Fifteen years ago, Cigar Aficionado honored six men for their dedication to the cigar industry by inducting them into the magazine’s Hall of Fame. Those men, industry giants in their respective ways, were Edgar M. Cullman (1918–2011), Zino Davidoff (1906 –1994), Carlos Fuente Sr. (1936–present), Frank Llaneza (1920–2010), Stanford Newman (1916–2006) and Angel Oliva Sr. (1907–1996).
Today, the Class of 2012, made up of nine men, is being inducted into the Cigar Aficionado Hall of Fame. The total number of Hall of Famers now stands at 15. Like their Hall of Fame predecessors, the members of the Class of 2012 have dedicated their lives not only to tobacco, but to improving the overall quality of cigars available in today’s market.
Carlos Fuente Jr.
President, Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia.,
Santiago, Dominican Republic
Carlos “Carlito” Fuente Jr. is one of the most recognizable faces in the premium cigar industry. As president of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., Fuente helped his father (and fellow Hall of Famer), Carlos Sr., turn the small family business into a monolith that rolls more than 30 million cigars a year by hand, including the Fuente Fuente OpusX Double Corona, Cigar Aficionado’s 2005 Cigar of the Year.
From a young age, Fuente showed a great interest in tobacco. He sneaked his first cigar at age six and often followed his father and grandfather, Arturo Fuente, around while they attended to cigar business. As he matured, Fuente became more involved in production. He helped his father revive the perfecto shape when the two debuted the Hemingway cigar line, and paid homage to his father with the 1986 release of the Don Carlos brand.
Fuente had another goal in mind—to create a full-bodied cigar made solely of tobaccos grown in the Dominican Republic. In the early 1990s, the Fuentes planted Cuban-seed tobacco in an area that would later be called Chateau de la Fuente. Many told the Fuentes that quality wrapper leaf could not be grown in the Dominican Republic. In 1995, though, Fuente and his father proved their detractors wrong with the release of Fuente Fuente OpusX, a cigar wrapped in a gorgeously dark, shade-grown Dominican wrapper, an industry first.
This year, Fuente, 58, is celebrating the company’s 100th year. He is actively involved in the Cigar Family Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit organization he cofounded to create meaningful change to the communities of the Dominican Republic through education, health care and the development of eco-friendly business ventures.
President, Tabadom Holding Inc.,
Santiago, Dominican Republic
Born and raised in a tobacco family, Hendrik “Henke” Kelner has fittingly been called a tobacco master by many of the most respected people in the cigar industry.
Since 1984, Kelner has been producing Davidoff and Avo cigars, some of the world’s most popular Dominican cigar brands. Kelner, who operates in a three-factory complex in Villa Gonzalez, also rolls a slew of smaller brands, bringing the total production under his control to about 22 million cigars per year. Kelner, now 67, believes the only way to produce quality cigars is to control the entire cigarmaking process, from seed to shelf. One of his most recent ventures is growing tobacco in the remote Dominican region of Yamasa.
More of a behind-the-scenes type, Kelner is known for his ceaseless study of tobacco subjects like soil content, climates, fermentation, blending and cigar rolling. This dedication has led him to amass loads of information, from documents to magazines and slides, on the cigar-manufacturing process.
“I have tobacco in my blood,” he has said. “Tobacco was my first job and I’m never going to work another.”
President, Ashton Distributors Inc., Holt’s Cigar Co.,
Robert Levin’s first whiff of the cigar business came at the tender age of 11 when he was tasked to sweep the floors of Holt’s Cigar Store, his father’s tobacco shop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was not until 1972, though, that Levin entered the cigar business full time.
Back then, Holt’s was a profitable, but small, cigar merchant. Levin saw potential for growth. He seized an opportunity to purchase Harry A. Tint & Sons, another Philadelphia cigar store, in 1980, and soon created the Ashton cigar brand.
A blend of four Dominican tobaccos wrapped in Connecticut Shade, Ashtons became a smash hit in the industry after the Fuente family took over production of the cigar in the late 1980s. The brand now includes a number of line extensions, including the Aged Maduro, the Cabinet and the highly acclaimed Virgin Sun Grown collections.
