A Conversation with Angel Daniel Núñez
The man behind Macanudo cigars—and the Connecticut shade tobacco grown to wrap them.
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A: Yes, due to the soil and the conditions. Back in 1979, we had 135 acres of Connecticut shade natural [in the Dominican Republic]. Extremely good—I wish I could have a crop like that today.
Q: If you had that wrapper today?
A: I would make a fortune. (Laughs) If I had it today that would be fantastic.
Q: People's impressions of tobacco have changed dramatically. What changes have you made?
A: General Cigar, for example, 1958 through 1994, we had two basic blends. Just two blends. We had Partagas, and we had Macanudo. Very consistent, always using the best tobaccos, but it was Connecticut-shade wrappers and Cameroon wrappers. And we were the leaders in the market. I remember sitting down with Edgar and Edgar [Cullman Jr.], and saying, "How many decades are we going to be just that? We have to open this portfolio."
Q: What did they say when you said it was time to expand the blends?
A: They gave me the go-ahead, and there was no limit on resources. Of course, anything that could actually damage or do anything with Macanudo was a no-no, and always the philosophy was if it is going to be new, we're not going to just change the packaging or change the sizes. We decided the only way was to start from scratch—developing new, proprietary types of tobaccos.
Q: Where did you begin with these changes?
A: One of the biggest accomplishments is the Havana seed grown in Connecticut. Havana seed was brought into the U.S.A. right after World War II, and it adopted a lot of characteristics from Connecticut, and it was crossed. I started with our R&D department, and [in 1994] we grew 240 [plants from] different types [of seeds], and we started evaluating. The first year was 240, and [in 1995] we went up to 600. [With the Havana seed], the characteristics of those leaves in the field, and the aroma in the shed, was so outstanding, that I said, I'm just going to keep working with this, to somehow use it in a blend, because it's so unique. That's why that seed was put aside as a project.
Q: And that Havana became the wrapper for Partagas Black?
Q: Where did you get these seeds?
A: It was part of the Bayuk Co. Each company used to have inventories of seeds.
Q: So to get a taste for the future you looked to the past.
A: I keep an eye on the future, and two eyes on the past. I don't believe in the present. It has no importance to me. It is ephemeral. When I think about the ultimate cigar, I think about a great marriage between the very best grown in Cuba and the very best grown in the Dominican Republic, as far as long fillers, wrappers and binders. In the meantime, we have already developed new types of tobacco like the Havana grown in Connecticut, the Havana grown in San Agustín [Honduras], the Havana grown in Ometepe [Nicaragua], and the Havana grown in the Dominican. Could you imagine a scenario where some of those tobaccos could be blended with a good Cuban from Remedios, and maybe a good binder from San Agustín, and maybe a wrapper, one leaf from somewhere, and just play with those concepts? Since '94, I've been developing different seeds, and I do believe strongly in Havana-seed flavor, so I grow it in different countries, I have crossed it with Connecticut shade. Some of those crosses are outstanding.
Q: You've used many of these different tobaccos for new products, which I'd like to talk about. Consumer expectations for new product are certainly different from when you first came into the business. Is there pressure to come out with something new every year, and if so, is that good or bad for the market?
A: No, there is no pressure. This year we have one new product from Dominican. There are two things we have developed since 1994—tobacco and people. There is no rush. Our bread and butter, the flagships, are still Macanudo and Partagas. And, of course, out of Honduras, Punch. Once again, when we purchased Villazon, it was Punch, Hoyo de Monterrey and Excalibur. Three brands. Now, today, we have the Rare Corojo, the Sumatra, the 1066. That portfolio has been expanded, without any rush. And if you take a Black Label today—it's been three years in the market—it's our commitment that it should taste the same as the first one. It should follow the path of Macanudo and the philosophy of quality and stability.
Q: Is that the most difficult thing about this business? That a Macanudo Hyde Park Café should taste the same today as it did six months, a year ago?
A: Twenty years ago. I keep boxes from every year, and we all test it. That's sacred. We can't play games with that. There is just no way we will change Macanudo—if you smoke one today, it should be the same.
Q: And there's no magic formula?
A: No, you have to play with it. That's why you need four years of inventory, to keep it stable. Because you will have crops that will be a little bit heavier, a little bit lighter, and you make adjustments.
Q: I know you have to make adjustments, but are they ever so dramatic that you change a country?
A: No. We might eliminate a crop, as we did in '98. Not one Macanudo was made with '98 crop. Not a single one. And I can tell you that this event represented a tremendous financial loss. Because not one leaf made it to the minimum standard of Macanudo.
Q: That's a huge decision. What happened in '98 to cause that?
A: It was a bad year, not only in Connecticut, but also in Dominican and Mexico. In Cameroon. That was when El Niño hit. I still have piloto Cubano tobacco left from that. I'm going to use it all for short filler.
Q: The wrapper was sold for machine-made cigars?
A: It was very thin and brittle. It was a disaster. And the question was, do you protect the product, or is it just a business? I understand both of them, but business is long term. We are in business for many years, so that's the only thing you protect.
Q: You could have physically made cigars from it?
A: They would break, and the taste would have been horrible.
Q: This is why you need that big inventory.
A: Yes, as bad as it is, it doesn't hurt production.
Q: Now to show how fickle the tobacco world is, wasn't 1999 a very good year?
A: Ninety-seven. We were blessed in '97, and we were hit in '98. That's what tobacco is all about. And that's where the vintage concept comes from. We grow tobacco everywhere. I'm the president of the company, but I'm still a farmer, I'm still a processor.
Q: I've been in tobacco fields with you, and the pleasure you have there is obvious.
A: I enjoy it. I'm one of the few on this planet who enjoy the whole cycle, and do the whole cycle. I have great passion for growing, but I have extremely great passion for processing. Manufacturing, I love it, and finally getting in contact with consumers and customers, that was probably my only question. Then I found out that they share my passion, and they complement and they help, because they tell the story.