The father-son team that runs Mexico's largest cigar-tobacco operation and makes the famous Te-Amo brand discusses the family's 110-year history of growing in that country.
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Alberto Turrent: November 1960. I finished school, and I went to work with my father. I was 22. I finished school in Mexico City. My parents said, "You finished your studies? Now you go to work."
Q: What was your first job at the company?
Alberto Turrent: Driving a truck, moving tobacco leaves.
Q: So your father didn't just put you in the office.
Alberto Turrent: No. He said, "Can you drive?" I was expected to drive a truck.
Alberto Turrent: At the farm, moving people, moving bales of tobacco.
Q: What was the company like in 1960?
Alberto Turrent: We were exporting mostly tobacco to Europe. We began to make business with the United States after the embargo [on Cuba].
Q: What about cigars? Were you making Te-Amos at the time?
Alberto Turrent: No, we were making cigars just for the domestic market. Te-Amo came in 1966, '68.
Q: So you were growing lots of tobacco then?
Alberto Turrent: Yes, mostly tobacco leaves to Europe. Mostly maduro wrappers. Q: Are your maduro wrappers called San Andrés Negro, or San Andrés Tuxla? I've heard them called both.
Alberto Turrent: San Andrés Tuxla is the name of the town. The name of the tobacco is San Andrés Negro, or San Andrés Criollo. That is the seed that we got a long time ago. At that time, we were competing with Colombia and Brazil.
Q: So the Cuban embargo led to your company starting business in the United States, selling tobacco. Was it a big jump for your company?
Alberto Turrent: We grew more tobacco. At that time, we started to grow Sumatra seed. Originally it was San Andrés Negro only. The Sumatra [tobacco] was planted by a Dutch company. They tried to make a business in Mexico. They stayed for two or three years. They tried to get some compensation from the Mexican government. The government said no, and they left. We got the seeds from them. One day before they left, one guy [from the Dutch company] was drinking with my cousin, and he said, "We are leaving tomorrow. And we are going to destroy all the seed plants." My cousin was working at that time in San Andrés. He took some plants and he kept them.
Q: So that's how your company got that seed?
Alberto Turrent: Yes.
Q: That's a pretty good deal! When did the first Turrents grow tobacco?
Alberto Turrent: 1880. My great-grandfather.
Q: And was it cigar tobacco?
Alberto Turrent: Always. We never grew other tobacco, except, I think, during the Second World War. At that time, there was some domestic market, and they sold the fillers for Dutch cigarettes. Back then, the tax on tobacco was more important in value than gold and silver. There was a monopoly, a Spanish monopoly. In Mexico City, they had a cigar and cigarette factory, with 10,000 employees. Of course, everything was made by hand. And there was a big area for dark tobacco.
Q: Tell us about the origins of the Te-Amo cigar brand.
Alberto Turrent: That was created in 1966.
Q: Was that a big hit from the beginning?
Alejandro Turrent: No, the beginning was kind of a disaster.
Alberto Turrent: They packed two million cigars —they couldn't sell.
Q: Who was selling them?
Alberto Turrent: Te-Amo [was a separate partnership that] had a warehouse in New Jersey. [At] the beginning it was in Miami—it didn't work. They had two partners, and one of the partners moved from Miami to New York. The best sales [for Te-Amo] were in the New York area....[The New York partner] died, and we bought the company in 1972.
Q: So Te-Amo starts being sold in the New York area, and it had a lot of appeal to people.
Alberto Turrent: At one point we had 170 stores around the New York City area selling the cigars.
Q: It was always a New York cigar, right?
Alberto Turrent: Mostly a New York cigar. In the '70s, about 60 percent of our sales [of the Te-Amo brand] came from New York.
Q: How much did they cost then?
Alberto Turrent: Eighty cents.
Q: It was a different world for cigars then. Alejandro, when did you get into the business?
Alejandro Turrent: I [officially] got into the business around 1998. I was 25.
Q: Now did you drive a truck at first too?
Alberto Turrent: No. [Laughs.] He went right into the factory.
