Benjamin “Benji” Menendez, 74, is one of the storied names of the premium cigar business. He learned about tobacco working alongside his father in Havana when his family was the majority owner of Menendez, Garcia y Cia., owners of the largest cigar factory in Havana—the H. Upmann factory. The most famous cigar brand rolled there was Montecristo. In 1960, Fidel Castro’s government nationalized the company, factory and brands, forcing Menendez to leave Cuba, virtually penniless, and start anew.
He later made cigars in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic for General Cigar Co., spent time with Altadis U.S.A. Inc. and has now returned to General as senior vice president of premium cigars. He is instrumental in maintaining the quality of General’s cigar brands, most notably Macanudo, and recently he and the General Cigar team created a cigar with his name, the Benjamin Menendez Partagas Master Series Majestuoso, one of Cigar Aficionado’s Top 25 Cigars of 2009. In February, Menendez sat down in the Santiago, Dominican Republic, factory with senior editor David Savona to talk about the new cigar, how General Cigar has changed over the years and his thoughts on returning to Cuba, the land of his birth.
David Savona: First of all, you have to be very happy with the reaction to your new Benjamin Menendez Partagas.
Benjamin Menendez: Very much indeed. I thought it was a good cigar and I thought it was pretty well balanced. But as I say, the good lord didn’t give me any special gift. I am just another cigar smoker. And this is what I like to smoke. And a lot of people said Cameroon—that’s not the wrapper anymore. But I wanted to pay homage to Ramón Cifuentes. That was the first wrapper [the non-Cuban] Partagas had, Cameroon. And it was a very special wrapper.
Q: I didn’t think about this until you mentioned it, but in the early days of Cigar Aficionado Cameroon was considered a very exclusive wrapper. It was very hard to get because supplies were short, and if you had Cameroon it was
really something to brag about. But now, you don’t see a lot of people coming out with new cigars that have Cameroon wrappers.
A: For a while the quality of Cameroon wasn’t very good, so a lot of people abandoned Came-roon and forgot about Cameroon. This cigar is a way of saying “Cameroon is a good wrapper. We cannot forget it.”
Q: So when you sat down to make the cigar, you knew you were going to use Cameroon wrapper because of the tribute to Ramón Cifuentes?
A: And because we have so many good Cameroon wrappers here. When you start making a blend, the first thing I do is I look at our inventory. What is available here?
Q: Well, you have a lot here.
A: We have a lot of tobacco. And I have to thank Daniel [Núñez] and Modesta [Fondeur] for getting us all that inventory. And we can now go in and choose from these tobaccos.
Q: You have among the biggest stocks in the cigar business.
A: We have more tobacco than anybody on this earth. And I don’t leave anybody out.
Q: This Benjamin Menendez Partagas wasn’t going to be a cigar you made in great quantities.
A: It was always going to be a real short amount. The wrapper that we’re talking about was not that plentiful.
Q: Why, what made that so limited?
A: The age was a factor, and also, with Cameroon, you have to know where you pick your leaves from, which height on the plant. And this was just the right height.
Q: Is this a high priming?
A: No, Cameroon is not good at high primings. It tends to be like cardboard.
Q: In terms of taste?
A: It’s thick. Cameroon is very fragile wrapper, a very thin wrapper, but the upper primings become thick. They’re not easily worked. In Cameroon the higher primings are not the best primings.
Q: What is a Cameroon plant like?
A: It’s not a very large plant. You throw away a very good percentage of that plant by weight. But you’re talking maybe 10, 12 leaves in the plant total. So you might be talking five, six leaves.
Q: That’s low yield.
A: Today, prices are not that high, but when I started using Cameroon, the prices were around $20, $25 per pound. I’m talking 1963. Connecticut was only $8, $9 a pound. So you see the difference. Then it came down significantly. And then it went back up. But the problem is not only the face price of the tobacco, but the yield and the breakage that you have to worry about. That’s where your cost starts piling up very fast. That’s one of the reasons people have shied away from Cameroon.
Q: So that’s the negative about Cameroon—what’s the positive?
A: The taste. It’s very good burning. And just for looks—because I don’t believe it really matters—it’s a very white ash. And to tell you the truth, I don’t think the white ash means a heck of a lot. A black ash is no good. But a lead colored ash? That’s not bad at all. But Cameroon has the privilege of being white. And its the chemical composition in the soil naturally that makes it white.
Q: What is the rest of the cigar made of?
A: The components are piloto Cubano ligero [from the Dominican Republic], ligero from Estelí, Nicaragua, and Ometepe [Nicaragua]. And the binder is Habano grown in Connecticut. I’m really thrilled about that tobacco—it’s very good tobacco. And when you look back many years ago, that was one of the parents of Connecticut shade. The wrapper that was grown in Connecticut for many years was Habano seed.
Q: Describe making the blend.
