Before Cincinnati’s Alex Spencer began selling cigars, he was a contract negotiator for a Boston media company longing to join the inner circle of top executives at his company.
“I was very aggressive in wanting to rise to the top, and I asked myself what do the guys at the top do?” Spencer mused. “They play golf, drink a lot of bourbon, and they smoke cigars.
“I don’t drink that much. I suck at golf. So I took the cigar route,” he said.
In 2019, he launched Alex Spencer Reserve boutique cigar company from his home in Cincinnati’s Madisonville neighborhood. The first cigar was released under the brand name “the Mansa.”
The cigar, which is named after the 14th-century African king, Mansa Musa, has grown quickly in popularity and can be found locally at Over the Rhine Premium Cigars in Cincinnati and in Northern Kentucky at the Party Source in Bellevue and Blaze Cigar Lounge and Bar in Newport.
Blaze owner Dallas Seagraves, a friend and mentor who encouraged Spencer to branch out on his own, said he’s not surprised by the jovial cigar enthusiast’s early success.
“He put in the work,” Seagraves said of his protege. “He built his own name within the cigar community, improved his product and took it to another level.
“We were one of the first ones to carry (the Mansa),” he said. “We sell them consistently. It’s a very popular product. We have to have them in stock.”
Known as much for his generosity as his wealth, Musa was just one of many Black historical figures that Spencer’s late father, Floyd, held up to him as role models when Alex was a kid growing up in Cincinnati’s Westwood neighborhood.
“King Mansa’s story is one of the most powerful memories I have from my childhood,” Spencer said. “I always knew I would name my first cigar after him, first and foremost to honor my father, but also to shed light on the history and wealth of our people and culture.”
Since its release in December 2019, Spencer said he’s sold more than 50,000 Mansas, which are produced at the Tabacalera Kafie factory in Honduras and made from tobaccos grown in Nicaragua and Honduras.
Prices for the box-pressed cigar, which is machine pressed into the square shape preferred by many cigar smokers, start at $130 for a box of 10 and $12.50 for single cigars, which come in robusto, toro and gordo sizes (ranked here n order of length and diameter).
The Mansa toro, a medium-strength cigar with a flavor profile that includes hints of caramel, coffee and dark chocolate, was recently awarded a 95 rating (out of 100 points) from the Stogie Press, an independent industry magazine that uses the same rating system as the coveted Cigar Aficionado ratings.
It was one of only two cigars to receive a 95 rating and the only Black-owned brand to be rated that high by Stogie, Spencer said.
“Right now, there may be 40 Black-owned brands across the United States out of thousands of brands,” Spencer told The Enquirer. “So it’s hard for us to even be part of the conversation, much less score such a high rating.
“But I don’t want to necessarily be seen as a Black-owned brand, I want to be seen as a great brand that happens to be Black-owned,” he said.
Spencer said he sometimes spends 15 to 20 hours a day marketing his cigars on social media and directly to cigar lounges, smoke shops, bourbon bars and restaurants across the country.
He got his first big break when the owners of Drobe Stogies, a cigar lounge popular with athletes and celebrities in Inglewood, California, discovered the Mansa through word-of-mouth advertising.
“They like them (the Mansas) so much they ordered 50 boxes,” Spencer said. “I still have a relationship with them to this day. They probably buy 500 boxes from me a year.”
Spencer quit his corporate job in 2017 to devote his full attention to the cigar business.
“This is what I do full time now,” he said. “I don’t believe in doing anything halfway. I don’t put my toe in the water, I cannonball into the water.”
Spencer said he’s negotiating with Jungle Jim’s and Montgomery Inn to carry his cigars.
But the business meetings he attends these days are a far cry from the way he got started.
Before he handed over $20,000 of his savings to his Honduran distributor for his first shipment of the Mansa, Spencer hit the road in his “cigar car” to test the market.
He began by selling unlabeled cigars he obtained from a North Carolina-based cigar roller out of the trunk of his 2002 Lincoln LS at local bars and nightclubs, bourbon tastings and other special events.
He even hand-delivered cigars to buyers who contacted him through social media and lived within a 50-mile radius of Cincinnati.
“At that time, I wasn’t sure if there was even a market for what I wanted to do here, and I didn’t have any relationships with retailers,” Spencer said. “My roller in North Carolina said if you can sell 1,000 cigars a month, you’re doing pretty well.
“That’s what I did, and that’s when I decided I wanted to start my own line of cigars,” he said.
Spencer has plans to expand The Mansa line and introduce a new line of cigars that would pay homage to Cincinnati’s cigar-making history.
In 1860 – when cigars and pipes were more popular than cigarettes – Cincinnati was fourth-leading cigar-producing city in the United States, behind Philadelphia, New York and Baltimore.
Spencer has some simple advice for aspiring entrepreneurs who want to follow in his footsteps: “If you want to be truly successful, you’ve got to put 100% of your effort into it.”
Occupation: Owner, Alex Spencer Reserve
Residence: Cincinnati’s Madisonville neighborhood
Education: Hughes High School; University of Cincinnati (bachelor’s degree in economics;) Xavier University (master’s degree in business)
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