Levin, 66, has a knack for fostering relationships and anticipating the market, which has led him to create a number of cigar successes, including La Aroma de Cuba in 2003 and San Cristobal in 2007.
Senior Vice President, General Cigar Co.,
Benjamin Menendez has created cigars in nearly every cigar-producing country, from Cuba to the Dominican Republic, Jamaica, Brazil and the Canary Islands, to Nicaragua and Honduras. His storied cigar career began in El Vedado, an upper-class neighborhood of Havana. Here he was born in 1936 to Alonso Menendez, the creator of the Montecristo brand and the cofounder of what was once the largest cigar company in Havana, Menendez, Garcia y Cia.
Benji, as he is known to friends, started working alongside his father at the H. Upmann cigar factory, the largest in Havana, at a young age. For two decades he produced Montecristos and absorbed the entire cigarmaking process, from the field to processing to rolling.
Then, on September 15, 1960, state militiamen, on behalf of Fidel Castro, seized all the holdings of Menendez, Garcia y Cia. Barred from selling their own brand in Cuba, Menendez and his father started rolling a new brand they called Montecruz at a cigar factory they built on the Canary Islands. Montecruz sold well in the United States, and in 1972, the Menendez family sold the brand to conglomerate Gulf + Western.
Since then, Menendez has worked for many different companies, from General Cigar Co. to Tabacalera/Altadis, and finally, at the age of 76, back again with General Cigar. Along the way he has produced several popular cigar brands, such as Partagás, Macanudo, Montecristo and Romeo y Julieta.
José Orlando Padrón
Chairman, Padrón Cigars Inc.,
It’s hard to imagine that Nicaragua’s Padrón Cigars, a three-time winner of Cigar Aficionado’s Cigar of the Year and maker of some of the most highly rated and coveted cigars in the world, started from such humble beginnings.
The year was 1962, and the Cuban émigré José Orlando Padrón, whose family had grown tobacco since the 1880s, had just arrived in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood, carrying hardly anything but a dream. That dream? To open a factory and produce great cigars for the Cuban exiles living in Miami that compared with the ones they used to smoke in Cuba.
Padrón found work as a gardener and began saving what little money he could. Soon after, a friend gave Padrón a small hammer, enabling him to take carpentry work at night as well. After nearly two years of working day and night, he managed to save $600, enough to rent a small space, and Padrón Cigars was born. Next came the revelation that great tobacco was grown in Nicaragua, and he moved his operations there only to face more obstacles in the form of fire, civil war and an embargo.
Forty-eight years later, Padrón Cigars, still following the quality-over-quantity philosophy stressed by Señor Padrón, 86, is now a leader in the cigar industry, its name synonymous with class.
“That little hammer is a keepsake,” says Padrón. “It’s something to show my sons and everybody else. To make them aware of the sacrifices I had to make in order to get to this point.”
Owner, EPC Cigar Co., Miami
It was 1982 when Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, inspired by a Cuban Davidoff, began working on La Gloria Cubana. A decade later, Cigar Aficionado would give the blend a series of high ratings and publish an article about Perez-Carrillo’s El Credito Cigars factory, catapulting the local boutique into a national sensation.
After La Gloria Cubana struck gold during the cigar boom of the ’90s, Perez-Carrillo responded by expanding his operations to the lush Yaque Valley, a tobacco-growing area in the Dominican Republic akin to Cuba’s famous Vuelta Abajo region, where Perez-Carrillo grew up. It was in Vuelta Abajo where Perez-Carrillo spent countless hours as a boy with his father in the tobacco fields, soaking up valuable lessons like dedication, humility, patience and respect—lessons he would apply to his own tobacco endeavors.
In 1999, Perez-Carrillo sold El Credito and the La Gloria Cubana brand to Swedish Match AB, continuing to work there until 2009. That year, he decided to go back to his roots by creating a new family-run cigar boutique called EPC Cigar Co. with his son Ernesto Perez-Carrillo III and daughter Lissette.
“I feel like I have to reinvent myself,” said Perez-Carrillo at the time. “I want to see if I can redo it again—it’s a challenge.” Now 61, Perez-Carrillo has responded to his own challenge, his cigars having found their way onto Cigar Aficionado’s Top 25 list the last two years.
