A Conversation with Angel Daniel Núñez

The man behind Macanudo cigars—and the Connecticut shade tobacco grown to wrap them.

Angel Daniel Núñez, the president and chief operating officer of General Cigar Co., is not your typical executive. He oversees all aspects—from seed to store shelf—of the 8,000-employee company by walking the myriad fields where General grows its tobacco, staying directly involved with the processing of that leaf and regularly visiting the factories in Honduras and the Dominican Republic where General makes millions of cigars by hand each year. He has spent more than three decades with General, which makes Macanudo, Partagas, Cohiba, Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey. The Richmond, Virginia, company is a unit of Swedish Match AB of Stockholm, and going from tobacco fields to cigar factories to the company's various offices as well as customer visits keeps Núñez on an airplane nearly every week.
In June, the 55-year-old Núñez sat down in New York City with senior editor David Savona for a wide-ranging discussion about himself and his company.
David Savona: We just lit up your new Partagas 160, which is made from the same batch of Cameroon wrapper from the 1970s used to make the Partagas 150. Can you talk about the wrapper?
Angel Daniel Núñez: It was 1995 when we bought the whole wrapper lot. It made such an impact on me that since then, I always keep the best 10 bales of every crop we grow or finance. I call it my personal library. Sooner or later somebody—it doesn't have to be me—they have something that is special. It's expensive, but it's romantic.
Q: Let's talk about this particular cigar. The wrapper is from 1977?
A: The batch was a mix of 1977 to 1981. So there were five crops, 947 bales.
Q: That's a lot of tobacco.
A: A huge amount. It was like going into a gold mine.
Q: Who owned it?
A: It was Tabacalera of Spain, and Alfons Mayer [the now retired tobacco buyer from General] and I made a trip to Malaga in 1995, and they had a beautiful warehouse. That's when we first saw the product. In those days there was a shortage on Cameroon tobacco. When we saw the grades and the sizes, we were a little bit discouraged. I remember we were going all over the list and the sizes were so discouraging, because they were medium to small sizes. So we said, "Now that we're here, let's look at it, and if it's not good maybe we'll use it in machine-made product." And we opened up a couple of bales, and what came out of it—the aroma, the smell—it was magic. It was like a genie from a bottle. But it was dry, so I asked for a bucket of water. I had nothing to lose. So I dumped [the tobacco] into the bucket of water, shook it out, took a few hands, and we wrapped it in a piece of cotton cloth and we said we'll come back in the morning. I have to be honest, my expectation was we would come back and it would be all smeared, maybe rotten, but what a surprise. That tobacco started to talk, and the sheen came out, and right there we understood this was something special.
Q: You didn't have enough tobacco to make regular Partagas at that point, right?
A: Yes, we even stopped production. Then we met in Puerto Plata [in the Dominican Republic], and the idea came out—why don't we make something special, because it's the 150th anniversary of Partagas. And in those days there wasn't a market for a four [inch] by 46 [ring gauge] cigar, short-size cigars were not in demand. We did what we could with the sizes, I said, OK, let's make this amount, put it in the market, and then I would take care of the rest.
Q: I don't think a lot of people knew that you had more of this wrapper, and that you could use it to make more cigars.
A: We did say that we didn't have enough to make those sizes, but we did have more to make small sizes, but there was no market for it. Last year we started to think, let's use the tobacco. The smoke is so mature and clean, it's a fresh smoke.
Q: Describe what you've gone through to hold on to this leaf. I know you have a lot of tobacco, but you went through special precautions with this.
A: One is making sure the humidity and temperature was as constant as possible, to prevent breakage but still allow the tobacco to keep working, having adequate humidity and temperature. And for safety reasons, we divided the lot into four locations. We have it in two locations in the U.S.A., and two locations in the D.R. Two months ago, we started bringing some from each of the locations and blending them. Most of these cigars are made already, because we are going to age them four months.
Q: For those who don't know, explain why you would further age a cigar that is made with a component that is 30 years old.
A: When the tobacco is in the bale, it is trapped. But every time you add water to the tobacco leaf, then you start the reaction again. Ammonia is going to be liberated. From my point of view, what we owe to the consumer is to sell and provide a product with the least amount of ammonia as possible. Once we case, or humidify the tobacco, it starts to take life again and starts the process, which creates ammonia. And that's the reason for aging—put it in a place where the cigars have time to breathe and release the ammonia slowly. Once it dries out, there is no more ammonia released.
