An Interview with Alejandro Martinez Cuenca
Cigar Aficionado sits down with the owner of Nicaragua's oldest cigar brand, Joya de Nicaragua.
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Martinez Cuenca, 59, is a member of Nicaragua's Sandinista party, which sprang from the populist movement that overthrew the Somoza dictatorship in 1979. He has worked both with and against Nicaragua's recently reelected president, Daniel Ortega. Most recently, he unsuccessfully opposed Ortega in a bid to be their party's presidential candidate. Ortega had led the Sandinista rebellion, which culminated in the nationalization of industry and the seizure of land from private owners, then ruled Nicaragua during the 1980s. He first served as president from 1985 to 1990, when the United States embargoed Nicaraguan goods.
Senior editor David Savona sat down in Managua with Martinez Cuenca in January, during the week of Ortega's inauguration, to discuss the political outlook for Nicaragua as well as the revitalization of the Joya de Nicaragua brand.
Savona: Let's talk about your involvement with Tabacos Puros de Nicaragua, the maker of Joya de Nicaragua cigars. When did you acquire it?
Martinez Cuenca: Let me tell you why I acquired it. When I was 16 years old, one day my father found me smoking a cigarette, and we were living at that time at the house of an uncle here in Managua who smoked cigars. He said, Give me that cigarette—from now on you will smoke these. And he gave me a big Joya de Nicaragua to smoke. As a punishment. [Laughs.] At that moment I quit smoking. When I was 30, a friend of mine from Spain brought me a box of Davidoff, and that was my first box of cigars. It was a pure Cuban cigar, before Davidoff went to the Dominican Republic. Two years after, I became minister of trade. When Somoza left the country, this company became public, so I was asked to try to look for markets for the cigars, and I visited for the first time the factory in Estel'. This is 1979.
Q: Was it was very busy at the time?
A: Extremely busy. And my big question was, How can you replicate a cigar, with so many people participating in its creation, and make sure that it's the same cigar with the same quality and the same blend at the end of the road? How, without machines, can you do that? And that was my first big amazement about cigars. Then I went to Cuba and I got familiar with other companies that were manufacturing Havana cigars, and I always posed the same question: what makes a cigar so unique, and so human? It became a fascination to me. When Ortega loses the election, the company was loaned to the workers of the company, so they would continue producing and have something to live from.
Q: How did that work out?
A: That was 1990. In 1992, that whole project stumbled, went to pieces. Imagine 80 workers without a head.
Q: Eighty bosses.
A: Eighty bosses making a cigar. In 1992, I knew Joya de Nicaragua was being manufactured by my dear friend Nestor Plasencia in Honduras.
Q: So Joya was made in Honduras during the embargo?
A: Yes. And I knew there was a problem with the trademark—I knew Somoza had sold the trademark. Then it was decided that it was going to be privatized. And one day, Leonel Raudez, who is now my general manager, walked into my office and said, "Doctor, help us. They are going to close that company. We have the know-how." I didn't want to get involved with anything that had been nationalized. But he opened my interest. I called the minster of the presidency and asked if it was true he was going to sell the cigar company. He said, yes, it was going to go to a public bidding. It was all in shambles.
Q: Was it operational?
A: The building was there, there were two or three people making cigars. I had someone do an evaluation of the company, and I bought the company for $600,000 in 1994. And I said, "Let's look for the old workers who worked here." I rehired most of the best-known rollers, tobacco producers, and started working with them. But then I realized what I had. In 1995, fortunately, the [cigar] boom started, and that helped us put together a team of well-known specialists who started producing tobacco. The boom helped us. It created the conditions for us to be alive today, because when the boom started we had only made $40,000. I said to my workers, "We are going to rebuild this company. I want your initiatives, I want your discipline." It was a difficult task, trying to consolidate our sizes. I had been familiar with it only because I smoked it. When I was minister of trade, there used to be two guys who would come to my office, Silvio and Alfredo Perez [of tobacco grower ASP Enterprises Inc.]. They came and told me, "We can't get out of Nicaragua—they don't give us the visa." I put them in contact with Immigration so they could continue doing business. And every Wednesday, they would visit me and keep me informed. In 1995, I called Alfredo and said, "I have a problem. Help me." He said, "What do you need?" I said, "I need tobacco." He said, "Look, the only place we can bring it is from Connecticut or Ecuador." Connecticut was too expensive, so I said Ecuador.