A: We went through more than 200 blends. We kept on going. I came to a point, and it’s the only time that I had really stepped in, and I said “OK guys—this is it. We can go on forever, and we can always make one better. But at some point in time we have to start selling cigars.”
Q: What component was the one that brought it all together?
A: The one that really cinched it was the Habano binder. We tried piloto Cubano, olor, broadleaf, Mexican. When you look at the original Partagas, it had a Mexican binder.
Q: It still does, right?
A: Yellow box Partagas [the original Partagas] still has Mexican binder.
Q: Were you trying to make a more intense Partagas? What was your goal?
A: It was a Partagas that was not a Spanish Rosado or a Black Label, but more flavor, more strength. At one point in time, when you go back to ’95, ’96, Partagas was a full-bodied cigar. The world has changed. Today Partagas in the yellow box has become medium bodied. I wanted to bring back some of that spirit of the Partagas.
Q: Do you think General needed this cigar?
A: Very much so. It’s a very small product, but it reminded people that Partagas is still alive. And Partagas is not Black Label or the yellow box. It has another life.
Q: What’s your philosophy of making cigars?
A: When I make a cigar, the first thing I’m looking for is flavor. Then I will use strength as I use salt in my meal, to enhance the flavor. First the flavor, then the strength. With this cigar, we’re using two strong components: the piloto Cubano ligero and the ligero from Estelí, Nicaragua.
Q: Do you use that Estelí ligero tobacco in other blends?
A: Mostly in La Gloria Cubana. I am learning. I have been very much Dominican. To me, it is a learning experience to see these tobaccos and see the possibilities that these tobaccos have. I was very impressed with these tobaccos.
Q: Speaking of learning, you have worked at the side of some of the true legends of the cigar business. Your father, Alonso Menendez, who made Montecristos in Cuba; Ramón Cifuentes, who owned Partagas in Cuba; and Edgar Cullman Sr., the longtime owner of General Cigar Co. Can you tell me what each of those men taught you?
A: I was privileged to work with some of the great tobacco people of this world. My father and my grandfather taught me about tobacco, how to handle tobacco, how to process tobacco. That’s what I learned from them. Edgar Cullman taught me one thing extremely important: the quality of the end product. The love in quality Edgar Sr. had is going to be very difficult to duplicate. I could tell anecdotes that are unbelievable.
Q: Give me one.
A: In ’96, we were having here, at this operation, 500 trainees. This was the boom years. We had dinner at Pez Dorado. At the end of the dinner—this is 11 o’clock at night, and this is an 80-something-year-old guy—Edgar said, “Benji, are you working in the factory?” I said, “Yes, we have the second shift.” He said, “Let’s go over there and see them.” We came here. He went to every person working in the factory at that time, and one thing amazed me tremendously. We went by where they were banding and cellophaning Partagas. He stops by it, and says, “Why did you change the red of Partagas?” I said “Edgar, I did not change the red of Partagas.” He said, “yes you have—This is not the red of Partagas.” We had a file of packaging materials. We got that file over, we put it next to each other, and it’s so unbelievable. The difference was so minute. He said, “Do you see? You changed the color.” I said “No Edgar, what we changed was the supplier.” He said, “Change the supplier back.” We did. Of course. (laughs)
Q: This is midnight?
A: This might be one o’clock. He had gone through the whole factory. When he finished, he went to the packing department. It must have been one o’clock. He had in his mind what that color was. He was so much into the details—and detail is what quality is all about. You cannot let quality slip by one millimeter.
Q: I know you physically write on the cigars you test with a pen. Ideally speaking, where would you be and what would you be doing when you test a cigar?
A: First, I let the cigar burn about a quarter of an inch. From there on, I start testing the cigar. For I want the cigar to be evenly lit. And then, in testing, I will go to about here [points to about the midway point on the cigar] and if I don’t like it by then, that cigar is going to sleep very quietly in the ashtray.
Q: At your desk?
A: At home. The last time I was here I took a whole bunch of cigars home. I have one of those [large capacity] Stinky ashtrays. When I’m testing a cigar, I don’t like to talk to anybody. And when I’m enjoying a cigar, I will sit back in my rocking chair in the back of my home, get a glass of Port and smoke my cigar.
Q: I have to ask you about Cuba and the possibility of that opening up. It’s a natural question to ask you. We have President Obama, who seems more willing than any U.S. president to end the Cuban embargo. What do you think?
A: Had you asked me this question 15 years ago, I would say go back to Cuba the minute I hear I can go back to Cuba. Today, my age, that is not the case. Why? Very simple. I see what’s happening in Germany. I have been there within the last three years twice. And last time I was in Dortmund for the tobacco fair, and talking to the people there, I asked about the situation between East Germany and West Germany. And they told me it has improved but it’s not good. Twenty years since the wall came down. If that happens in Cuba, 20 years from now I’ll be 94. Will I be alive? I doubt it very much. But even if I’m alive, will I have the strength to go back and try to do anything? I doubt it very much. But I will tell you one thing: I’m an American citizen. I love and respect the United States with all my heart. Well, with about 95 percent of my heart—because the other five percent still belongs to Cuba. And if I can ever do anything to help Cuba, I will. But I doubt very much that anything will be solved in Cuba in 20 years. What will happen? God only knows. I’ve had the privilege of sitting with some people a few years ago from Habanos. And an unspoken agreement—we do not talk politics. Don’t try to convince me about the good things of communism and I won’t try to convince you about the good things about capitalism.
