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Interview: Frank Llaneza of Villazon

A discussion with the president of Villazon & Co., makers of Hoyo de Monterrey and Punch.
Gordon Mott
From the Print Edition:
John Travolta, Jan/Feb 99

(continued from page 12)

But we were making a heavier, fuller-bodied cigar. We didn't notice that robust taste in our cigars until Cigar Aficionado started telling people about it. A lot of people who preferred stronger cigars were still smoking Cuban cigars when they could get them. I think a lot of those smokers, because of the rising prices and because of the deteriorating quality in Cuba, started smoking our cigars. And that is when we started seeing a big jump in the sales.

CA: But wasn't there a time when Hoyo de Monterrey Excalibur was considered the best non-Cuban cigar?

Llaneza: No, I don't think so. I think there were a lot of cigars that were considered very, very good cigars. Punch had always been considered the strongest cigar we made. When I went to Honduras last time, I took Cuban cigars for the workers to smoke, just so they could see the comparison. But Cuba's reputation of having good, seasoned tobaccos isn't there anymore. Today, the uniformity isn't there. Sometimes you can pick up a Cuban cigar and you think that you're in heaven. Other times, it's not that good. I've told that to the Cubans. If you smoke one of our cigars, people say this cigar has a remembrance of Cuba. We get a lot of smokers that way. We're really not competing with the cigars made in the Dominican Republic. Because the people that smoke our cigars for the first time, sometimes can't smoke the second one.

CA: Is that because they're too strong?

Llaneza: Yes, because they're strong. There's another guy smoking a cigar from the Dominican Republic, and he says, "Man, what's this made out of? Straw?" You know? The taste is there in our cigars. But today, look at how many different blends there are, and different people making cigars that never knew what the hell a good cigar was. And they are selling them. There are a lot of different tastes in the market today. When you say that a cigar has a spicy, nut molasses taste, that's your taste. Someone else may not taste it.

As a result, we have been very fortunate because we were in the right place at the right time. If you look at us as a piece of the General Cigar Co., it makes them more rounded out. They have now a cigar for smokers who want a Cuban taste and they also have cigars for every other kind of smoker. We should be advertising it that way: cigars for all tastes.

CA: Let's keep going over the history a little bit here. Your business was first affected by the revolution in Cuba, but then you were also heavily invested in Nicaragua in the late 1970s, when the Sandinista revolution ousted Somoza. What did you do then?

Llaneza: I didn't have a real financial investment in Nicaragua but I was heavily dependent on Nicaraguan tobacco that the Olivas were growing there. When the Sandinistas took over, we had to immediately find a substitute because we had no wrappers. At that time, we were getting all our wrappers from farms in areas north of Estelí [Nicaragua].

CA: Cuban-seed wrappers?

Llaneza: Yes.

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