

  1. That it be associated with a non-major brand?
    In most cases, sure. But I’d argue that the forthcoming Plasencia for Davidoff of Geneva, for example, still qualifies.
  2. That it be a limited production / small batch run?
    Often. However, I wouldn’t personally consider, say, the LFD Andalusian Bull a boutique cigar per say.
  3. That it be crafted with care?
    Romantic, but not enough. Especially considering that you’d be hard pressed to find a company who’d admit that not all of their cigars are constructed with such loving-kindness.

With all these rules and exceptions, things can seem too unnecessarily complex to even bother. Contrarily, these technical nuances really aren’t so far from our experience. Perhaps the most apt comparison I can make is one to the world of underground hip hop.  For comparison, let’s try running those same questions back within the context of defining underground hip hop instead:

  1. That it be associated with a non-major brand?
    Frequently! But can major artists not also make underground hits? Sure they can; especially if they’re featured on a newcomer’s mixtape, for instance.
  2. That it be a limited production / small batch run?
    Is the lesser-played track on a multi-platinum selling album “underground”, simply because it got less spins? Nope. Major players using major resources but happening to (unintentionally or strategically) sell less of them, does not an underground artist – nor boutique cigar maker – make.
  3. That it be crafted with care?
    Does the hunger with which some underground artists feed their craft die once they become mainstream, and are all underground artists equally passionate about their craft? No.

Okay, okay, okay. So there is nuance to the term boutique cigar, but not any more than there is to underground hip hop, the sneakerhead scene, or any other major creative outlet for that matter. Got it. But is there anything all boutiques do have in common? Aside from the fact that “not available at every shop you go to” seems to be the only real connection here, a closer look will reveal just how precisely Google’s dictionary defined this elusive term.

If we think about it, what sets an underground artist apart from an “underground artist” is the same thing that would separate a boutique cigar from a “boutique cigar:” occasional freestyling sessions with the homies makes you no more “underground” than rolling your own personal cigars makes you a boutique cigar maker, no matter how skilled and/or passionate you may be.

One must render, then, the same rate of professional input (or more), but with far less overall return. If a brand is doing everything mainstream brands are doing (including but not limited to website, social media, general marketing and branding, and of course licensing and production), but with less (especially offline) visibility, then they are boutique brands.

That is to say, despite similar yet various nuances, all boutiques must have:

  • Identifiable branding
  • Business licenses, tax certifications and other professional legal necessities
  • Consistency of product offerings and professional means by which to sell them
  • Significantly less (inter)national name recognition and/or representation compared to their contemporaries

Basically, in order to be dubbed boutique, you must be relatively “small” but actually be a brand. Like a real, legit, grown-up brand putting in real effort to grow a real business. Or like Google said: “a business or establishment that is small and sophisticated…”

FULL CIRCLE

Having considered what we know about boutique blends, we can determine that the connection between the elementary and contextual definitions of “boutique” are more aligned than we may have been willing to admit. Despite accurate portrayals of boutiques at large, what my predecessors failed to include in their previous attempts to define the category is the imperative notion that these blends must be an extension of an actual business. Perhaps it went without saying before, but it now seems mandatory to note that boutique brands stem from a legitimate business, offering legitimate product that people legitimately want, only in smaller, more intimate quantities than larger brands. 

But let us not forget, as Mr. Pullo so aptly conceded in his piece, “it’s also a vibe… the ultimate intangibly tangible commodity.” A vibe, that is, that has morphed into a whole wave of increased interest in non-major consumerism, despite the lack of offline representation.

This particular notion is most imperative, as we begin to consider the nearly exclusive impact consumers and retailers have on a brand’s potential transition from boutique to mainstream. Next time, we’ll dive into my thoughts on why there seems to be a discrepancy between demand and supply, and how to respond to this unfortunate dilemma.

Until then, be sure to let me know your initial thoughts on the boutique burden here or on my IG.

About the author: Chaina Dobbins
Hiya! I'm Chai (pronounced: shy). I have been an avid cigar smoker since my start nearly 5 years ago, and began to deepen my love for whiskey at the same time. As someone who has held various roles within the industry (service, retail management, events, blogging, consumer-enthusiast), I enjoy sharing my cigar and spirit experiences with others within the community.

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