A special section of New York City's Club Macanudo was cordoned off last night to celebrate the retirement of industry veteran Benjamin Menendez, who most recently served as General Cigar Co.'s senior vice president. Menendez, 77, has been involved in almost every aspect of tobacco for the last 62 years of his life.
The event was hosted by General's president Dan Carr, who was joined by vice president Alan Wilner, creative director Mike Giannini and CAO brand ambassador Ricky Rodriguez. Edgar Cullman Jr., the former president of General, and Sherwin Seltzer, a longtime veteran of General's Villazon unit, were among the guests who attended the intimate function.
"He has a heart like no one I've ever known," said Carr of Menendez. "He's been a teacher to me, a mentor to so many people and he's just a wonderful man."
To help mark the occasion, and to show General's appreciation for Menendez's commitment, Carr presented him with a handsome Rolex watch.
"For me, the most important thing is to appreciate moments like this with friends," Menendez said. "I would not want the occasion to be any other way. I'm going to miss all the great people and I'm also going to miss blending, but General has not seen the last of me. I'll be showing my face around there from time to time and give them my input—whether they want it or not," he added with a laugh.
While none of the other guests received a Rolex, they did receive a cigar made exclusively for the celebration. Billed the Partagas Benji Homage 62, the special cigar features a Cuban-seed Connecticut wrapper and commemorates the distinguished contribution that Menendez has made not only to General Cigar but to the industry as a whole. The smoke, which Cigar Aficionado previewed last night, will debut soon as a two-size line.
Though he is looking forward to retirement, the man who has had his hands in several popular cigar brands (such as Macanudo, and the non-Cuban version of Partagás) isn't ruling anything out for the future. "I have been what I call 'collecting a paycheck' from the cigar industry for 62 years. And I am the last of the pre-Castro cigarmakers," he explains, pointing out that most of that generation has either moved on to other industries or passed away. "It's good, and it's lonely, because you see so many people that you knew who have passed away."
Born in Havana in 1936 to Alonso Menendez, the cofounder of Menendez, Garcia y Cia., the creators of the legendary Cuban Montecristo brand, 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. His first job was working as a translator for the American mechanics who came to Havana to work on machinery in the cigar factory. He produced Montecristos and absorbed the entire cigarmaking process, from the field to processing to rolling, until state militiamen, on behalf of Fidel Castro, seized all the holdings of Menendez, Garcia y Cia in 1960.
Menendez and his father fled the country and started rolling a new brand they called Montecruz at a cigar factory they built in the Canary Islands. Since then, Menendez has worked for many different companies, from General Cigar Co. to Tabacalera/Altadis, and back again with General. He 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.
Menendez's exact retirement date has yet to be finalized, but he said that his last day will be some time around December 31 of this year.
Last year, Cigar Aficionado inducted Menendez into the magazine's Hall of Fame. When asked how he feels about being regarded as an industry legend, Menendez humbly shrugged it off. "You want to know my definition of the word legend?" he said. "A legend is just an exaggeration of the facts."