Carlos Fuente Jr. has become one of the most recognizable people in the cigar business. While at the helm of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., he has seen the company rise to one of the preeminent positions in the industry.
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CA: Do you see the day when the next generation--your children [Editor's note: Carlos Jr. and his wife, Rosita, have three daughters: Liana, 18, Lidiana, 9, and newborn, Carla Sophia], Cynthia's and Wayne's children, all the grandchildren of your father--will come into the business?
Fuente:My father taught us well. But he never tried to push us into the business, though it was always there if we wanted. Because he knows, and he knew back then, that you have to be totally committed to cigars to be successful. And he knew that is something that you can't teach someone, that it has to come from within. And in the same way, I believe Cynthia and I will not try to [push] our children, but it will be there for them. And, at this moment, thinking of my last moment on earth, if I could have my wish, it would be that I would see my family healthy, my nephews and nieces healthy, and see our children following in our footsteps.
CA: Your standard cigar, the Arturo Fuente, has always been described as a fuller-bodied cigar than the type of cigar that was historically popular in the American market. Given the success of Arturo Fuente, do you think the American palatte has evolved? Do Americans today prefer stronger cigars?
Fuente:I believe there's a very, very small minority of Americans that prefer stronger cigars. But our heritage is Cuban. The way we make cigars, the way my father blends cigars, was taught by my grandfather. Before the embargo, we made cigars strictly of Cuban tobacco. Our heart was in Cuban tobacco. After the embargo, we were forced to look for other tobaccos, but it was always that love, that heritage, that we adhere to because that's really what we feel with our hearts. Therefore, we make a cigar with that kind of complexity often found in Cuban cigars, yet always trying to achieve finesse and balance.
CA: Your cigar sales keep growing and growing, which would lead one to believe that more and more people are looking for a richer, stronger taste.
Fuente:There's no question that there was a time in the United States when people wanted things light. The secret to a great cigar is to achieve as much taste as possible while still maintaining balance and finesse.
CA: Some people still get a little bit confused because you have a red-and-green band and a red-and-black band. There are different bands for the Arturo Fuente line and the Don Carlos line. Is there any easy explanation for the difference in the bands?
Fuente:The classic Arturo Fuente, the red-and-green band, comes from my grandfather's day. He had a red band, but there was a green tax seal placed under the band, and so the ring of green showed around the red band. When the tax seal practice ended after the embargo, we created a red-and-green band for the classic Fuente brand, which was the Flor Fina 8-5-8, which is the flagship of Arturo Fuente cigars. And the reason I say the flagship, it is because it was the blend that my grandfather created after the Cuban embargo. That was his personal blend. But it's sad, because my grandfather never saw that blend for sale on the market. It wasn't until after my grandfather passed away that my father brought out that blend in my grandfather's honor. The reason he named it Flor Fina 8-5-8 was because my grandfather was 85 years old when he passed away and my father wanted the name to represent something from beginning to end. It represents the heritage and the tradition that my grandfather left us through his lifetime.
CA: What about the red-and-black band?
Fuente:The red-and-black is different from the Flor Fina, or classic, Arturo Fuente blend. It's a little bit heavier and the tobaccos are aged just a little bit longer.
CA: Are all black bands Cameroon wrapper?
Fuente:Yes, all the black-banded cigars use Cameroon wrapper, but nothing stays the same and nothing will last forever.
CA: The red-and-green-banded cigars use mostly Connecticut-shade wrapper?
Fuente:Yes. We began making Arturo Fuente with Connecticut shade because of the shortage of Cameroon and the high demand for Arturo Fuente cigars. There is a bit of confusion because the red-and-green band also comes on cigars with Connecticut-shade wrapper in the Chateau Fuente series, which has a cedar wrap. And we also make Seleccion d'Or on the Arturo Fuente brand.
CA: Recently, you began to produce a lot more torpedo-shaped ci-gars, including for the Don Carlos line and for Ashton. Why didn't you do it in the past, and why are doing it now?
