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Cuba' Best Cigar Factory

Cuba's Top Export Cigar Factory Is Turning Out the Country's Best Cigars
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

(continued from page 1)

"It's all a question of obtaining the best tobacco, then being as rigorous as possible with your selection of tobacco and finally utilizing the very best rollers," he says. "Our quality control department decides on what we should use, and its decisions are based on incredibly stringent criteria."

Molina, who has more than 300 employees overall, hopes to boost production over the next few years, especially in view of this year's bountiful tobacco harvest in the prime growing regions of the island. "We should make about 6.5 million cigars this year, and if our tobacco crop levels continue to increase, then we should be at about 7.5 million cigars by the end of 1997," he says optimistically. "If we have the raw material, we might even make 8 million cigars in 1998."

Molina claims that his factory not only has an abundance of top rollers, but that it "works the tobacco differently," so even their non-exclusive cigars will be the best possible quality. "We make a selection of the binder by size and shape as well as the wrapper," he says. "The blend [filler] may be the same as at other factories for certain cigars such as Cohiba. We can't differ from that, but we can improve the quality of the wrapper and binder, and that is what we do. Don't forget that the wrapper may account for about 10 percent [of the total tobacco] of a cigar. It doesn't make a difference in the strength of the cigar but it affects the aromas and flavors of a cigar."

José Martí has a long tradition of fine-tuning its wrappers and binders. Even before the Revolution, the factory always tried to age and select its tobacco to obtain the best possible quality. Some of the old cedar-lined aging rooms are still in use. "We always spent a lot of time selecting and aging our tobacco," says Benjamin Menendez, now senior vice president of premium special projects for Connecticut-based General Cigar, which produces cigars in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. Menendez's family owned and operated H. Upmann until just after the Revolution, when they fled Cuba. "We used to devote a large part of the ground floor to aging and fermenting wrappers, binders and filler," he recalls. "This gave us the best quality tobacco possible."

Adds Molina: "It is a long tradition. Tobacco needs the aging. I have been in the tobacco business for a long time, and I understand that certain traditions must be maintained. Why change things if they already work very well?"

Nonetheless, the H. Upmann/José Martí factory is a relative newcomer to the Havana cigar scene; the Menendez family established the building as a cigar factory in 1944, while most of the other key factories were created during the last century. But legends can be quickly made in cigars, especially under the able hands of a great tobacco family such as the Menendezes and now Benito Molina.

Molina doesn't like to openly boast about the quality of the cigars of his factory. However, he's more than happy to point out other aficionados' enthusiasm for José Martí. "Who am I to say that I have the best factory in Havana?" he says with a giant grin and a smoldering cigar pinched between his teeth. "All I can say is that this year's two recipients of the Habanos Man of the Year award [Pedro Perez, former head of Tabacalera S.A., Spain's tobacco monopoly, and Marvin Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado] chose José Martí as their preferred factory. They both receive a box of cigars from here every year for the rest of their lives. Our cigars have to be the very best quality."


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