LAWRENCEBURG — People have been known to call Allen Mobley crazy. "I've been called a lot worse," he said, throwing back his head, his long ponytail dipping down his back, to laugh a full-throated crazy-man laugh.
And, frankly, it did seem a little loopy to convert the red horse barn behind his house on Ninevah Road into a factory for Kentucky Gentlemen Cigars Co. And that six-week trip he took to the Dominican Republic, where he stayed in a 300-square-foot house on the side of a mountain, to learn how to hand-roll cigars. Well, crazy, some say. (His wife, Carol, came back after two weeks. "I'd had enough," she said.)
And the idea that, soon, his hand-rolled, Kentucky Proud cigars will be packaged with a designer-label cognac launched by rapper Chris "Ludacris" Bridges last month in Bordeaux, France — well, you get the picture.
"Allen is a very unique person, and he comes up with some wild ideas," said John Cook, Kentucky Gentlemen Cigars' director of sales and marketing. The Moonshine cigar, which is blended with a kiss of white lightning? "I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, what are you doing?' " Cook said.
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But just like many seemingly zany ideas, Mobley's might just work.
Mobley, his wife and a small crew churn out 7,000 cigars a month. Mobley says, within a year, that number could easily rise to 12,000. He predicts the company could produce as many as 1 million cigars "from right here."
"Here" would be the red barn, formerly home to the family horse, Lady, who still sometimes sticks her head through the window in search of an apple.
A picture of a smiling, bikini-clad bombshell, Brooke Burns, adorns one wall, kitty-corner from pictures of various Mobley ancestors standing in their tobacco fields, sensibly dressed. There are antique tobacco baskets on the wall, the spear Mobley used in the fields as a boy, a pale gray leather chair and ornate metal ashtray that used to be his grandfather's perch in the tobacco warehouse he owned. Amid the homage to heritage, there are Dallas Cowboys hangings and an array of liquors and whiskey barrels along the walls.
All this a backdrop to the small space, roughly the size of a mid-size open-plan living room, where cigars are rolled, blends are created, cedar boxes are assembled and the store is open most weekdays.
So how did this come to be?
Mobley, 63, had long roots in Kentucky tobacco fields but, as a young man, he "couldn't get out of here fast enough," he says.
He worked as a contractor in Florida, had his business blown away by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, owned a bar in Las Vegas for a time, ended up in California, again working as a contractor, met Carol, 25 years his junior, and fell in love. They moved back home to Kentucky after the birth of their 10-year-old twins, Cody and Setera, so they could raise them on a little plot of their own non-coastal land. It is also home to five dogs, seven cats and Lady the horse.
Originally, Mobley's plan was to start a winery. But, inspired by the thousands of dollars he and his buddies spend on cigars during an annual saltwater fishing trip, he decided to do try that business instead.
That was about five years ago. And while things have moved ahead at a pretty good clip, he takes pains to point out that while "this all sounds like it's easy, it hasn't been."
He has been stopped twice by airport police who have relieved him of the Cuban tobacco seeds he was trying to bring into the country. (He eventually got his seeds — embargoed by the federal government when coming directly from Cuba but allowable in other ways — by mailing them to himself from the Dominican Republic.) It can be a challenge to find the South American leaves that he needs to make his products, and Kentucky traditionalists have not easily embraced growing a variety of tobacco suited for cigars.
Plus, because he is one of the few producers of hand-rolled cigars in the country and the only one he knows of in the state, "if you run into a problem, it may take you six to eight months to get to a resolution," he says.
But Mobley is undeterred. The secret, he said, is all in the blending of just the right tobacco with just the right flavors. The tobacco leaves are aged in bourbon barrels, which, he said, leeches out the toxins and adds just the hint of bourbon flavor. He creates more blends that don't work than those that do. His wife will occasionally pipe up with something like "that smells horrible, we can't do that" and he knows he must stop.
His secret weapon is a squirt bottle he uses to spray the main liquid ingredient, usually of the alcoholic type, into his mouth. The misting replicates the kiss of flavor you'd get when you inhaled an infused cigar. "It just covers the whole palette," he said. And if you are in the shop/factory, he's happy to give you a squirt to show what he means.
In the past year, Kentucky Gentlemen Cigars, complete with a photo of their tobacco decorated Christmas tree, was featured in the Tobacconist, the official publication of the International Premium Cigar and Pipe Retailers Association. The company also had its mint julep cigar favorably reviewed in Smoke magazine.
And then there is the Ludacris deal, brokered during a weeklong stay by Cook and Mobley in Miami negotiating with the makers of Conjure cognac. A specially blended, cognac-inspired, hand-rolled cigar will be sold in specially designed gift boxes that will include a bottle of the cognac, shot glasses, a cigar cutter and cigars. The rapper, who owns a restaurant in Atlanta, will hawk it online.
"It's been an adventure," Mobley said, with a grin.
Wife Carol, who has worked with him in the shop daily since the beginning, has the look of a woman who could stand for fewer thrills. Earlier during a recent visit she could be heard on the phone saying of her husband of more than a decade: "I don't know when you are going to stop assuming he tells me what he is supposed to tell me." But she smiles when she talks about his manic genius and his gift for ideas. Sometimes, she knows by experience, you've just got to hang on for a while.
She says, "I didn't really start to believe it was going to work until about a year ago."