The funny thing about business is that certain businesses seem to attract certain people. Attorneys
are usually driven, intense people. A CPA is reserved and introspective.
Salesmen are boisterous, and cigar manufacturers… well… they’re a different breed.
Lars Tetens is the most different of them all.
We first learned of Lars Tetens and his cigars in 2007 at The Cigar Lounge in Granada Hills where the owner Ash told us we had to smoke
Smelling them through their individually zip-locked bags, we wanted to decline due to the intense smell
that seemed as if no plastic could hold it. He insisted, and we lit up.
What we discovered that day would change our cigar paradigm. A clean, delicious taste; a powerful aroma; and a crisp finish with no residual taste on the palatte.
We were sold 100%. Years later, we revisited Ash’s lounge and were greeted with bad news- he had no more Lars Cigars. A subsequent conversation with Lars revealed he had temporarily shut down his distribution network in order to focus on his East Coast business. Oh well- easy come, easy go.
Lars Tetens has been a mysterious figure in the cigar business- wrapped in half-truths and conjecture, no one seems to know anything
definitive. What long-time smokers know is that he had been on the scene for as long as they could remember (since
1979), that his cigars were hard to find, expensive and unique, and that no one
ever seemed to really know what was going on with his companies. A modern-day Leonardo DaVinci, Lars
manufactures cigars, olive oil, chocolates, steak sauces, spices, sausage,
cheese, skate boards, paintings, leather goods, furniture and perfume. What sort of man spreads himself so
thinly? Takes on such different ventures? We were, to put it mildly, intrigued.
So, when we heard that Lars was going to make an appearance
at The Cigar Lounge in the spring of 2011, we knew we had to meet the man behind the legends. We were greeted by
Lars’ right-hand-woman Musashi, who introduced us to more blends than we had ever seen from a single manufacturer.
Ash had 30 different blends, and Musashi told us that there were another 30 to 40 varieties that he didn’t stock!
We settled in with strong, flavorful, unique cigars and waited for Lars to arrive. And arrive he did.
Cutting a swath through the lounge, Lars seemed to glow- 5’9 with a pot-belly, red Mohawk and pink beard, there was no losing the man in a
crowd. And since he seemed to draw people into his wake, it was equally difficult to get close. In the humidor, we chatted and traded
stories, and became friends. That’s when he invited us to visit him in Pennsylvania to learn his business and to get to
know the man behind the legend.
On a Sunday in July we landed in Pittsburgh and found Lars waiting to pick us up. After a bear hug,
we loaded up the car and set off for Allentown. I’ve been in a lot of smokers’ cars, including my own, but never smelled
one like this. The smell was like the combination of exotic sweetness with fine perfume. An unusual odor, but a very pleasant one.
We pulled into Allentown, and went to a new boutique that was going to feature Lars’ products exclusively. Shamrock Custom Luxury is minimalist, but
full of high-end products that Lars produces in Upstate New York, such as sausage in olive oil, leather purses, paintings, furniture, and of course, cigars. Lars cracked open his travel humidor and told us to pick something- preferable something expensive. There was no hesitation- we knew exactly what to go for.
The SCP (Stone Cold Pimpin’) – the pinnacle of the line- is legendary. People who know the products talk about it and ask others if they’ve ever smoked it.
What’s it like? Is it really worth it? How can it be that much? We’ll tell you. The reason there’s so much buzz is that the SCP carries a retail price point of over $180 per cigar. Per cigar.
Why so much? That’s how much it costs him. The core of Lars’ cigar philosophy is aging. Every cigar manufacturer uses aged tobacco, but what happens after the cigar is rolled is
where Lars takes a different path.
After the cigar is a cigar, Lars sets it aside in a special aging room, where the temperature is lowered to 40 degrees, and the humidity to
5%. These extremely cold and dry conditions cause the cigars to lose all their moisture, and the only thing left
in the leaves are the natural oils. Tobaccos from the United States (Kentucky, Georgia, Virginia, and Pennsylvania) as well as Puerto Rican, Cameroon, Dominican, Honduran,
Pilipino and Mexican tobaccos all have unique charateristics, and in their complex blends and high-stress conditions,
the oils mix and blend over a period of 2 to 25 years. The SCP sits in these rooms for over two decades, and the result is extraordinary.
A dark cigar, SCP burns slowly and evenly, leaving a multi-shaded ash with vein tracks clearly visible. The flavor is rich, nuanced, complex, and
absolutely delicious. If you can afford it, you should smoke it.
Next stop was lunch. At the Chinese restaurant next door we decided to let Lars order, where
we learned something that would be important for the rest of our trip. For the three of us, we ordered 3 appetizers
and 6 entrees. And rice. You’ll never be hungry hanging out with Lars.
Our second cigar was the Annuit Coeptus- an $85 cigar. Using the same aging process and time, the
Annuit Coeptus was darker and stronger than the SCP. The ash was full of beautiful little balls-
something we’d never seen. Rich and flavorful, we were confident that there was a market for these sticks.
A little later on Musashi arrived with Travis, the distributor who covers the North-East.
After a while we went to visit one of Travis’ clients- a cigar lounge that occupied, what used to be a gas station.
It was surreal to park at a pump and walk in to what we expected to be a
mini mart, but had couches and floor-to-ceiling humidors. We thought it was brilliant- how many gas
stations have you seen that were abandoned? And what a great location- the corner of a major intersection in their
Monday broke, cloudy and humid. We were excited because we were going to spend the day on the golf course at a charity event, handing out cigars. Our natural habitat! We met up with Travis and Musashi, as well as a handful of promo models, and prepared to spend the day chatting with golfers and handing out cigars. It seemed as if
our reputation did not precede us, since the girls didn’t listen to our advice and didn’t know anything about cigars.
