Sigmund Freud, father of psychoanalysis and noted cigar enthusiast, once famously commented, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” OK, maybe it’s a false attribution, but still. That isn’t the kind of stogie Alex Spencer is interested in. For him, cigars are multi-layered vehicles for telling stories and a surefire way to strike up a conversation.
“I realized that cigars are a great entryway to sparking conversations with people I’d never met in my life,” says Spencer. “Whether they smoke or not, most people have an uncle or a grandfather who readily enjoys them. The smell of the cigar has a potent memory and usually brings a smile to people’s faces. So I started carrying cigars wherever I went.”
Raised on the west side, the Hughes High School graduate earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Cincinnati and an MBA from Xavier University. His business education started much earlier, though, as he traveled with his parents during his childhood. “They owned a painting company and used to paint fast food stores like McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s,” says Spencer, “and we’d travel every summer to these different places. So I first experienced the world through the entrepreneurial eyes of my parents.”
He didn’t immediately take up the mantle of self-employment, working for a few years in the finance department of a Massachusetts-based media tech company. Even then, though, he fostered a certain business sense that would eventually lead to developing his own product. He recounts a business trip to Boston where a chance meeting with a man who turned out to be the CEO of Benjamin Moore & Co. “I said, Hey, let me get your business card,” Spencer recalls. “He looked at me and said, You don’t need it. Keep doing what you’re doing. “What he meant was, Follow your passion. He clearly saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself.”
Spencer was already hot on the heels of his passion when he moved back to Cincinnati, partnering with a cigarmaker out of Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, to produce hand-rolled cigars. He sold them around town, hauling a 200-count humidor to bar patios where, with the permission of the bar owner, he sold his wares. He also delivered cigars within the I-275 loop for customers who met a minimum order requirement. And in 2018, realizing his passion had led him somewhere special, he decided he had to go all in.
“When the opportunity came, it was to either choose cigars or the line of business I was in,” he says. “I don’t know how to have one foot in and one foot out. I’m the person who cannonballs into the water rather than sticking in his tippy toes.”
He clearly made the right choice. Demand for his cigars grew so much that Spencer soon moved production to a factory in Honduras recommended by his overwhelmed North Carolina producer.
If his career trajectory sounds kind of random, you should know that just a few generations ago Cincinnati was one of the top cigar cities in the U.S., a fact Spencer himself is keenly aware of. “My business name, Cincinnati Cigar Company, is a direct nod to the city’s history in the 1920s as one of the top producers in the country,” he says.
The dominant brand in Cincinnati cigars was Ibold, says David Macejko of Over-the-Rhine Premium Cigars. He says that through the early 1900s they were known as “the working man’s cigar.”
The Ibold Cigar Company was founded in 1884 and grew to occupy a 13,000-square-foot, five-story production facility at Ninth Street and Central Avenue downtown. The company grew by leaps and bounds over the ensuing decades, acquiring other cigar factories and, in the early 1940s, boasting monthly production of more than 1 million cigars sold under the trade names Sonada, M. Ibold, Black Peter, El Rico, Majestic, and Ology.
You may wonder if Kentucky tobacco farms contributed much to this local boom, and the answer is not really. “Cuba was the early source of cigar tobacco and cigars,” says Macejko. “That changed when the government taxed handmade cigars entering the U.S. Tobacco growers, predominantly from Cuba, got around those taxes by importing raw tobacco leaves, untaxed, into Key West, Florida, and eventually Ybor City in Tampa.”
Spencer says U.S. cigar manufacturing today is confined largely to Florida due to the state’s proximity to cigar tobacco–producing countries. He attributes the decline in domestic cigar production in Cincinnati to economic challenges posed by World War II: Local factory workers went off to war, and wartime struggles killed off sales of luxury items such as cigars. “So really,” he says, “I’m trying to bring back a bit of Cincinnati history, even if we’re not producing them here.”
Cincinnati Cigar Company’s first cigar product is the Mansa, which Spencer calls an open letter to his deceased father, who told him stories of the 14th-century African king Mansa Musa and other Black historical figures. Mansa cigars are a way to share that story with the world, he says. “I wanted to take the story and break it into three parts in the cigar: an introduction, a peak, and an ending. Bringing that into the Mansa cigar’s blend of tobacco, now we can tell a story that people can follow while they smoke it.”
Story, says Spencer, is one of three layers built into his cigars, the other two being complexity and quality. “My lucky number is three,” he says. “Everything happens in threes.”
If you enjoy one of Spencer’s cigars and don’t necessarily experience the three-part concerto he set out to create, that’s OK. But he hopes you feel his hometown love. “I want people, when they smoke the cigar, to want to learn a lot more about the city I’m from,” he says. “Cincinnati is a special place, and if people can see what I’ve experienced in the city that will be enough for me. That’s ultimately what I want people to be left with.”
The Mansa is available at both Jungle Jim’s locations, Over-the-Rhine Premium Cigars, Blaze Cigar Bar, and The Party Source. Or you can order some at boutiquesmoke.com.
Spencer has more stories to tell, of course, and his next one is even more deeply personal. The Alex Spencer Reserve Cigar is being developed to communicate surprising discoveries his family made while studying its genealogy. “Nobody ever told me our family story until I got into cigars and started to pick up that we actually had lineage back to tobacco,” he says.
Spencer says he learned that enslaved ancestors on his mother’s side worked on tobacco farms in Florida, moving through plantations in Alabama and the Carolinas. He traces his father’s side to Maryland tobacco farms before a westward move landed family members in Tennessee, then Kentucky, and eventually Cincinnati. “We found the home of the slave master that owned my ancestors on a tobacco farm deep down South,” he says. “My connection to tobacco history kind of struck a nerve, and I thought, Wow, I now own what we—and so many others—used to be owned to do. That was very powerful to me. You think this is something you fell in love with randomly, but it was always part of your history. It kind of puts into perspective who you are and where you come from.”
The end of slavery marked the end of his family’s work in tobacco, says Spencer, because tobacco beetles destroyed crops and any hope of sharecropping work for his freed ancestors. So his ancestors moved north in pursuit of factory work—until, of course, Spencer revived the narrative.
“The Alex Spencer Reserve will tell the story of the people who had a direct impact on tobacco in America,” he says. “It’s my story. It’s our story. I love to tell everybody that Black history is American history and African history is world history. We have to tell all the parts, and we have to tell it like it is.”
Spencer is also working on the Mansa II and just moved production to esteemed Dominican Republic manufacturers La Aurora Cigars, which he calls “a dream come true.” And after that? Well, that story is still being written. “I see the cigars as works of art,” he says. “I want to tell a different story about where I’m from, where I’ve been, and what I’ve seen along the way.”