Owner, Plasencia Cigars, Central America
Nestor Plasencia’s cigarmaking empire spans Nicaragua and Honduras, employs more than 5,000 people and produces about 25 million cigars a year. He plants tobacco on Ometepe, a volcanic island in Nicaragua, and grows some of the industry’s best wrapper leaf.
Partagás, Rocky Patel and Alec Bradley are just some of the brands that use Plasencia tobacco. At his Plasencia Cigars factory he produces Casa Magna, a blend he collaborated on with Manuel Quesada, which won Cigar of the Year honors in 2008 from Cigar Aficionado. In short, Plasencia is one of the most influential men in tobacco.
Plasencia emigrated to Nicaragua at the age of 15 with his parents after Fidel Castro confiscated their tobacco farms in Cuba. His father found work right away in the Nicaraguan cigar industry, and a young Nestor was visiting tobacco fields and cigar factories, following in his father’s footsteps.
All was well until 1979, when the Sandinistas expropriated the family’s 1,000 acres of prime Nicaraguan farmland. Plasencia responded by starting a tobacco plantation in Honduras in 1981. He built a base for his tobacco-growing venture to turn into an industry giant when he added cigar production in 1985.
At 62 years old, Plasencia still puts long hours into his business, of which his son Nestor Plasencia Jr. has become a major part.
Owner, Manufactura de Tabacos S.A.,
Santiago, Dominican Republic
Thirty-eight years ago, Manuel Quesada became the first cigar manufacturer to work out of the Santiago Free Trade Zone when he erected his Manufactura de Tabacos S.A. cigar factory. There he has produced numerous brands, the most popular being Fonseca and Quesada.
The Quesada family first got involved with tobacco when Manuel’s great-great grandfather started buying, storing and selling Cuban tobacco leaf in the 1880s. Like many other Cubans, though, the family lost all of its holdings to Castro’s Revolution, and the Quesadas moved to the United States.
Manolo, as he is known, and his brother pursued their education, while their father took out a loan and bought a warehousing facility in the Dominican Republic where he graded, selected, stored, sorted and sold tobacco. In 1968, Manolo was in graduate school when he was drafted and sent to Vietnam. After his service and as a newly minted American citizen, he earned an MBA degree and went into partnership with a cigarmaker who was a client of the family tobacco business. Because the workforce in the United States was aged, production was begun, in June of 1974, in the Dominican Republic’s newly formed Santiago Free Trade Zone, where Quesada trained new rollers.
Manufactura de Tabacos S.A., or MATASA, created “with $100, a chair and a phone,” was one of the few cigarmakers in the country at that time and the first in the Free Trade Zone. Quesada, working with the Plasencia family, created the Casa Magna Colorado Robusto, Cigar Aficionado’s 2008 Cigar of the Year, and today at the age of 66 he works alongside his daughters Raquel and Patricia, part of a group of young family members he has dubbed the “Fifth Generation.”
Vice President and General Manager (retired), Tabacalera de Garcia Ltd.
La Romana, Dominican Republic
Sixty million: That’s the number of handmade cigars that Tabacalera de Garcia, best known for manufacturing the Dominican versions of Montecristo, H. Upmann and Romeo y Julieta, is capable of producing in a year, and Josè Seijas was in charge of it all.
Seijas, who studied industrial engineering, started analyzing crops and performing other quality-control jobs at Tabacalera de Garcia at the age of 24. In 1984, he played an integral role in converting the huge facility, then used primarily to process tobacco, into a full-fledged factory that rolls handmade premium cigars.
Seijas introduced a number of innovations to Tabacalera de Garcia, including the idea of dividing workers by the brands they roll, as well as offering rollers the option of using a wheeled cutter that carves wrapper leaf more cleanly and efficiently than a traditional chaveta blade.
Seijas also ramped up the brand portfolio of Altadis, which owns Tabacalera de Garcia, with cigars that blend stronger, more flavorful tobaccos. His José Seijas Signature Series Churchill scored 92 points in a recent Cigar Aficionado tasting.
A soft-spoken man, Josechu, as he is called by his friends and associates, retired earlier this year, at the age of 61.