Q: What did you talk about?
A: I spent a week with them. And it was a very enjoyable time. We were talking about tobacco, we were talking about cigar processing. It was only when we got politics involved that everything goes to hell.
Q: Where was this conversation held?
A: Here—in Santiago, Dominican Republic, and in La Romana. It was in my previous life (laughs). The first group that came in, it was ’98, ’99, and the Dominican Republic had a lot of tobacco from the boom. And the Cubans came here to look at the tobacco. They found the tobacco OK, but the price too expensive. Because my former employer had a good relationship with them, I met with them, and later another group came around and I went with a group to La Romana. I spent time with them. It was beautiful. Without me or them mentioning it, politics was not an issue. We were people. And after that conversation, these are the people, if we ever go back to Cuba, these are the people we’ll have to deal with. We can get along—as long as we don’t get politics involved.
Q: Did you smoke their cigars?
A: I always smoke any cigar that’s given to me. Anybody gives me a cigar, I will smoke it. And if you go to my home right now, you will see, of course, I have cigars from my company, but I have more cigars from the competition.
Q: As a younger man, how often would you think about Cuba?
A: Every day. To this day.
Q: Still—every day?
A: Cuba is still in my mind. And every time I have a chance to smoke a Cuban cigar I will. I’m looking for how good they are, because that is my target. I want a high target I can shoot at. Cuba had a monopoly on premium tobacco for 500 years. It has only been since 1962 or ’63 that Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua and Mexico have come to the marketplace.
Q: You still think about Cuba every day. You say your plan has changed—have your thoughts of Cuba changed over those years?
A: I still hate communism. And there is no way I’m going to love it. There is no way I’m going to love it.
Q: Are you less angry now than you were as a younger man, about what happened? About your father’s company being taken away?
A: My wishes are one thing. Reality is another. And you have to live with reality. My wife, my three kids, myself, we all live in Miami. I don’t have anybody, I don’t have any family, any friends in Cuba. They are either dead or in exile. So to go to Cuba is to go to a foreign country. Dave, I’d much rather go to [the DR] a million times than go to Cuba. I could go to Cuba right now. I don’t want to go to Cuba.
Q: Have you ever been back?
A: No. Even if Cuba becomes a democracy, I don’t know if I want to go to Cuba.
Q: Really? If it somehow changed tomorrow, became a free nation…
A: What am I going to see there? I have been fortunate in that I have been twice around the globe. I don’t care to go to another city. I go to a city if I have friends that I can enjoy. To see buildings? I have been to the greatest cities in the world. They don’t tell me anything. Just people.
Q: Different question—what if the embargo is over and you have the opportunity to use Cuban tobacco in your cigar blends?
A: Now I’m going to talk as a Cuban. And as a Cuban, I would never allow one leaf of tobacco to be shipped.
A: Anywhere. You want Cuban tobacco? Come to Cuba and set up the operation, because Cuba is going to need the jobs.
Q: In the old days they shipped it to the United States. You don’t think that will happen again?
A: I don’t think so. Tampa doesn’t exist anymore as a tobacco center. I remember the first time I went to Tampa, December of 1952, and there were a ton of cigar factories. They were making about 450 million Cuban cigars in Tampa. When Tampa was created originally, there was no immigration law. There was not even a passport. You just walked.
Q: So by giving jobs to people in Tampa, the jobs were going to Cubans making the cigars?
A: Yes. I’m talking as a Cuban. Now, as a member of General Cigar, yes, I would like Cuban tobacco blended with this tobacco. But I’m talking with two sides of my mouth. I can never forget I’m Cuban.
Q: What do you think the cigar world looks like after the embargo is lifted?
A: Fifteen years ago you couldn’t sell a Dominican or a Nicaraguan or a Honduran cigar in Europe. Today I won’t say it’s an open door, but there’s a window of opportunity. The cigars from these countries are getting better and better. Cuba has a powerful name, very powerful. The day the embargo is lifted, and Cuban cigars come into the United States, the first week there is going to be a line around the block to buy Cuban cigars. By the second or the third week, that line is going to be very, very short. Because they will see that they have been smoking cigars from all these different countries that they have been enjoying, and this is a different palate. I’m a Scotch drinker. You might like rum. If you’re a rum drinker and I give you Scotch, 18-year-old Scotch, you’ll say “I don’t like it. I like rum.” But because you have heard so much about how good Cuban cigars are, you’re going to try that cigar. And a lot of them are going to be disappointed.