Q: That was Connecticut seed from Ecuador?
A: Yes, that's how I started remaking the Joya, with Connecticut seed.
Q: What was the wrapper in the old days? Nicaraguan?
A: Nicaraguan Habano. There was a tremendous shortage.
Q: When was this?
A: Nineteen-ninety-five. During the boom we produced that kind of cigar. But the boom was horrible at the end of the day. When the boom was over, at the end of 1998, all the good years of the boom gave us a financial reserve, so we never went to the bank. I told my shareholders we are benefiting from an accidental boom—we kept building the company. It was the smartest thing to do. We would not have been able to survive the downturn. That's when I decided to make the Antaño.
Antaño comes to the market in 2000. It took two years to find out what tobacco to use, blend it, and manufacture the cigar of the quality you see here.
Q: What did you want to do with Antaño? What was the idea?
A: I had heard that in the 1970s Joya de Nicaragua had replaced the Cuban cigar at the White House receptions. They were buying Nicaraguan cigars because it was the closest to Cuban Vuelta Abajo. With Mario Perez, we put together a group of five rollers who had been with the company from the very beginning, and we dedicated for two years blending.
Q: So you were trying to capture the taste of the old days?
A: Yes, that's why the name: antaño means circa. And the person who manufactured the Joya in the 1970s was our major blender. After thousands of blends, he said, "This is it."
Q: So it wasn't just trying to recapture the style, but to actually make the same blend?
A: Yes. So that's how I came out with Antaño. Before throwing it into the market, I wanted it to be Joya de Nicaragua Antaño. Joya de Nicaragua was registered by my company everywhere but the United States. [Altadis S.A. owned the U.S. rights by virtue of its acquisition of Hollco-Rohr.] I got in contact with Mr. [Theo] Folz. I went to the United States, and I found a real gentleman. That guy is the most astute guy I ever negotiated with. In 1998, we spent four hours in a negotiating room, and at the end of the day, he said, "This is the deal: you take it, or leave it." I said, "I take it." That's when I bought the trademark.
Q: What was the consumer reaction to Antaño?
A: When we sent the first trials, Brad [Weinfeld, who is in charge of the brand at S.A.G. Imports] called me and said, "We hit it. That's what the market wants." And then, some years later, some people tried to get the same wrapper, the same filler, but they couldn't make the Antaño. When we came out with Celebración, we asked the question why the market hasn't taken to Celebración, which is a full-bodied cigar, but much less strong.
Q: It hasn't been the hit that Antaño is?
A: No, no, no. If I were to choose between Celebración and Antaño, for a soft, nice smoke but still with strength, I would take Celebración.
Q: When people reach for a Nicaraguan cigar like yours, what do they expect?
A: I want them to recognize that Nicaraguan tobacco is a tobacco that has won its place in the market not only because it resembles Cuban tobacco. Nicaraguan tobacco has much of the greatness of Cuban tobacco, but it's more than that. It's something genuine. When you come to Nicaragua and smoke a cigar, you will find the Nicaraguan tobacco has some likeness to the Cubans, but there is more to it. There is the Nicaraguan identity.
Q: What does the future hold for Nicaragua?
A: I think there is no possibility that we're going to go back to the past. Everything that is in front of us—regardless of who is sitting in the presidency of Nicaragua—should be forward. Nicaraguan tobacco, regardless of the political situation in this country, will continue to be the best tobacco in the market, the best quality. I am still confident that Nicaragua will continue to be a good place to make cigars and grow tobacco as we have been in the last part of the 1990s and the 2000s.