A Star in Honduras
The Makers of Astral and Don Tomas Cigars are Expanding Operations in Danlí
From the Print Edition:
Matt Dillon, Spring 96
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For Raymond Guys, as with most cigar men, tobacco has a living, breathing, near-human quality about it. When he talks of tobacco, whether it is in the fields, curing and aging, or even in a cigar, sensuous adjectives such as smooth, silky, soft and lovely creep into his speech. "Tobacco is the most important link in the [cigar] production chain," says Guys. "We have done beautiful things in Talanga, invested a lot of money there, and we are very proud of our farming operation."
According to Guys, UST International is considering expanding its growing capacity in Talanga and possibly into Nicaragua. As he points out, the cigar boom has created a shortage of premium tobacco worldwide, making it easier to justify the large capital investments needed to bring more acreage into cultivation. "If we are going to expand cigar production, we have to increase our tobacco plantings," he says. "It's as simple as that. Right now, I wish we had double the tobacco we have. Growing your own tobacco gives you great flexibility because you are not tied to what the market has to offer. That is particularly important when demand is high and there is less good tobacco to go around."
Over the years, UST International has grown a variety of tobaccos in Honduras, depending on market demand. Though Havana-seed leaf has long been its staple for filler and binder leaf, wrapper leaf plantings have ranged from Cuban to candela and Connecticut seed. The company is now growing exclusively Connecticut-style shade leaf, which produces the lighter colored and softer flavored wrappers that are popular among many new and younger cigar smokers.
Like all Honduran tobacco operations, UST International's Talanga fields were decimated by blue mold in the early 1980s. Of the 16 leaf-growing operations in Honduras before the blue mold infestation, only a handful survived. "It wiped everybody out," says Guys. UST International had both the capital and the technological know-how to keep its tobacco operations alive. "We found a solution to the blue mold problem that has so far worked," says Guys. "It's a trade secret, but I will say that we do it in a purely natural way, using no chemicals."
Back in Danlí, in a small room heavy with the fragrance of full-flavored Havana-seed tobacco, two Honduran workers are blending filler into stacks in preparation for the rollers. Lining each wall are open bales of tobacco, each containing leaves of different age, heritage and curing methods. Guys takes a hand of leaves from one of the bales and holds it up to the light. "Even if it is not as pretty as the wrapper, you get a lot of flavor from the filler. This is rich, gorgeous, aromatic tobacco," he says, adding, "beautiful, really beautiful."
Like many of the leading cigar makers in Honduras and elsewhere, Guys has spent a lifetime in the industry. Unlike most of the big players in Honduras, though, he does not come from a Cuban background. Instead, Guys grew up in Turkey. The son of a French tobacco merchant, he joined his father's business when he was still in his teens. In 1963, "because of difficulties faced by the operation, I left the country," Guys recalls. "But where do you go? I knew a lot of people in the tobacco business and so I went to the States and got a job." His first job in the United States was with American Tobacco Co.'s American Cigar division. After a decade with American Cigar, Guys went to work with UST International, and he has been there ever since.
Early on "they sent me [to Honduras] to take over the tobacco and cigar operations," says Guys. "I didn't speak a word of Spanish, but we hired a team of Cuban managers and I bought a dictionary. I learned to speak Cuban Spanish and pretty soon everyone thought I was just another Cuban refugee down here making cigars."
Guys, who spent 11 years full-time in Danlí before moving to Connecticut to manage the cigar and leaf operations from corporate headquarters, recognizes his and UST International's debt to the Cubans who have helped him run the division. "The Cuban exiles I have been lucky enough to work with over the years are extremely knowledgeable in the cigar business. These people really know what they are doing."
Today, Guys' team includes a mix of Cuban, Honduran and American managers. Fifty-nine-year-old José Quesada, a recognized 'Don' in the world of premium cigars, has been with UST International since the days of Tobacos de Honduras (how CACSA was known from 1972 to 1980) and is now general manager of Honduran operations. Like most tobacco godfathers, he traces his roots to pre-Revolutionary Cuba, and tobacco and cigars seem to be a part of his genetic structure. This is also the case with Oscar Hernandez, another Cuban exile who, at 65, has spent a lifetime in the tobacco business and now manages curing, sorting and packing operations at the CACSA facilities. Honduran members of the team include Marco Tulio Barahona, the 50-year-old manager of the Talanga farm who has been with the company for 19 years; his 28-year-old assistant, Lenin Obaldia, who came on board in 1992; and Edwin Guevara, CACSA's 31-year-old administrative manager of cigar operations who has been with the company for five years. From the United States there is Iber Rodriguez, also 31, who joined the company from a Madison Avenue firm in 1992 to help develop the super premium Astral, and Larry Palombo, 47, who spent 21 years with General Cigar and recently moved to UST International to become Guys' right-hand man as assistant director of cigar and cigar leaf operations.
"We are a diverse group," notes Guys, "but the dynamics are very good. We are lucky to have some highly respected tobacco and cigar veterans on the team as well as some very creative younger people."
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