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An Interview with Benjamin Menendez

Speaking with Benjamin Menendez, senior vice president of General Cigar Co., the maker of Macanudo, Partagas, La Gloria Cubana and many more cigars.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Chris Noth, May/June 2010

Benjamin “Benji” Menendez, 74, is one of the storied names of the premium cigar business. He learned about tobacco working alongside his father in Havana when his family was the majority owner of Menendez, Garcia y Cia., owners of the largest cigar factory in Havana—the H. Upmann factory. The most famous cigar brand rolled there was Montecristo. In 1960, Fidel Castro’s government nationalized the company, factory and brands, forcing Menendez to leave Cuba, virtually penniless, and start anew.

He later made cigars in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic for General Cigar Co., spent time with Altadis U.S.A. Inc. and has now returned to General as senior vice president of premium cigars. He is instrumental in maintaining the quality of General’s cigar brands, most notably Macanudo, and recently he and the General Cigar team created a cigar with his name, the Benjamin Menendez Partagas Master Series Majestuoso, one of Cigar Aficionado’s Top 25 Cigars of 2009. In February, Menendez sat down in the Santiago, Dominican Republic, factory with senior editor David Savona to talk about the new cigar, how General Cigar has changed over the years and his thoughts on returning to Cuba, the land of his birth.

David Savona: First of all, you have to be very happy with the reaction to your new Benjamin Menendez Partagas.
Benjamin Menendez: Very much indeed. I thought it was a good cigar and I thought it was pretty well balanced. But as I say, the good lord didn’t give me any special gift. I am just another cigar smoker. And this is what I like to smoke. And a lot of people said Cameroon—that’s not the wrapper anymore. But I wanted to pay homage to Ramón Cifuentes. That was the first wrapper [the non-Cuban] Partagas had, Cameroon. And it was a very special wrapper.

Q: I didn’t think about this until you mentioned it, but in the early days of Cigar Aficionado Cameroon was considered a very exclusive wrapper. It was very hard to get because supplies were short, and if you had Cameroon it was
really something to brag about. But now, you don’t see a lot of people coming out with new cigars that have Cameroon wrappers.
A: For a while the quality of Cameroon wasn’t very good, so a lot of people abandoned Came-roon and forgot about Cameroon. This cigar is a way of saying “Cameroon is a good wrapper. We cannot forget it.”

Q: So when you sat down to make the cigar, you knew you were going to use Cameroon wrapper because of the tribute to Ramón Cifuentes?
A: And because we have so many good Cameroon wrappers here. When you start making a blend, the first thing I do is I look at our inventory. What is available here?

Q: Well, you have a lot here.
A: We have a lot of tobacco. And I have to thank Daniel [Núñez] and Modesta [Fondeur] for getting us all that inventory. And we can now go in and choose from these tobaccos.

Q: You have among the biggest stocks in the cigar business.
A: We have more tobacco than anybody on this earth. And I don’t leave anybody out.
Q: This Benjamin Menendez Partagas wasn’t going to be a cigar you made in great quantities.
A: It was always going to be a real short amount. The wrapper that we’re talking about was not that plentiful.

Q: Why, what made that so limited?
A: The age was a factor, and also, with Cameroon, you have to know where you pick your leaves from, which height on the plant. And this was just the right height.

Q: Is this a high priming?
A: No, Cameroon is not good at high primings. It tends to be like cardboard.

Q: In terms of taste?
A: It’s thick. Cameroon is very fragile wrapper, a very thin wrapper, but the upper primings become thick. They’re not easily worked. In Cameroon the higher primings are not the best primings.

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