Alejandro Turrent: I used to do a little bit of everything. When I was in university, I went to Monterrey [in northeastern Mexico]. There was no market for cigars in Monterrey, really. So I started to ask for some cigar boxes from the factory, and I would start to visit some retailers, and I started selling cigars. The cigars started to move. When I would need money, I would go and ask [the stores] for the money in advance.
Alberto Turrent: He wasn't supposed to collect the money! [Laughs.] When we went to collect on the bills, these owners would say, "We paid in advance!" [Laughs.]
Alejandro Turrent: Seventeen. I was working part time.
Q: So you were costing the company a bit of money! [Laughs.] Nueva Matacapan de Tabacos is a very large business, a very expansive business, because you have a very large tobacco growing operation combined with a considerably large cigar factory.
Alberto Turrent: We're an integrated company. Although now, we're buying some tobacco from Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua . . . For much of the time, Mexico was closed [to importing tobacco].
Q: That's right—you once used only Mexican tobacco in your cigars. Was importing other tobacco illegal?
Alberto Turrent: Not illegal—you couldn't get permission.
Q: Was it NAFTA that changed the laws?
Alberto Turrent: In some ways, NAFTA helped make it open. But it's still not easy.
Q: Is it expensive?
Alberto Turrent: No, but it takes a long time. It's not easy.
Alejandro Turrent: There were some barriers—the tax, the import license—but at the end there was something related to the agricultural department. Alberto Turrent: You must explain what type of fertilizers are used, what type of insecticide; you need to give all that information.
Q: So the government makes you jump through a lot of hoops to use foreign-grown tobaccos.
Alberto Turrent: Sometimes it takes six months.
Q: I know you're the biggest cigar producer in Mexico, but besides you, who else makes cigars in that country?
Alberto Turrent: There are two [major] companies [producing cigars for export]. After that, there are a lot of small companies, chinchalles [tiny cigar factories], making cigars for the domestic market.
Q: How has your business changed in recent years?
Alberto Turrent: The customers. They smoke different cigars. In the old days, guys would say, "Don't change nothing—make the same thing all the time." And a customer would smoke, say, Te-Amo Meditation all the time. Now you need to have new products. Now if you go to the cigar shop, you see one person buying different brands and different sizes. They like new cigars.
Q: Speaking of new cigars, tell me about what we're smoking now.
Alejandro Turrent: It's A. Turrent 6 Generations. A Mexican puro. We started with Criollo wrapper, but we decided after being on the road and smoking different kinds of cigars, we came back and we changed the whole thing and used Corojo wrapper. We went back and used tobacco from '98 and '99.
Q: The seed?
Alejandro Turrent: No, the crop.
Alberto Turrent: The filler is 10 years old. It will be a very limited edition—we don't have a lot of it. To keep 10 years [of] tobacco and use that inventory, you must be a stockholder in the Bank of England. [Laughs.]
Alejandro Turrent: The '98-'99 crop, there will only be enough for 50,000 cigars. And for '99-2000, maybe 20,000 cigars.
Alberto Turrent: We will try to keep some bales. We're going to try to always keep it with 10-year-old tobacco.
Q: Tell me about the wrapper—you don't grow a lot of Corojo in Mexico, do you? Is this primed, or stalk-cut?
Alberto Turrent: Primed.
Q: Shade or sun-grown?
Alberto Turrent: Sun-grown.
Q: So this is your big thing for this year.
Alejandro Turrent: It's a little more full bodied.
Q: Does this cigar have a little bit of every tobacco you grow?
Alejandro Turrent: Yes. And soon we will have a version of A. Turrent 6 Generations with maduro wrapper.
Q: And how old will that wrapper be?
Alejandro Turrent: Again, I think about 10 years. But as we were looking for some tobacco, we found two bales, three bales. That will be very, very limited.
Alberto Turrent: It's an accident, to have all this old tobacco. Normally we ship to customers by containers. For maduro, a full container holds 120 bales. Maybe at the end of the crop, we produce 150 bales. So we can't ship 30, and we keep it. Then we looked at inventory, and we said, "Wow." Really, it was an accident.