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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

(continued from page 2)

Q: Do you use that Estelí ligero tobacco in other blends?
A: Mostly in La Gloria Cubana. I am learning. I have been very much Dominican. To me, it is a learning experience to see these tobaccos and see the possibilities that these tobaccos have. I was very impressed with these tobaccos.

Q: Speaking of learning, you have worked at the side of some of the true legends of the cigar business. Your father, Alonso Menendez, who made Montecristos in Cuba; Ramón Cifuentes, who owned Partagas in Cuba; and Edgar Cullman Sr., the longtime owner of General Cigar Co. Can you tell me what each of those men taught you?
A: I was privileged to work with some of the great tobacco people of this world. My father and my grandfather taught me about tobacco, how to handle tobacco, how to process tobacco. That’s what I learned from them. Edgar Cullman taught me one thing extremely important: the quality of the end product. The love in quality Edgar Sr. had is going to be very difficult to duplicate. I could tell anecdotes that are unbelievable.

Q: Give me one.
A: In ’96, we were having here, at this operation, 500 trainees. This was the boom years. We had dinner at Pez Dorado. At the end of the dinner—this is 11 o’clock at night, and this is an 80-something-year-old guy—Edgar said, “Benji, are you working in the factory?” I said, “Yes, we have the second shift.” He said, “Let’s go over there and see them.” We came here. He went to every person working in the factory at that time, and one thing amazed me tremendously. We went by where they were banding and cellophaning Partagas. He stops by it, and says, “Why did you change the red of Partagas?” I said “Edgar, I did not change the red of Partagas.” He said, “yes you have—This is not the red of Partagas.” We had a file of packaging materials. We got that file over, we put it next to each other, and it’s so unbelievable. The difference was so minute. He said, “Do you see? You changed the color.” I said “No Edgar, what we changed was the supplier.” He said, “Change the supplier back.” We did. Of course. (laughs)

Q: This is midnight?
A: This might be one o’clock. He had gone through the whole factory. When he finished, he went to the packing department. It must have been one o’clock. He had in his mind what that color was. He was so much into the details—and detail is what quality is all about. You cannot let quality slip by one millimeter.

Q: I know you physically write on the cigars you test with a pen. Ideally speaking, where would you be and what would you be doing when you test a cigar?
A: First, I let the cigar burn about a quarter of an inch. From there on, I start testing the cigar. For I want the cigar to be evenly lit. And then, in testing, I will go to about here [points to about the midway point on the cigar] and if I don’t like it by then, that cigar is going to sleep very quietly in the ashtray.

Q: At your desk?
A: At home. The last time I was here I took a whole bunch of cigars home. I have one of those [large capacity] Stinky ashtrays. When I’m testing a cigar, I don’t like to talk to anybody. And when I’m enjoying a cigar, I will sit back in my rocking chair in the back of my home, get a glass of Port and smoke my cigar.

Q: I have to ask you about Cuba and the possibility of that opening up. It’s a natural question to ask you. We have President Obama, who seems more willing than any U.S. president to end the Cuban embargo. What do you think?
A: Had you asked me this question 15 years ago, I would say go back to Cuba the minute I hear I can go back to Cuba. Today, my age, that is not the case. Why? Very simple. I see what’s happening in Germany. I have been there within the last three years twice. And last time I was in Dortmund for the tobacco fair, and talking to the people there, I asked about the situation between East Germany and West Germany. And they told me it has improved but it’s not good. Twenty years since the wall came down. If that happens in Cuba, 20 years from now I’ll be 94. Will I be alive? I doubt it very much. But even if I’m alive, will I have the strength to go back and try to do anything? I doubt it very much.

But I will tell you one thing: I’m an American citizen. I love and respect the United States with all my heart. Well, with about 95 percent of my heart—because the other five percent still belongs to Cuba. And if I can ever do anything to help Cuba, I will. But I doubt very much that anything will be solved in Cuba in 20 years. What will happen? God only knows.
I’ve had the privilege of sitting with some people a few years ago from Habanos. And an unspoken agreement—we do not talk politics. Don’t try to convince me about the good things of communism and I won’t try to convince you about the good things about capitalism.

Q: What did you talk about?
A: I spent a week with them. And it was a very enjoyable time. We were talking about tobacco, we were talking about cigar processing. It was only when we got politics involved that everything goes to hell.

Q: Where was this conversation held?
A: Here—in Santiago, Dominican Republic, and in La Romana. It was in my previous life (laughs). The first group that came in, it was ’98, ’99, and the Dominican Republic had a lot of tobacco from the boom. And the Cubans came here to look at the tobacco. They found the tobacco OK, but the price too expensive. Because my former employer had a good relationship with them, I met with them, and later another group came around and I went with a group to La Romana. I spent time with them. It was beautiful. Without me or them mentioning it, politics was not an issue. We were people. And after that conversation, these are the people, if we ever go back to Cuba, these are the people we’ll have to deal with. We can get along—as long as we don’t get politics involved.

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