Boris Wintermans reflects on the success of Royal Agio Cigars.
By Brian Ledtke
Royal Agio Cigars may or may not be a name you’ve heard in the United States, but for those in Europe, you’ve probably heard of them before. After all, this company has been around for 115 years, despite being relative newcomers stateside. But with the release of their Balmoral Anejo XO cigar line five years ago and the 2019 release of a collaboration cigar with Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana Cigars, suddenly the U.S. market is abuzz.
Sitting across from me at the Royal Agio Cigars booth at the 2019 International Premium Cigars and Pipe Retailers (IPCPR) convention in Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, is current president, Boris Wintermans, the great-grandson of founder Jacques Wintermans. Boris Wintermans is eloquent and passionate about the cigar industry, which is evident not only in how he speaks but also in the way his piercing blue eyes light up when he talks about cigars. But it’s not only his love for cigars that makes Boris interesting; he also has a zeal and curiosity for discovery, and he certainly loves to live life on the edge.
“I like to be inspired by new experiences, whether it’s smoking a cigar or trying out a new motorcycle,” Wintermans says as he lights up a Balmoral Anejo XO Nicaragua. “I like to try new things, enjoy life and live in the moment.”
The Netherlands-based company was founded by Jacques in 1895 using 200 Dutch guilders—about $100. Four generations later, this small entrepreneurial company has become the fourth-largest maker of natural wrapped cigars in the world, making about 800 million cigars, and employs over 2,300 people.
However, Wintermans’ passions initially didn’t lead him into the cigar industry, despite growing up around tobacco.
“I probably smoked my first cigar when I was 3 years old or something,” Wintermans says, laughing. “Just kidding. But I was born into the cigar environment. I don’t know whether it was nature or nurture, but somehow it got into my system.”
After working in the family factory during his teenage years, Wintermans attended university for advertising, and after finishing school, he went backpacking for three months in South America where he visited tobacco plantations, which he says led him on a trail of discovery.
Shortly after returning to the Netherlands and working in the advertising business for a brief time, Wintermans decided the nine-to-five life wasn’t for him, and it wasn’t long after that Royal Agio Cigars offered him a position that he readily accepted.
“I wasn’t forced into it,” Wintermans says. “If I ever want to pass this on to my kids, it will have to be their choice. I just want them to be happy, and if it happens to be in the family business, that’s awesome. If it doesn’t, I’m never going to push anybody into a mold.”
Wintermans recalls being on a sailboat in the Mediterranean with his father when he was about 20 years old, smoking one of their first long-filler cigars, a Balmoral. He remembers it was that moment that really began his love for the industry: “Just enjoying the moment, having a nice Churchill, sitting there, and just enjoying the hell out of that cigar.”
Royal Agio Cigars has been in the U.S. market for quite some time now with their other brands (Panter, produced since 1935, and Mehari’s, produced since 1976), but it was their Balmoral premium handmade cigar line that started turning heads about 5 years ago.
The first Balmoral cigar Wintermans blended was the Balmoral Anejo 18, which used an 18-year-old Brazilian wrapper, and it was a huge hit. Unfortunately, the tobacco used in that cigar was extremely limited, and the company soon ran out, prompting Wintermans to begin planning a follow-up—the Balmoral Anejo XO.
“The Balmoral Anejo XO was the cigar that really put us on the map,” Wintermans says. “What we always try to do with our Balmoral cigars is just start on it and basically see where it ends. We have our curiosity; we want to discover new flavors, new tastes, and that takes us in a certain direction. What we don’t want to do is create something that’s already out there. You sometimes have to smoke 100 samples to get it right.”
Wintermans followed up the Balmoral Anejo XO with the Anejo XO Oscuro to take the Balmoral line in a different direction taste-wise and to surprise not only consumers but also himself. The same can be said for the next cigar in their lineup: the Anejo XO Connecticut, which isn’t your normal mild Connecticut cigar but one with an extra punch that will appeal even to the seasoned smoker. The Balmoral Anejo XO Nicaragua, released in August 2019, rounds out the Balmoral lineup and features a gorgeous sun-grown Nicaraguan Habano wrapper.
However, it was the cigar released just last year and the subsequent follow-up this year that created a buzz that even Wintermans didn’t expect. Last year, Wintermans teamed up with Ernesto Perez-Carrillo of EP Carrillo Cigars, under the newly released Balmoral Serie Signaturas collaboration platform, to create the Balmoral Dueto, which received a mountain of accolades. But this was just the beginning.
This year, Wintermans announced the second Serie Signaturas release, Paso Doble, a collaboration with Litto Gomez of La Flor Dominicana Cigars, which sent shockwaves through the industry. The buzz around the IPCPR tradeshow this July was one of shock: Gomez never collaborates … how did Wintermans convince him?
“Well, we said, ‘Litto, do you want to work with us? We might have a spot left. We may be able to squeeze you in,’” Wintermans jokes. “No, we’ve had a relationship for a few decades now, and we’re not the average guy making cigars. Litto, being a curious guy as well, likes to explore different routes and paths, and he was also keen to see where it could take us.”
“This is not something we normally do—in fact we never do it,” Gomez says, “but for Boris, I made an exception because we share the same simple philosophy: to be the best and do things the right way.”
The Balmoral Serie Signaturas Paso Doble combines each cigar maker’s tobaccos and intertwines them into a balance of flavors that stays true to each cigar maker’s signature blending style—the dark, full-bodied richness of La Flor Dominicana and the sophisticated, balanced intricacy of Balmoral cigars.
“You start out on a route and you create something special, and all of a sudden, people start noticing it, start tasting it, give you positive feedback, and I think that’s one of the most valuable things you can do,” Wintermans says. “That’s what we’re doing it for. It’s nice that people are engaged in the same journey we are.”
If you’ve noticed Wintermans mentioning “journey” and “curiosity” often, it’s because he does. Those words are very much a part of him and what make up his life’s philosophy: “Every day is a new opportunity to try something different. When is the last time you tried something for the first time?” His philosophy has segued itself into Balmoral’s social media hashtag: #CuriosityDrivesDiscovery.
And discover Wintermans has—racing motorcycles and cars, running triathlons, starting a band and even competing in a boxing match.
“With the racing and the boxing, it’s all about thrill, the speed, about taking some risks, but it’s also about just starting something and enjoying it for what it is,” Wintermans says. “And that is what is at the core of our brand.”
Aside from thrill-seeking and cigars, Wintermans’ family is also in the high-tech business—3D printing metal and supplying it to the aerospace and car industries. For now, his brother mostly runs that side of the family business, and Wintermans focuses on cigars, but when asked if he has ever thought about moving to the high-tech business, he pauses to think for a moment and then replies, “It’s an awful lot of fun, but I’m liking the cigar industry.”
It’s Wintermans’ curiousness and love for discovering new things that has brought him to where he is today, and it’s that same passion that will propel him, Balmoral and Royal Agio Cigars into the future.
“Life is not about the end goal; it’s about the process as much as doing what we love to do,” Wintermans says, looking down at his half-smoked Balmoral cigar. “And this is the one thing that’s remained a constant in my life. I’ve switch from one thing to another, but cigars have always been a constant in my life and in my family after four generations.”