Marvin R. Shanken interviews the man behind Hoyo de Monterrey and Punch.
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C.A.: When did you start producing the Hoyo and the Punch in Honduras?
Blumenthal: Around 1969.
C.A.: But you continued to put Cuban tobacco into those cigars long after you started making them in Honduras. Was that tobacco still part of the original acquisition of Cuban leaf you made before the embargo was imposed?
Blumenthal: As I told you, I had played my hunch that there was going to be an embargo, and Angel Oliva got the Cuban tobacco for us. The last shipment that came before the embargo was primarily for us. And later, we bought Cuban tobacco from the Garcia y Vega company, which had decided it didn't have enough inventory of Cuban leaf to continue making them. They had not built up a huge inventory because before the embargo, the price was already high, and they hadn't bought any more. In 1965 or '66, the American Cigar Company had decided to get rid of all of its Cuban tobacco. They were going to add a new blend, and they sold us all their Cuban tobacco. That was a lot.
C.A.: So from the time that you guessed the embargo was coming until after the embargo was imposed, how many cigars worth of tobacco did you accumulate?
Blumenthal: Oh, I couldn't tell you that.
C.A.: In the millions?
Blumenthal: Many millions.
C.A.: So even after the embargo, you kept making cigars with Cuban tobacco?
Blumenthal: We used Cuban tobacco up until 1975 in our cigars.
C.A.: Were you in effect blending, stretching, so you could say that it had Cuban tobacco in it?
Blumenthal: Right. Our boxes all said Havana on them until the early part of the '70s, when the government decided we couldn't use the word Havana. We had to take Havana off, so we used the slogan, "For the man who misses his Havana." But by that point, we had found that Honduras and Nicaragua tobacco was similar to Havana anyway.
C.A.: Was Villazon largely responsible for establishing that good cigars could be made outside of Cuba?
Blumenthal: We were the first ones in Honduras. And, we were the first ones that made a strong, full-flavored cigar outside of Cuba.
C.A.: Would you say that outside of Cuba and Honduras, good cigars were not being made at that time?
Blumenthal: The cigars that we were getting from the Canary Islands, for instance, some were machine-made. The only ones who made a good cigar there were the Menendez Garcia people. Most were made with the European type of tobacco, which I call Sumatra or Indonesian filler. It had an entirely different taste than Americans were used to. But you have to remember that almost every cigar in the United States that was made before the embargo was either made out of Havana tobacco or had some Havana tobacco in it. Even the cheaper cigars. You could buy Havana cigars for a nickel.
C.A.: So when you start coming out with these Honduran cigars, how did you get consumers to understand that you were producing a Havana-equivalent cigar from Honduras? Was there a lot of consumer resistance in the beginning?
Blumenthal: No. When I started with Bances, which was a Cuban-style cigar, there were still Cuban cigars on the market. But people liked the cigar and they bought it. As time went on, the straight Cuban cigars disappeared. Suddenly after the embargo, there were a lot of new cigars on the market, a lot of cigars made in Miami in what we call buckeye shops. There were some other cigar factories that opened up in Costa Rica. From the Dominican Republic, the only one on the market at that time was La Aurora, which was named after the dictator Trujillo's daughter. Jamaica had a history of cigars; Royal Jamaica was made there along with Macanudo. But with Cuban cigars gone from the market, there was a need for good, full-flavored cigars. The Bances filled a bill for people who remembered Havana. That's the only way I can look at it.
C.A.: So people knew to look for your cigar, and they liked it? Did it have more taste? Was it stronger?
Blumenthal: I wouldn't say it was stronger, but it had more flavor, the aroma was better because most Sumatra cigars have a very acrid and a very metallic taste. Our taste was closer to Cuba, and the aroma, the bouquet of the cigar, was closer to Cuba.
C.A.: Could you explain the current corporate structure of your cigar-related companies?
Blumenthal: Villazon and Co. is owned by Frank and myself.
C.A.: That's the parent company?
Blumenthal: That's the parent company. And Tito Gonzalez, the general manager, is a minority stockholder. In Honduras, Frank and I own approximately half of the factory today. Johnny Oliva has 18 or 19 percent. The balance is owned by the people who are working down there--the manager, the assistant manager. We gave them the stock because we felt that that was the way to keep them there, and it worked. James B. Russell, which is another company we have, is an importer and is now owned by Villazon and Co.
C.A.: Vilco Imports?
Blumenthal: Vilco Imports, that was an import company that imported cigars from Jamaica, Mexico and the Philippines. We represented the Tabacalera here in the United States. But that's now just part of Villazon.
C.A.: How many Hoyo de Monterrey do you expect to sell in 1995?
Blumenthal: About eight million.
C.A.: Versus what in '94?
Blumenthal: Last year we sold about the same number. I don't think I can produce any more.
C.A.: Of the eight million, what percent would be Excalibur?
Blumenthal: About half.
C.A.: And Punch in 1995?
Blumenthal: Punch in 1995, we think we'll sell about the same.
C.A.: Eight million? And is that 50/50 with the Grand Cru?