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A Brief History of the Cigar Industry

War, revolution and regulation have failed to snuff out the continuing story of the cigar.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Cigar Aficionado's 20th Anniversary, September/October 2012

(continued from page 1)

Cigar sales were largely flat in the 1940s and early 1950s, and most of the cigars made in America (outside of Florida) were being made by machine. On the premium end of the cigar business, Americans had a great appreciation for Cuban tobacco, almost all of it rolled in Tampa, Florida, into cigars that were known as Clear Havanas. And they were inexpensive. Arturo Fuente sold a diminutive size known as a Breva for 10 cents apiece at the time. “Pre-embargo, most cigars in the United States that were considered premium were a quarter,” said longtime cigar industry veteran Sherwin Seltzer in a 1998 Cigar Insider interview. Imported Havanas, a small part of the business, cigars reserved for the extremely well-off, could be had for those willing to spend about 65 cents.

Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba in the late 1950s would forever change the world of cigars. In 1960, Castro seized control of Cuba’s cigar and tobacco industry, and his regime plucked the country’s cigar gems: it nationalized the Hoyo de Monterrey factory, home of Punch, Belinda and the Hoyo brand; seized the H. Upmann factory from owners Menendez and Garcia, taking with it Cuba’s famous Montecristo and H. Upmann brands; and grabbed the emblematic Partagás Factory from owner Ramón Cifuentes. “They came inside, and said, ‘We’re here to intervene the company,’ ” Cifuentes told Cigar Aficionado in an interview. “And they didn’t allow me to take anything.”

The nationalization of Cuba’s cigar industry led to the exile of many of its famed tobacco and cigar men, which led to the rise of the non-Cuban cigar industry. When U.S. President John F. Kennedy signed an embargo prohibiting nearly all trade between Cuba and the United States in 1962, it forced cigarmakers to reinvent their blends. Cuban leaf, the lifeblood of the cigar industry, was now off-limits to American smokers.

“When we got the embargo, we bought tobacco left and right by telephone,” said Alfons Mayer in 2002. Mayer, who died in 2006, spent years as the main tobacco buyer for General Cigar Co. “We were buying Puerto Rican, Dominican, Colombian, people went to Brazil, we went all over Honduras, our native tobaccos here [in the United States], we used some Java, some air cured, we made blends, blends, blends. People went to different areas to try and grow tobacco. There was a lot of trial and error.”

Cuba’s exiled cigarmakers traveled far and wide searching for new places to roll. The Menendez family went to the Canary Islands to make cigars, and soon launched Montecruz, a copy of the Montecristo brand it had lost in Cuba. General Cigar turned to Jamaica, where cigarmaking had been a big business during the Second World War. General acquired the Temple Hall Factory in 1969, which included a then-unknown brand named Macanudo, destined to become the best-selling premium cigar in the United States for many years.

Many of Cuba’s exiled cigarmakers made deals with American cigar companies to license or sell their cigar brand names, resulting in non-Cuban versions of Partagás, Punch, H. Upmann, Hoyo de Monterrey, Montecristo and other cigars strictly sold in the United States. The landmark 1972 lawsuit Menendez v. Faber, Coe & Gregg established a legal precedent in which the rights of the owners to sell their non-Cuban versions were upheld by American law.

Tobacco seeds were brought around the world, and propagated in various countries. French tobacco monopoly SEITA established plantations in Cameroon in western Africa in the late 1950s. The rich, toothy wrapper became an industry favorite, and the Meerapfel family saved it from extinction after the French left Africa in the early 1960s. At that time tobacco pioneers had success planting Cuban seeds in Honduras. In 1967, Carlos Toraño Sr. brought Cuban seeds to the Dominican Republic, a nation just removed from civil war, and helped improve the quality of the country’s tobacco, which was mostly grown for cigarettes at the time.

With Dominican Republic cigars currently ubiquitous, it may be hard for a modern-day cigar lover to believe that 40 years ago the Dominican Republic made very few cigars for export. In the 1970s, most of the imported cigars enjoyed in the United States were rolled in the Canary Islands, Jamaica and Mexico, and America still made a large number of cigars. In the early 1970s, free-trade zones opened in the Dominican Republic. Conglomerate Gulf + Western, then the owner of Consolidated Cigar Corp., a company that later became Altadis U.S.A. Inc., began processing tobacco in La Romana in 1969 and started rolling cigars there in 1972.

In 1974 a free-trade zone opened in Santiago, and Manufactura de Tabacos S.A., known as MATASA, soon set up shop. Its owner, Manuel Quesada, explained in a 2004 interview in Cigar Aficionado: “In Miami, the cigarmakers that had come out of Cuba were getting older, and with the Social Security a lot of them had to be paid under the table and it started to become a hassle. The free zones had just started in the Dominican Republic. So it was a good idea to transfer production from Miami to the Dominican Republic.”

By the mid-1980s, the Dominican Republic was a hot spot for making cigars. In the 1990s, it became the center of the cigar universe.

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Comments   1 comment(s)

Doc Diaz December 4, 2012 1:51am ET

This was a very enlightening article. An excellent summary, however I am surprised you did not mention the first cigar "boom" in 1964, which was the first real resurgence of cigars since the Golden Age of cigars, which peaked in the early 1900s and started to decline around 1920.

The first boom, in 1964, was related to a number of factors (which I have written about elsewhere) and was helped along, ironically, by the Surgeon General's first-ever report on Smoking & Health. This report claimed that, “men smoking less than five cigars per day have death rates about the same as non-smokers.” This provided a scientific halo-effect for cigars that enhanced that short-lived yet significant cigar boom in the mid-1960s.

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