Fuente:Cigar making is an art. And obviously, the figurados are one of the most difficult cigar sizes and shapes to produce. It's not something new for our family. All the old photographs that I see of my grandfather, he is making figurado cigars. As a matter of fact, the Cuban perfecto, what we call the Hemingway, is a Cuban perfecto shape which was lost after the 1950s and '60s. But using my grandfather's old mold, we reintroduced the Cuban perfecto shape under the brand name Hemingway. I do see today that many of those shaped cigars are becoming very popular.
CA: Do you see your production of shaped cigars and torpedos growing dramatically in the next few years?
Fuente:Absolutely; we are making more and more of them. We have some sizes and shapes which have not been introduced yet that are absolutely incredibly beautiful. I have a fascination with shaped cigars.
CA: What is the most difficult cigar to roll: a pyramid or a Hemingway Short Story? What is the greatest challenge as a cigarmaker?
Fuente:One of the most difficult shapes that we're making in the factory is a size called Work of Art. It has not been introduced yet but it will be introduced sometime in the future. Another of the most difficult shapes would be the Short Story, because it's a cigar that's approximately four inches long and it tapers from a 49 ring gauge all the way down to an 18 ring gauge in about half an inch. It's a very, very difficult shape to make. That was a shape that we introduced into the market about 10 years ago. It instantly became very, very successful. People loved it.
CA: What is a Work of Art?
Fuente:A Work of Art is a cigar that is approximately five inches long, that starts with a complete point in the head and increases to a 56 ring gauge, like a pyramid or torpedo. It finishes off with a tuck similar to a Hemingway. It's a beautiful cigar. And very, very difficult to make.
CA: And when do you plan to release those?
Fuente:Those will be released this year.
CA: What will its price be?
Fuente:We haven't determined that yet. But one thing is certain: the price will be something that's very reasonable; I'm sure when people see the cigar, they're going to ask themselves why that cigar was introduced at that price.
CA: How many factories do you have today in the Dominican Republic, and does each factory produce a different brand, a different size?
Fuente:We started in 1980 with one factory. Actually, it wasn't a factory; it was an open space; it was just four walls and a roof. We started with seven employees and today most of them still work with us. But today we're making cigars in four factories. We have also built our own industrial duty-free zone [in the village of Palmar Abajo, in the town of Villa Gonzalez] which eventually will have another cigar factory running there. Today, we're using that free-zone factory for fermenting and aging tobacco, and also for selecting and grading the tobacco leaves.
CA: I remember my first visit to your factory in 1991, and you apologized about how you were just a little family cigarmaker, and then you took me on a tour. Two hours later [laughter], that simple little tour ended. How do you decide which brands and which sizes get produced at each factory?
Fuente:Each factory is designated to make certain brands. For example, Factory No. 1, where I spend most of my time, makes Arturo Fuente cigars, Hemingway, Fuente Fuente OpusX, Ashton Cabinets, Savinellis, Diamond Crown and a couple other brands. That's the oldest factory. That's in Santiago. Factory No. 2 is in Moca, which is a town that is approximately a 20-minute drive from Santiago. There, we manufacture most of the cigars for the Newman family: Cuesta-Rey, La Unica. My father wanted Factory No. 3 to be a model factory and he wanted to transfer Arturo Fuente cigars to Factory No. 3, but there's a certain nostalgia about Factory No. 1. That's where our office is. It's still the same small office.
CA: Though the office was small, the factory wasn't so small. So what do you make in Factory No. 3?
Fuente:Factory No. 3 [in Santiago] makes some Cuesta-Rey and some Arturo Fuentes with Connecticut shade, some Ashton and Bauza.
CA: What about Factory No. 4?
Fuente:Factory No. 4 [in Santiago] is making Sosa, Bauza and Montesino. There's some Montesino made at Factory No. 3, where my father is spending a lot of time. And, some of the new belicoso shapes that we are doing, like the Montesino Aged Cabinet Reserve, are being made at Factory No. 1.
CA: You've lived through a pretty crazy period in the cigar industry there in Santiago. I've heard reports that more than 100 cigar factories opened between 1994 and 1997, and the owners of those start-ups raided the traditional companies like Fuente for skilled laborers, especially rollers. But a lot of those factories are closing now. Can you describe what it was like to lose so many employees you had trained, and whether or not you are welcoming the workers back?