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Written by K. Melissa Burton Photos by Wales Hunter
Allen Mobley is known worldwide these days as the producer of some of the most inventive cigars in the industry. With a genius for combining flavors and a knack for marketing, Mobley has put the Kentucky Gentleman Cigar Company into the big leagues with cigar lovers.
Raised in Harrodsburg, Mobley claims he was neither a Harrodsburg Pioneer nor a Mercer County Scottie, the two rival public schools in the district at that time. “We worked! That’s just what we did,” he said. “We worked on the farm. School wasn’t as important.”
Mobley received his education in the fields under the hot, summer sun. Milking cows, baling hay and coaxing the burley tobacco to grow were all a part of the curriculum, but that doesn’t mean he was happy with the life. “I wanted to get outta that,” he said. “I wanted nothing more to do with it.”
At 19, Mobley left Kentucky in search of his fortune in Florida, where he worked in the construction industry. After Hurricane Andrew in 1992, he made his way to Las Vegas and eventually to California and was successful in construction and flipping houses, “back when you could flip them and make money,” he said. But the pull of home grew strong, and Mobley, by then married and the father of twins, brought his family to Kentucky.
Inspired by his love of a good cigar, Mobley started his company in 2004 in a little red barn behind his family’s century-old home in Anderson County. For him, there’s never been anything more relaxing than a enjoying a good stogie. “I’ll take a good cigar and a glass of bourbon over a Valium any day,” he said with a laugh.
But making a fine cigar is equally art and science. To learn the trade, he took a course in cigar rolling in Austin, Texas, the only one of its kind in the United States. There, he learned the craft from the best and came back knowing how to roll a prime, full-leaf cigar. “We don’t chop up the leaves,” he stressed. “No! Not here.”
In a competitive business, he knew he wanted to stand out. Always the risk taker, Mobley began experimenting with various combinations, blending different tobaccos with unusual flavors. To do this, he takes tobacco leaves and ages them in a bourbon barrel. Different types of leaves with different types of bourbon produce subtly unique tastes. His most recognizable of the 16 varieties include a White Lightning cigar and his Mint Julep, which combines the flavor of Kentucky bourbon with a kiss of sweet mint on the tip. All this experimentation makes Mobley’s workshop resemble a rustic lab with various bottles, cans and equipment lying about. It also makes for an exceedingly aromatic work environment. “I have one guy who comes in every year to buy two of my used bourbon barrels,” he said. “He just loves the smell. He says he puts them in his bedroom.”
When rolled, the leaves are placed into molds that are seasoned with hemp oil. “The Dominicans use mineral oil, but I get this stuff from Canada,” Mobley says with a slight grin. Once placed into the molds, the cigars must be pressed. This is accomplished with a massive contraption that looks a bit like an ancient torture device. Mobley ruefully admits he spent a great deal more money shipping the machine, which was made in the Dominican Republic for the purpose of compressing cigars, than he did on its purchase. The careful hand rolling, along with the even pressure, makes for a firm cigar, a task that takes equal parts finesse and talent. “When you pick a cigar, you always feel for its firmness,” Mobley advised. “Nobody wants a cigar with a soft spot.”
But creating the cigar is only half the process. Once rolled, cigars must be stored, and then marketed in some distinctive way. Here, Mobley had a small problem. Cuban and Dominican cigar makers use only Spanish cedar wood for their humidors and boxes. He was told the red cedar that grew in abundance in Kentucky wouldn’t work. But importing the Spanish variety was cost prohibitive.
Mobley’s dilemma was resolved when he noticed a magazine article while on a flight. The story included a photo of a Cuban man’s humidor made of red cedar. Mobley called the subject personally to make sure his eyes weren’t playing tricks. Yes, indeed, it was red cedar. “The cedar is what keeps bugs out,” Mobley explained. “The Cubans and Dominicans use Spanish cedar because it’s what’s available. Here, we use red.”
It’s with the red cedar that Mobley’s artistry is apparent, even to a non-cigar smoker.
The back of the Kentucky Gentleman Cigar building is a wood shop filled with various slabs of the beautifully striated wood. With the wood, Mobley creates boxes of all shapes and sizes—even a coffin shape if you have a morbid bent—and then uses an etching machine to burn an original design onto the top. Each design can be personalized for the customer, making them functional, beautiful and unique. The result is a far cry from the cardboard cigar boxes reused as school pencil boxes in the past. In fact, Mobley’s boxes are collector-worthy.
But the wood’s natural streaks and blemishes can make for some unintended results. Once, while burning a picture of a grade school class into some wood as a gift, a knot ended up over one child’s face. “We couldn’t do that to him,” said Mobley, who’s ever the perfectionist. He placed the sample back with other pieces that didn’t meet his exacting standards. “I also had an older lady call me one time complaining that someone had brushed paint across her box. She saw the natural streaks and thought someone had painted on her box.”
Nonetheless, Mobley’s fans are abundant and faithful. He not only makes cigars for many of Kentucky’s world-renowned distilleries, but his list of clients also includes major corporations, country music stars and a well-known rapper. Plus he has the ardent support of the National Guard and other military personnel. “I looked out the window one day and saw 12 black SUVs pull up,” Mobley said. “They were the guys off the USS Kentucky nuclear sub!” The men had gotten a taste of his cigars and wanted more.
Even with 35,000 to 55,000 cigars being produced annually and sold in all 50 states plus three other continents, Mobley’s creative juices haven’t stopped flowing. He’s working on a line of chewing tobacco that, like the cigars, is a unique blend of flavors, even garlic. The next product he hopes to sell is not tobacco related, but also is a nod to his Kentucky roots: stack pie.
“This is the only place where people know about stack pies, and you can’t hardly find anyone to make them,” he said. “So, I thought we’d produce some … flavored with a touch of bourbon, of course.”
A slice of stack pie followed by a premium cigar. It would seem Mobley is the quintessential Kentucky gentleman.