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The Man Behind the Behike

After a career that began in the Habanos S.A. warehouses, Jorge Luís Fernández Maique has risen to share the copresidency of the joint Spanish-Cuban cigar company
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
Joe Mantegna, July/August 2011

(continued from page 2)

By his own admission, Jorge Luís Fernández Maique says it’s usually 9 or 10 p.m. before he gets up from his desk and heads home. Every day he is in meetings from early in the morning, and he rarely has time for a quiet lunch by himself. Granted, when he wants a cigar, he simply calls out to his secretary and she walks in with a tray of his favorites; he often picks up a Cohiba, usually a smaller Siglo size.

But he says his busy schedule keeps him from smoking as much as he used to in France, where he headed up the Habanos S.A. operation known as Coprova from 2001 to 2008. There, he says, he would often smoke five or six cigars a day. Now, he often only has time for one or two.

Maique, 47, whose name often sounds like “Mike” in rapid-fire Cuban Spanish, was named in February to replace Oscar Basulto in the Habanos co-presidency, an office created after the Spanish-French conglomerate Altadis S.A. acquired a 50 percent stake in the Cuban cigar monopoly in 2000. Basulto remains in the organization, but has returned to overseeing tobacco operations at Tabacuba, Cuba’s main tobacco-growing institution. On the Spanish side, the Habanos copresident’s chair is filled by Buenaventura Jiménez Sánchez-Cañete.

“It is a big responsibility,” Maique says while smoking a Cohiba at Habanos headquarters in Havana. An unassuming man with almost visible kinetic energy in the way he talks and moves, he admits that the promotion took place very quickly. But it’s easy to scope out why it has happened—he is completely at ease moving in an international arena, and his fluent English and French elevate him into a comfortable spokesperson for Habanos around the world. And then there is the reality of his role in the creation of the first ever Behike in 2006, and then the introduction of the Cohiba Behike BHK line in 2010: the BHK 52, BHK 54 and the BHK 56, one of the most successful brand launches in Habanos’ history.

In legend, Behike was the name of a doctor or chieftain of the Tainos, the indigenous tribe of Cuba. The original Behike, the 40th anniversary of the Cohiba brand, was the first time the Behike name had been used on a cigar. Habanos made only 1,000 humidors, each containing 40 cigars, of the original Behike. In London today, those humidors have sold recently at auction for between $65,000 and $73,000, or more than $1,500 per cigar.

“We wanted to do something different. We wanted to create something that was the best,” Maique says. He explains how the project began when he sent people out into the warehouses in Pinar del Río looking for old tobacco; they found some bales with three years plus age. “Some of them turned out to be good bales, and some didn’t,” he says, “but we kept the good ones for another two years.”

With the success of the Cohiba Behike, the discussion continued about adding a permanent Behike line to the Cohiba brand. “We knew we couldn’t just say it was the best of the best,” Maique says. “We’ve been saying that for 50 years about Cohiba, that it was the selection of the selection. We had to find something new.”

He recalls that when he worked in France, he was always explaining to people that Cuba had three main tobaccos in its cigars, the volado for combustion, the seco for aroma and ligero for power and strength. But when he researched tobacco that was used before the revolution, he came across notations for a fourth variety, medio tiempo, a smaller leaf that only appears rarely, and on the top priming of a tobacco plant.

“I said we could use a fourth leaf, the medio tiempo,” Maique says. “And, when we asked ourselves what will medio tiempo mean in terms of the cigar? Character. It would be a new component that would add character.”

Maique explains how over the years, medio tiempo leaves had fallen out of general use in Cuba, partly because they were rare, usually appearing on only 10 to 15 percent of tobacco plants in a field. He says in recent years such leaves often went into domestic production cigars. Now, they are being selected and kept aside and treated as a separate tobacco for the Behike line.

“I didn’t do anything new. What I did was a copy,” he says. He doesn’t know why medio tiempo had fallen out of favor, but speculates it may have something to do with a kind of bias against pre-revolutionary techniques and of course, the difficulty in procuring it. “They called it cacho duro [a small, hard leaf] back then. So, it had been used before.” He says no one knew if they had been using a whole leaf of medio tiempo, half a leaf or  even a quarter, but, “if they did it before, why can’t we do it now?”

