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The Son of Montecristo

The Son of Montecristo Peripatetic Benjamin Menendez has left his imprint on nearly every cigar-making country
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Don Johnson, Mar/Apr 02

At first glance, the cigar looks like any other, a cylinder of silky tobacco the color of pale leather, a circle of white ash as thick as a quarter growing at its foot. A thin line of blue smoke rises from the foot, while a serpentine column of brown smoke leaves the head, which has been slice-cut by a guillotine. But look closer: there on the side of the cigar are a ew words, written carefully with a Montblanc Rollerball some hours ago: Binder, Cameroon. Wrapper: Indonesia. Filler: Dominican, Brazil. Benjamin Menendez was here.

Most people in the cigar business take notes on cigars, but perhaps only Benjamin Menendez Toraño, the senior vice president of premium cigars for Altadis U.S.A., writes on the cigars themselves. It's his personal way of test-smoking. He instructs a cigar roller to create several cigars of varying blends, then he takes his Montblanc -- a present from Ashton brand owner Robert Levin -- and marks the cigar with its ingredients, in small letters. He can't see the words unless he looks hard, and that's the point. He wants to be kept in the dark about the cigar's contents until after he's made his decision on the worthiness of the blend. "I don't want to know what I'm smoking," he says. "You really have to look for it. I do a blind test."

Writing in tiny letters on a round, fragile surface is hard for Menendez. Numbers are easier, especially one in particular, forever seared in his brain: November 26, 1960.

"It's like a brand that cattle have," says Menendez, now 65. "I went to the airport and left Cuba. I left with my wife, three kids and $7 in my pocket."

Two months earlier, Menendez had been the heir to the largest cigar company in Havana. Now, his cigar holdings belonged to the Castro government, his safe was padlocked, and the Cuban pesos he and his family had saved for this terrible day were all but worthless.

It was one of the worst days of his life.

The cigar industry is rife with tales of loss and exodus, but few cigarmakers can match the stories told by Menendez, a bespectacled 65-year-old man with a thick head of carefully parted dark hair. He has thrived and struggled across the globe at the helm of some of the best-known cigar brands: Montecristo, Montecruz and Macanudo. He has made cigars in virtually every country known to roll tobacco, from Cuba to the Canary Islands, Brazil to the Dominican Republic, and Honduras to Nicaragua. Today, coming full circle, he works for Altadis, a company that makes the Dominican version of Montecristo, the Cuban brand that Menendez's father made famous. It also imports the Cuban version of the Montecristo to France and Spain. He lives a comfortable life and is once again an instrumental force in the cigar market. Yet the lessons of the past are as fresh in his mind as if they happened yesterday.

Born March 11, 1936, in El Vedado, an upper-class neighborhood in Havana, Menendez says he grew up "just like any other kid." And he had to earn his stripes in the cigar factory -- even though he was a son of Alonso Menendez, the majority owner of the largest cigar factory in Cuba, H. Upmann. The Menendez family owned 66 percent of Menendez, Garcia y Cia. Alonso was one managing partner, the other was Jose Manuel Garcia, known to everyone as Pepe; the Garcia family owned the remaining 34 percent of the company. Garcia focused on sales, Menendez concentrated on processing tobacco and making cigars.

Young Benjamin (known to friends as Benji) grew up in the typical fashion of a son of a cigar industry leader. He played in tobacco bales, and visited Cuba's Vuelta Abajo and his grandfather's farms in Havana and Partido. He was educated in Aurora, Illinois, at the Marmion Miltary Academy, and upon his return to Cuba, at age 16, he went to work for his father, first as a translator for American mechanics who were installing cigar-making machines.

"I went back to Cuba and started working on the packing floor, packing cigars. I went through all the departments. I had to be proficient in each of them before I was sent on to the next one," says Menendez. "In Cuba at that time, the unions were very strong. Even I, the son of the owner, had to get a permit to learn the job." He was paid one half the salary of the lowest paid employee in the particular department where he was working. "That was my father's rule," says Menendez. "He said, 'You give money to young people and they will not spend it wisely.' He was a very wealthy man, but he felt I had to earn my money."

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