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An Interview with Charlie Toraño

We sit down with the president of Toraño Cigars for a wide-ranging discussion.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Entourage, July/August 2009

Carlos Octavio Toraño, known to the cigar world as Charlie, was born into a family that has worked with cigar tobacco for close to 100 years. Toraños have worked in every branch of the cigar industry. First they were leaf brokers, then growers, and later became liaisons between brand owners and cigar factories. After they acquired their own factories, they made private-label cigars and ultimately created their own brands.

Today, Charlie and Carlos Alberto Toraño make up the father-son team behind the many varieties of Carlos Toraño cigars. In April, the 42-year-old Toraño visited Cigar Aficionado's New York City offices and sat down with senior editor David Savona for an interview covering the history of the Toraños, the recent sale of the company's factories and his views on the normalizing of relations with Cuba.

Savona: The Toraños have such a rich history. Can you share some of it with us?
Toraño: I'm lucky enough to be the fourth generation in the tobacco business. Our history dates back to 1916. It started when my great-grandfather, Santiago Toraño, traveled from Spain to Cuba, and the legend is that upon arrival, he fell in love with the tobacco leaf. He was originally a broker of leaf tobacco. As he learned tobacco, he learned how to grow tobacco himself. My great-grandfather was blessed, because he had three sons that ended up being as passionate as he was about the tobacco business: my grandfather Carlos Toraño, and his two brothers, Jaime and Jose. The three brothers and the father continued to expand their business growing tobacco in all the regions of Cuba.

Q: Which regions?
A: He spent most of his time in the farms in the Pinar del Río region and Vuelta Abajo, and primarily growing wrappers. When my father was growing up in Cuba, they had two homes, one was in Havana, and the other was out in the farm. My father always says that he actually saw very little of his father, because he was always out in the fields while my father was in school. So there's no doubt that my grandfather was a guy who lived, breathed and ate tobacco. That was his passion, frankly, more so than his own family. My father and I are very close. But my father was not close with his father, because there was just no time together.

Q: Where did your grandfather sell tobacco?
A: A big part of the leaf business back then was also exporting to the United States. He had a relationship at that time with General Cigar, with the Newmans, and several other companies. My grandfather's brother-in-law was Ramón Cifuentes; he was married to my grandfather's sister. So you can imagine they were selling to the Partagas Factory. And they all lived in the same block.

Q: What happened after the revolution?
A: My grandfather ends up staying in Cuba after the Revolution. Apparently his side of the family did think that Fidel and his group were going to bring back the constitution that had essentially been eradicated by Batista. My mother tells me her side of the family was very concerned from the get-go, and when Fidel starting giving his victory speeches her side of the family knew the jig was up. After it became clear that the situation was not what they had hoped, the family left. My grandfather, because of his relationship with General Cigar, he goes and he works with General in Connecticut. I think he only did that for a year or so. The Cullmans [the family that owned General Cigar at the time] tried to help my grandfather.

Q: Obviously he lost everything in Cuba.
A: Yes, he lost everything. My father remembers a conversation between Cifuentes and my grandfather on whether they should transfer [money] out. My grandfather says, "No, we'll be all right." So they lost it all. Within a year after he leaves, he goes over to the Dominican Republic and starts growing tobacco there. Meanwhile, my father didn't have much of an interest in getting involved in the tobacco business at that time. He was selling computers. He was not made a part of the business. Then when my grandfather passes away in 1970s, his brothers had this company called Toraño & Co. and they decided to grow tobacco in the Dominican. That's my father's entry into the tobacco growing business.

Q: When your father started growing tobacco, what thoughts were going through your head?
A: In the '70s and the '80s, the tobacco business was not a good business. I was far away from it—they were growing tobacco in the Dominican, and I was far away in Miami. I would hear the stories, and a lot of what I heard was the struggles. We can't imagine today having premium-grade tobacco and not being able to sell. I was going to be a lawyer.

Q: You had a love for law, didn't you?
A: That was my goal in life, to become a lawyer. I started working as a lawyer in August of 1992. In May of 1996 I had that pivotal conversation with my father while we were having dinner, I asked him if there was room for me in the company. He said that there wasn't just room for me, but a need for me if I was interested. My father never approached me to leave the legal world. He was afraid to entice me out of my practice because things were going well for me. However, I always kept my eye on his business, and the first chance I saw to help him grow the business I grabbed it. So, my first day in the cigar business was June 1, 1996. Although I have never practiced law again, I still keep my law license active.

Q: Let's talk about your cigars. What is the house style of the Carlos Toraño brands?
A: I think there are three elements to the signature that is Toraño. The first is blending. Part of our philosophy is to use a variety of different tobaccos. That comes from the comfort level that my father had, and passed on to me, being so familiar with tobacco from different countries. If you want a good, solid medium body, and the rich flavors and different flavors, that's another thing that is our signature. And the third thing, the Toraño cigar is an affordable cigar.

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