Q: Did you have to handle this old tobacco differently?
A: Much, much more care. We set the bale to absorb humidity for one month in an 85, 90 percent humidity environment, so the tobacco would slowly absorb humidity. Tobacco is very hygroscopic. If we had opened the [dry] bale and tried to handle it, the breakage would have been enormous.
Q: So you would never pick this up and handle it?
A: Not anymore. (Laughs) I did it for a sample.
Q: Was it difficult to pick the other tobaccos to go into this blend?
A: No. Everything is planned. We put aside the best binder, the best long filler, to go with this. We've been [doing this] since '94, and in '95 we documented everything—everything is documented in General Cigar—that we must put aside 10 of the best bales that we handle. So when we were working on [the Partagas 160], already the long filler that was going to go with it was part of the process.
Q: Last year, you came out with the Partagas Decadas. Is that the first to use some of that tobacco you've been setting aside each year?
A: That's the first one to use what I had in mind back in 1994. It's to deliver to the consumer something special, something different. The wrapper is 10 years old, the binder is 10 years old. It's just going back, to stay with the basics. Let's not reinvent the wheel.
Q: Speaking of basics, you've taken a remarkable journey, rising to the top of General Cigar. Take me back to growing up as a boy in the Dominican Republic.
A: I was just a kid with a lot of ambition. It comes from my mother. She was a very ambitious lady, and she believed in me since I was a little kid. We are five in my family. My father was a farmer. He grew plantains, a little bit of tobacco, a little bit of everything. My two older brothers were mechanics, and they were very successful. When I finished eighth grade, I won a scholarship to a private school, but I said to my mom, "I don't want to do that, I think I want to go with my brothers and be a mechanic." She said, "You can do that, but you are my only hope of someone to have a life where you wear clean clothes. If you want to be greased up, go with your brothers, but it's your choice." And that's all it took.
Q: So your mother pushed you?
A: My mother used to get up with me at five in the morning to study every single day. And then I enrolled in an agricultural vocational school, with the only conviction that by doing so I would have my secondary degree, which is high school. And if I didn't have enough money to go to college, I could work as an agronomist. And so I did, only with a surprise: the month before I graduated, five Americans came into the room. I was 15 years old, 105 pounds, and they said, "We have a test for a full scholarship to go to Texas A&M." And I won. I didn't speak one word of English, I had never slept away from home, and from a small village in the town of Moca to Houston—it was quite a jump. When I arrived in the United States, it was my first contact with an escalator. That was two hours. Can you imagine, a kid, two hours going up, and down? How can this thing take me up and take me down? (Laughs) It was a lot of fun. Then there were the cowboys. Those were the days of segregation still.
Q: Was it tough?
A: I was too young to understand. In my mind, in my culture, there was no color segregation. That was something, thank God, we didn't have in the Dominican Republic. Since I didn't speak English, whenever the cowboys would talk to me, they realized I was a rare animal. They would come up and say, "What the hell are you?" But I made a lot of friends. I studied agronomy, I graduated, and I went back home, and my first job was in tobacco. I knew that was what I wanted.
Q: Tell me about your early days with tobacco, and then with General Cigar.
A: I started in the Tobacco Institute in 1972, and with General Cigar in 1974. Edgar [Cullman] Sr. [the former chairman of General Cigar] looked at me and said, "You know young man, I'm going to make a tobacco man out of you." And that was so true. Even when I see him today, I admire him so much, because of the sense of quality that he had. I started growing wrappers, then for General Cigar I developed Connecticut shade wrappers in the D.R. It was all natural wrapper, and it had a problem—it did not taste like Connecticut shade. And believe me, Dave, I can, without any mistake, say that until the boom, any wrapper that did not look or taste like Connecticut shade, Cameroon or Sumatra was not a factor on the market. Except, of course, Cuban wrapper. I remember the first reasonable batch, I presented it in 1978 to Angel Oliva. He said, "Daniel, this is a great wrapper, but I can't sell it." It was strong, the flavor was strong. It's different. And that's when we decided in 1980 to move it into candela, because we can use it all.
Q: So it was Connecticut seed, but it tasted much stronger than the Connecticut grown in Connecticut?
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