An Interview With Pedro Martín
Pedro Martín, the founder and owner of Tropical Tobacco.
From the Print Edition:
Orlando Hernandez, Mar/Apr 99
Pedro Martín, the founder and owner of Tropical Tobacco, began working in his father's cigar factory in the Cuban city of Cienfuegos in 1936, when he was 15 years old. But he had been in the family's tobacco fields from the age of seven, pulling weeds from among the plants. His family made the El Veguero brand for sale in the province and processed tobacco for the Havana factories, until they were forced off their land by the Cuban revolution.
Martín left Cuba in 1961 and went to work in Detroit for a U.S.-based cigar company, using his expertise with tobacco to become a blender and taster of cigars. After nearly a decade of working for others, Martín founded his own wholesale cigar tobacco leaf company, and then, in 1978, he started Tropical Tobacco. The company began with the Solo Aromas brand, then introduced such cigars as Particulares, Cacique and Maya. Later on, Tropical launched Don Juan, and then to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of America, it began making V Centennial cigars.
Martín admits that his company wasn't prepared for the huge boom in cigars that began in 1992. It wasn't until late 1996 that he was able to begin producing cigars in large enough quantities to meet market demand. Of course, by that time, the market peak had passed, and recently he has cut back some of his expansion plans. But in a recent interview with Gordon Mott, managing editor of Cigar Aficionado, Martín expressed his long-term commitment to the premium cigar business and his optimism about renewed growth in the marketplace in the near future.
Cigar Aficionado: Where did you settle after leaving Cuba, and why did you choose to go there?
Martín: When I left Cuba in 1961 with my family, I went straight to Detroit because I used to have a customer there, a cigar company. It was called DWG Cigar Corp. They were buying tobacco from me in Cuba, where I had been in the tobacco business for years. I went there looking for a job. They hired me as an assistant tobacco buyer and also to help out on the blending panel. I worked there for four years.
CA: What did you do there?
Martín: In the beginning, I worked in the office. My job was translating letters from suppliers all over the world who were trying to find replacements for Cuban tobacco in the cigars they exported to the United States. They wrote in Spanish and I translated the letter into English. The company wrote back in English, and I'd translate the letter into Spanish. The company also put a lot of cigars on my desk with numbers on them, and a comment sheet to tell everything I felt about the cigar that I was smoking. In the beginning I didn't know what the hell I was doing. I knew how to smoke a cigar. I was a smoker. And, I used to blend cigars in Cuba. But I didn't really know what to say about cigars, especially a short-filler cigar.
CA: Were these all short-filler cigars that you were tasting then?
Martín: In the beginning, yes.
CA: You were one of the original blind tasters.
Martín: In the beginning I laughed about it. Because I didn't know what the hell to do. Nobody told me what to say about the cigars. I'd say, 'I like it, I don't like it, too strong, too mild, it's a little bitter.' You know, giving your impression about the cigar you are smoking. But at first, you're not used to doing that. Later on, I also was the tobacco buyer. One of the reasons they hired me was to find a replacement for Cuban tobacco because they had been using a lot of Cuban tobacco before the embargo. They were blending Cuban tobacco with Puerto Rican tobacco. At that time there was a lot of Puerto Rican available. That was the main blend. Later on we started buying tobacco from the Dominican Republic, from Central America, from Brazil, from Columbia, from different places all over the world. That was the place where I learned how to really create a cigar blend. When I started, I didn't know how to do it, because you have to educate your palate. By my last year there, my tasting skills were so good they didn't want the panel to make any recommendations without me. So, I really learned how to blend cigars right here in the United States. Can you imagine that? I knew a lot about tobacco in Cuba, of course. That's the main thing. If you know tobacco, you know how to cure tobacco and how to make a simple blend. But I really learned how to create a blend here.
CA: When and where did you start working in tobacco in Cuba? Where were you born?
Martín: My father, Antonio Martín, and my uncle, Matias Martín, were in the cigar business. That was the family business. I went to school in the morning and worked in the factory in the afternoon. It was 1936; I was 15 years old. But I used to work in the field when I was 7 or 8 years old.
CA: Doing what?
Martín: Cleaning the plants, pulling off the [bottom leaves]. Keeping out the weeds.
CA: Where were your family's fields?
Martín: In Manicaragua. That was in the south of Villa Clara province, about 18 miles from Santa Clara. Our factory was in Cienfuegos, about 25 miles from Manicaragua, where I was born.
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