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Death of a Legend

Legendary cigarmaker Ramón Cifuentes Toriello, the mind behind Partagas cigars for decades, died at his sister's home in Madrid on January 3. He was 91.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
J.P. Morgan, Mar/Apr 00

Legendary cigarmaker Ramón Cifuentes Toriello, the mind behind Partagas cigars for decades, died at his sister's home in Madrid on January 3. He was 91.  

Cifuentes's life paralleled the rise, fall and rebirth experienced by many Cuban cigarmakers. Fidel Castro took control of Cuba on New Year's Day 1959, and soon seized the nation's cigar factories, locking Cifuentes and the other owners out of their companies. The Cubans offered Cifuentes the job as head of the nation's cigar industry, but he refused. In 1961, Cifuentes fled the country to New York City, virtually penniless.  

His wife took a job in Bloomingdale's and Cifuentes went to Connecticut to work with the tobacco grown by the Cullman family, owners of General Cigar Co. General eventually put Cifuentes in charge of its premium cigar operations in Kingston, Jamaica, and the Cuban master instructed General's workers in the cigarmaker's art.   "He's responsible for teaching us how to make a great cigar," said General chairman Edgar M. Cullman. "I learned more from him about the quality of a cigar than from anyone else."  

Cifuentes dreamt of Castro's fall, wanting to return to his homeland and the cigar brand he left behind, but by the mid-1970s he began to lose hope. "I think he got disillusioned that he was never going to go back to Cuba," Cullman said in a 1994 interview with Cigar Aficionado. In 1974, the Cifuentes family made a deal with General to manufacture Partagas cigars in Jamaica. General paid the family a fee and agreed to pay a royalty for every Partagas cigar it made.     

The first non-Cuban Partagas cigars hit the market in 1977, and the brand--now made in General's plant in the Dominican Republic--is among the best-selling premium cigars in the United States today, with more than 12 million cigars sold each year. They're made with Dominican and Mexican filler tobaccos, Mexican binders, and wrappers grown in Cameroon in west Africa. General immortalized Cifuentes, an attractive man who was sometimes compared to Douglas Fairbanks Jr., in its Partagas ads for many years. In 1995 the company celebrated the brand's 150th anniversary with a limited-edition Partagas 150 Signature Series cigar.  

Created in 1845 by Jaime Partagas, a Catalonian immigrant, and carried on by the Cifuentes family, Partagas was one of Cuba's oldest and most famous brands. Rudyard Kipling once reportedly referred to himself as "a priest of Partagas," and Evelyn Waugh immortalized the brand in his novel Brideshead Revisited.  

Cifuentes's father, Ramón Cifuentes Llano, acquired the company at the turn of the twentieth century. When Cifuentes Llano died, the business was passed down to his three sons, who had learned cigarmaking at their father's side.  

Cuba's landmark Partagas factory is the only Havana cigar factory officially open to tourists, but Cifuentes never returned to it after he left Cuba. He worked with General Cigar until he was in his 80s, overseeing the manufacture of Partagas cigars, and spent his later years in Spain.  

"He was a complete tobacco man," said his nephew Leopoldo Cifuentes, 59. "He dedicated all his life to tobacco."

THE LOST INTERVIEW WITH RAMON CIFUENTES  


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