Oh well. The tournament ended with a rainstorm that made it seem like we were standing under a waterfall-
huge, heavy drops of water arrived en masse, and turned everything that wasn’t covered into a sloppy mess. A brief jog
to the car (10 seconds) and we were wetter than we’ve ever been in a California rainstorm! I was impressed at the
locals’ ability to take it in stride.
That night, Lars cooked for us. We heard him say over the phone shortly after picking us up at the airport “Yes… uh huh… good. And wrap it in bacon.” Sounds like my kind of meal! We started with a mozzarella and grape salad, with long slices of perfectly seared beef laid over the lettuce- a light olive oil dressing finished it off.
The second course featured stuffed green peppers, wrapped in bacon. Stuffed with red beans, red rice
and tuna, the peppers were wrapped in bacon and baked at 180 degrees for 30
hours. Sunday morning they were put in the oven, and Monday night we ate.
Topped with a country gravy, the peppers were not mushy as one might
expect, but tender. The bacon was chewy and smoky, and the gravy thick and rich.
Somehow… it worked!
While waiting for the main course, we lit up the Taino cigar. A blend of West Cameroon binder,
Georgian and Kentucky filler and a rich, pitch black Puerto Rican wrapper, Taino was the first time we were ever able to taste the naturally sweetness of
a true maduro cigar. Sweet and earthy, the cigar changed flavors 3 times before we finished.
Our main course was chicken and plantains over wild rice. Under the inedible skin of the chicken, the meat was perfectly done- tender and moist. Much to our surprise, since the chicken had
cooked as long as the peppers!
That night we stayed up late, drinking scotch and listening to Lars hold court with the stories from his life. A world traveler, Lars is personal friends
with high-ranking members of the Armed Forces, teaches combat techniques to Navy SEALS, and finds time to age cheese in the caves his family owns in
Upstate New York. We could have talked all night, but sleep and the promise of the next day beckoned.
On Tuesday we travelled with Musashi to visit a few of their clients, and see the variety of stores that carried their products. We saw cigars in beer distributorships, steak
sauce in liquor stores, and olive oil in clothing boutiques. To say there’s a wide array of products and clients would be quite the understatement!
One of the seven cigars we smoked that day is called Bassmaster. A big 7×54, it smokes smooth and clean, with a mellow character.
Musashi, proud of the blend (it’s hers), told us to watch the pilot of “The Bernie Mac Show”, since Bassmaster was Bernie Mac’s favorite cigar. Sure enough, if you watch the opening
monologue of the pilot you’ll see him light a cigar and equate cigars with raising children. And if you watch very
closely, you’ll see the trademark “LARS TETENS” blue-and-red band that used to adorn every cigar. The Tetens cigars are not without their share of celebrity admirers- a few days earlier they were
backstage with Def Leppard, and Lars has several photos of him with Steven
Tyler. I guess when you can afford whatever you want, you tend to smoke what you like!
Dinner was another extraordinary affair- for the five of us, we ordered 5 appetizers, six entrees, 5 side dishes and 5 desserts. As we said, when you’re with Lars, you’re
guaranteed to not be hungry for long.
A tour of Allentown was on the agenda for Wednesday- we had lunch at a brewery with Musashi and learned about how Lars had helped her
family and how they came to work together. A savvy business mind in her own right, Musashi runs the day-to-day for
all of Lars’ companies- a job that no one who needed sleep could do! She talked about their leather and food businesses with a passion typically reserved for artists.
That’s when we came to realize that they are a crew of artists. Their mediums are varied- cigars, perfume, chocolate and others, but the passion, craftsmanship and
ideals they embody are evident in every product they make.
Dinner was at the Suburban Tavern and Restaurant in the cigar lounge upstairs (see our review), followed by a delicious gelato/shave
ice at the Mayor’s ice cream stand.
Our nightcap was at a local bar that Lars and Travis’ bands perform at from time to time. Lars is an
institution in Pennsylvania- people stop him on the street and constantly seek him out to sit at his feet and learn from the entrepreneur’s entrepreneur.
The bar, for example, boasted a jar of his Italian food spice on every table, and had barbecue sauce on the menu. Several of his paintings hung from the walls,
and his name was on the marquee. “Performing Friday and Saturday”- as if he didn’t perform every day.
Our last breakfast with Lars was fried eggs and potatoes, featuring Lars’ barbecue spice, with a side of sesame-crusted bacon. We would highly recommend adding sesame seeds
to your bacon, fyi. A mild cigar- the Cubagua- was the last one we smoked while digesting the trip and our breakfast.
The lessons we learned over the week were, for the most part, simple ones. As far as business, we
had learned that just because we don’t know about a brand, it doesn’t mean that it’s not a thriving, vibrant business.
We learned about the passion and dedication that one person can pour into their life’s work, that they can stand tall on their principles, even if
some people don’t understand them.
As for the man behind the myth, we learned that Lars Tetens is more than the sum of his rumors- he’s a singular human being. One capable of being the center of attention,
while remaining humble and approachable.
A multi-talented, multi-disciplined artist, Lars stands alone. If you get a chance to try one of his products – whether it’s chocolate with espresso grounds, a habanero barbecue sauce, or one
of his cigars, try and think of it as his gift to you. And if he were there personally, it would be.