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An Interview With Pedro Martín

Pedro Martín, the founder and owner of Tropical Tobacco.

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Martín left Cuba in 1961 and went to work in Detroit for a U.S.-based cigar company, using his expertise with tobacco to become a blender and taster of cigars. After nearly a decade of working for others, Martín founded his own wholesale cigar tobacco leaf company, and then, in 1978, he started Tropical Tobacco. The company began with the Solo Aromas brand, then introduced such cigars as Particulares, Cacique and Maya. Later on, Tropical launched Don Juan, and then to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America, it began making V Centennial cigars.

Martín admits that his company wasn't prepared for the huge boom in cigars that began in 1992. It wasn't until late 1996 that he was able to begin producing cigars in large enough quantities to meet market demand. Of course, by that time, the market peak had passed, and recently he has cut back some of his expansion plans. But in a recent interview with Gordon Mott, managing editor of Cigar Aficionado, Martín expressed his long-term commitment to the premium cigar business and his optimism about renewed growth in the marketplace in the near future.

Cigar Aficionado: Where did you settle after leaving Cuba, and why did you choose to go there?
Martín: When I left Cuba in 1961 with my family, I went straight to Detroit because I used to have a customer there, a cigar company. It was called DWG Cigar Corp. They were buying tobacco from me in Cuba, where I had been in the tobacco business for years. I went there looking for a job. They hired me as an assistant tobacco buyer and also to help out on the blending panel. I worked there for four years.

CA: What did you do there?
Martín: In the beginning, I worked in the office. My job was translating letters from suppliers all over the world who were trying to find replacements for Cuban tobacco in the cigars they exported to the United States. They wrote in Spanish and I translated the letter into English. The company wrote back in English, and I'd translate the letter into Spanish. The company also put a lot of cigars on my desk with numbers on them, and a comment sheet to tell everything I felt about the cigar that I was smoking. In the beginning I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I knew how to smoke a cigar. I was a smoker. And, I used to blend cigars in Cuba. But I didn't really know what to say about cigars, especially a short-filler cigar.

CA: Were these all short-filler cigars that you were tasting then?
Martín: In the beginning, yes.

CA: You were one of the original blind tasters.
Martín: In the beginning I laughed about it. Because I didn't know what the hell to do. Nobody told me what to say about the cigars. I'd say, 'I like it, I don't like it, too strong, too mild, it's a little bitter.' You know, giving your impression about the cigar you are smoking. But at first, you're not used to doing that. Later on, I also was the tobacco buyer. One of the reasons they hired me was to find a replacement for Cuban tobacco because they had been using a lot of Cuban tobacco before the embargo. They were blending Cuban tobacco with Puerto Rican tobacco. At that time there was a lot of Puerto Rican available. That was the main blend. Later on we started buying tobacco from the Dominican Republic, from Central America, from Brazil, from Columbia, from different places all over the world. That was the place where I learned how to really create a cigar blend. When I started, I didn't know how to do it, because you have to educate your palate. By my last year there, my tasting skills were so good they didn't want the panel to make any recommendations without me. So, I really learned how to blend cigars right here in the United States. Can you imagine that? I knew a lot about tobacco in Cuba, of course. That's the main thing. If you know tobacco, you know how to cure tobacco and how to make a simple blend. But I really learned how to create a blend here.

CA: When and where did you start working in tobacco in Cuba? Where were you born?
Martín: My father, Antonio Martín, and my uncle, Matias Martín, were in the cigar business. That was the family business. I went to school in the morning and worked in the factory in the afternoon. It was 1936; I was 15 years old. But I used to work in the field when I was 7 or 8 years old.

CA: Doing what?
Martín: Cleaning the plants, pulling off the [bottom leaves]. Keeping out the weeds.

CA: Where were your family's fields?
Martín: In Manicaragua. That was in the south of Villa Clara province, about 18 miles from Santa Clara. Our factory was in Cienfuegos, about 25 miles from Manicaragua, where I was born.

CA: And your family grew cigar tobacco?
Martín: Yes, cigar tobacco.

CA: Did your family also manufacture cigars in Cuba?
Martín: I remember one, El Veguero. I think the Cubans make a brand called Vegueros now.

CA: How many cigars were made in your factory then?
Martín: We used to have anywhere from eight to 15 cigarmakers. We made usually about 2,000 to 3,000 cigars a day.

CA: Did you make a particular size or shape?
Martín: We didn't make that many sizes. We made a Media Breva, the cheapest one. If I remember right, the size was 4 3/4 inches by 42 ring gauge. We made the Breva, which was about 5 1/4 or 5 1/2 by 44. We made fumas [called Casadoras] with a twisted tail, which was 6 by 44.