The Behike launch has been extremely successful, Maique says, and the market’s response to it has been fantastic. “They love it. Everything is beautiful.”

He says that the project has a lot of deserving mothers and fathers, like all successful launches, but he does consider it “my baby.” But he adds that it came out of a process where people contributed lots of new ideas because Habanos was looking for something new. He says that’s part of the reason for the unusually thick ring gauges for the three sizes of Behike: 52, 54 and 56.

For the time being, Maique says there will only be between 200,000 to 250,000 units produced of each Behike size each year. “Even 300,000 will be hard to reach because of the scarcity of raw material,” he adds. And, he insists production will never exceed one million no matter what, because Habanos has seen the wisdom behind limiting production of a top-of-the-line cigar.

The Habanos copresident questions some of the criticism in recent years of Cuban cigar quality. He argues strongly that the most serious problems—tough draws in particular—are a thing of the past thanks to the draw machines in use in every Cuban cigar factory. He also argues that some of the complaints about how Cuban cigars aren’t the same as in the past just don’t hold water for him.

“Our palates are developing,” Maique says. “Take a Montecristo No. 4. It is one of the best, one of my favorites. But if you go smoke a Cohiba Robusto, or Cohiba Siglo VI, and you come back to a Monte 4, it is not going to taste the same as before. You can’t compare a Siglo VI with a Monte 4. Each is a wonderful cigar. But you can’t compare them. They are not for the same moment.”

He uses the example of a $100 bottle of wine and a $20 to $40 bottle of wine. “I know there is a difference between the two bottles. It’s the same with cigars,” he says.

One thing that Maique is certain about is the quality of the 2010-2011 Cuban tobacco crop, although he is still reserving final judgment. “When you ask a farmer about the crop he has in his barns, it is always the best crop he has ever had,” Maique says with a smile. “But this year is a very good crop. We had some problems with irrigation and petrol, but it is good. Wrapper quality is very good.”

He adds that tobacco inventories are very high right now too, with more than a two-year stock of filler tobacco. Combine that with the high-quality wrapper crop this year, and inventories of wrappers should be reaching the same levels. He says there was enough tobacco in inventory to maintain current production levels, but he declines to say how many cigars Habanos is going to produce this year.

The current seeds being used, Maique says, also are virtual copies of some old seeds known as Criollo and Corojo. He says the current seed varieties were the result of 10 years of cross-pollination in the fields, not genetic manipulation, but that today, they are virtually identical to the seeds which used to be planted in Cuba in the early 1990s.

The primary goal of Habanos now, Maique asserts, is to maintain the quality of Cuba’s tobacco and of its cigars. “We understand now that you have to increase quality, not quantity,” Maique says. He adds that Cuba is keenly aware of its history and tradition and they were important assets, ones he says cannot be duplicated in the Dominican Republic or in Nicaragua.

In the end, Maique talks and acts like a man of tobacco. His foundation began in 1987, the year he joined what was then Cubatabaco. He worked in the warehouses in Havana and in Pinar del Río, where he first learned about quality control. Since he was a university graduate, he thought he knew tobacco because he had spent six weeks a year for three or four years in the fields, but he quickly learned that much about tobacco was still a mystery to him as people began talking about things such as different grades of leaves.

“They were talking a language I didn’t understand,” he says. He asked to be transferred to Pinar del Río, where he spent three years learning from the farmers. Included in that hands-on training was six months on the finca of Alejandro Robaina, the Cuban cigar tobacco master, where Maique did everything from leaf grading to leaf stripping. Finally, in 1991 and 1992, he returned to the commercial department in tobacco leaf development. He spent part of time in Havana and part of it at Lippoel Leaf, a big tobacco broker based in Europe.

But Maique says he had come to tobacco in part because of his love for chemistry, something that he studied as a young student, including winning a national competition on the subject.

“I think I love tobacco because there is a lot of chemistry in it,” Maique explains.

Habanos and the world of cigar smokers are the ones benefiting from that love today.

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