CA: And how much did those sell for?
Martín: About two cents each. We also made the Petit Cetro. It was 5 inches by 38 ring gauge. We sold most of these cigars in boxes of 25. The Petit Cetro and another one called Climas also were sold in boxes.

CA: Were they sold all over Cuba?
Martín: No. It was mainly in the Las Villas region.

CA: So you couldn't even buy them in Havana.
Martín: No. During the Second World War, we used to make a cigar called Commandos for the American soldiers.

CA: Were they just small cigarettes or small cigars?
Martín: Cigars. About 5 1/4 inch by 42, something like that. We made tons of those, and we sold them all. They were all long filler.

CA: You continued to work in the factory and in tobacco until 1961, is that correct?
Martín: Yes. During that time, I continued making cigars and working with my uncle. My uncle was in charge of the factory and my father was in charge of purchases, plus tobacco curing and the selection of tobacco.

I remember something that makes me laugh about the problem we have with teenagers smoking in the United States today. I smoked cigarettes and cigars as soon as I started working in the factory. But I could not smoke in front of my uncle or in front of my father. One day my father, when I was about 17 or 18 years old, found me smoking a cigar. And then you know I was afraid. But he said, "You're a man now; you can smoke." And from there on I started smoking every day. I didn't smoke too much, you know. A couple of cigars a day.

But I was involved with tobacco. You get involved in tobacco when you love this business. It's a dirty business, you know. Dirty means you have to dirty up your hands and your clothes and everything. If you don't love it, you have to get out.

CA: In 1950, when you established Tabacalera Martín, were you selling tobacco that your family grew in Manicaragua or were you buying leaf tobacco from all over the country and selling it to the factory?
Martín: We mostly used to buy tobacco from other growers from Villa Clara province, making, sorting and curing the tobacco, selling it to both Cuban- and American-owned factories.

CA: But your tobacco always came from Villa Clara province?
Martín: Yes. Later on I started buying tobacco in the Pinar del Río--curing, stripping and selling the tobacco in Cuba and to factories in the United States in Tampa [Florida].

CA: At that time in the 1950s when you had Tabacalera Martín, were you selling to some of the people who today are part of the American cigar industry, such as the Fuentes, Frank Llaneza or Danny Blumenthal?
Martín: I used to sell tobacco to Perfecto Garcia and Garcia y Vega before Frank Llaneza acquired it. He took over in the late '50s or early '60s. I used to sell to the Corral family and to Universal Cigar, which today is part of Swisher.

CA: What about the Menendez family?
Martín: I used to sell to them. I loved those people. The father and uncle of Benjamin Menendez [of Tabacalera España today] were my best friends in Cuba. And they mean a lot to me. They are like my own family.

CA: It comes to New Year's Eve, 1959...
Martín: Nightmare. It was a nightmare.

CA: Did you feel that way at the time Fidel Castro took over, or did you believe that there was a chance that things were going to improve at first?
Martín: I was a young fellow at the time and I felt that it'd be good for Cuba, in the beginning. We needed to change something. Most of the politicians in Cuba were corrupt. I really felt happy about the takeover of my country. But pretty soon I found out that they were not doing the right thing.

CA: How soon did that happen?
Martín: Castro took over in January 1959, and in February I already began to question what he was doing. He was taking everything from everybody. He would steal everything people had, even a small business they had their whole life. He took it away. I felt it was not right.

CA: Did your family still own tobacco farms at that point?
Martín: Yes.

CA: When were they confiscated?
Martín: In 1961. They confiscated our tobacco land, they confiscated our warehouse where we had the sorting and stripping operation.

CA: Was your entire family still in Cuba at that point?
Martín: Yes.

CA: Were you married?
Martín: I was married in 1950.

CA: Did you have children by 1961?
Martín: Yes.

CA: Did you all leave together? And when did you leave?
Martín: No. I left on September 15, 1961.

CA: Was it difficult to leave at that time?
Martín: For me it was not difficult because I used to have a U.S. visa that allowed me to enter the United States anytime I wanted to. I could stay here for 30 days in a row, go back to Cuba, and back and forth several times in a year. I had that visa. But my family did not. So I had to come first, and then my family went through Jamaica. They spent about 30 days over there. Finally I got them from Jamaica to here.

CA: And at that point you already knew you were going to go to Detroit, is that right?
Martín: Yes. It was the DWG Corp. I had sold tobacco to them in Cuba for a few years, and then when I came to Detroit they gave me a job. It was Alfred Edelman, who was the DWG tobacco buyer. He's the uncle of Jerry Edelman, who works in the business today. He helped me a lot.

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