Benito Molina is wearing a big smile, a bulging Montecristo No. 4 sticking out of his mouth. He's been trying to avoid answering a question about whether or not his factory, José Martí in Havana, will be selected as the primary rolling site for a new size of Cohiba. The pyramid-shaped Cohiba, according to sources at Habanos S.A., will be released sometime in early 1997, and whichever factory earns the right to produce it will add a gold star to its roster. "Making Cohiba is very prestigious," says Molina. "We would be more than happy to make less petit corona and lonsdale Montecristos and make more Cohiba."
For the past six years, Molina has been the manager of José Martí, known as the H. Upmann factory before Fidel Castro's Revolution in 1959. Molina doesn't want to stake a claim to the new Cohiba, but it's clear that no other factory may be better qualified to undertake the project. After all, the new cigar's shape, a pyramid, is similar to the Montecristo and H. Upmann No. 2s that are produced at Molina's factory.
All of Havana's export cigar factories are capable of producing good cigars, but none can match the consistency and the quality of Fabrica José Martí, located just one block from the capitol building in Old Havana on Calle Amistad. Better known as the H. Upmann factory, it produces a wide range of cigars, including such high-quality smokes as the mammoth Montecristo A and the Cohiba Robusto and Esplendido.
Even under the current hardships brought on by shortages in the Cuban economy, José Martí is making the best cigars in Cuba and maybe the world. Many Habano cognoscenti scour cigar shops around the world for boxes with the coveted "JM" initials printed on the bottom. These initials are part of the code the Cubans use to designate where cigars are produced as well as when they are boxed, although sources at Habanos S.A., the global marketing organization for Cuban cigars, claim the code will be changed this year.
Even if the code is modified, you can still be assured that a handful of cigars are exclusively produced at José Martí. These are "must have at any cost" cigars by anyone's standards. They include: the corona grande Montecristo A (9 1/4 inches by 47 ring gauge); the pyramid or torpedo trio--Montecristo No. 2 , Diplomaticos No. 2 and Upmann No. 2 (all 6 1/8 by 52); the corona gorda H. Upmann Magnum (5 1/2 by 46); and the classic Churchill Upmann Monarch/Sir Winston (7 by 47). In past tasting reports, Cigar Aficionado has respectively scored the first five cigars: 95, 94, 92, 89 and 88.
José Martí also makes the entire range of Montecristos, Diplomaticos and handmade H. Upmanns as well as Cohiba Robustos, Esplendidos and Siglos. The majority of its production is of cigars made by other factories as well. For instance, José Martí manufactures the ubiquitous petit corona Montecristo No. 4 (5 by 42) that is made by nearly all of Cuba's export factories. "Monty 4" represents nearly half of all Cuban cigars sold around the world. It is the most smoked cigar in Spain and France, Cuba's two largest export markets for cigars.
Since the government took control of the factories beginning in 1959, the state tobacco monopoly has assigned certain factories to oversee the production of particular brands. For instance, José Martí has the mind-boggling job of trying to standardize the production of Montecristos, a task the factory's manager admits is only partially realized. "We can be sure that our formulas for blends are followed very closely at the various factories that make Montecristo," says Molina, 56, as he puffs on a rejected Montecristo No. 4 taken from the rolling tables. "However, we can't be sure of the quality of the rolling or the finishing of the cigars. That's up to each factory."
This is why, he adds, his factory can produce better Cohibas than others, including the brand's mother factory, El Laguito, and Partagas, which also make Cohiba Robustos, Esplendidos and the Siglo range. "It all comes down to the quality of your rollers," says Molina. "We have rollers who specialize in certain sizes. So they really are experts. Their rolling is the very best."
Molina claims that no other factory has as many quality rollers as José Martí. He employs nearly 50 rollers who are rated grade seven, the highest rating a cigar roller can possess in Cuba. This means he or she can make virtually any cigar under production, including the very difficult pyramid-shaped Montecristo and Upmann No. 2s. The only exception may be the gigantic Montecristo A, which is made by only three rollers who possess the hands and strength to roll such large cigars. The annual production of the "Monte A" at José Martí is about 15,000.
According to Molina, his factory makes nearly 2 million rare, or "grade seven" cigars as he calls them, a year--6,000 to 7,000 a day, about 1,000 Churchills, 4,800 No. 2s, 150 Monte As and 300 lonsdale sizes. Molina said that Cuba's other factories pale by comparison, with the Partagas factory making about half a million grade seven cigars a year, La Corona about 300,000 and Romeo y Julieta about 200,000.
"It's all a question of obtaining the best tobacco, then being as rigorous as possible with your selection of tobacco and finally utilizing the very best rollers," he says. "Our quality control department decides on what we should use, and its decisions are based on incredibly stringent criteria."
Molina, who has more than 300 employees overall, hopes to boost production over the next few years, especially in view of this year's bountiful tobacco harvest in the prime growing regions of the island. "We should make about 6.5 million cigars this year, and if our tobacco crop levels continue to increase, then we should be at about 7.5 million cigars by the end of 1997," he says optimistically. "If we have the raw material, we might even make 8 million cigars in 1998."
Molina claims that his factory not only has an abundance of top rollers, but that it "works the tobacco differently," so even their non-exclusive cigars will be the best possible quality. "We make a selection of the binder by size and shape as well as the wrapper," he says. "The blend [filler] may be the same as at other factories for certain cigars such as Cohiba. We can't differ from that, but we can improve the quality of the wrapper and binder, and that is what we do. Don't forget that the wrapper may account for about 10 percent [of the total tobacco] of a cigar. It doesn't make a difference in the strength of the cigar but it affects the aromas and flavors of a cigar."
José Martí has a long tradition of fine-tuning its wrappers and binders. Even before the Revolution, the factory always tried to age and select its tobacco to obtain the best possible quality. Some of the old cedar-lined aging rooms are still in use. "We always spent a lot of time selecting and aging our tobacco," says Benjamin Menendez, now senior vice president of premium special projects for Connecticut-based General Cigar, which produces cigars in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. Menendez's family owned and operated H. Upmann until just after the Revolution, when they fled Cuba. "We used to devote a large part of the ground floor to aging and fermenting wrappers, binders and filler," he recalls. "This gave us the best quality tobacco possible."
Adds Molina: "It is a long tradition. Tobacco needs the aging. I have been in the tobacco business for a long time, and I understand that certain traditions must be maintained. Why change things if they already work very well?"
Nonetheless, the H. Upmann/José Martí factory is a relative newcomer to the Havana cigar scene; the Menendez family established the building as a cigar factory in 1944, while most of the other key factories were created during the last century. But legends can be quickly made in cigars, especially under the able hands of a great tobacco family such as the Menendezes and now Benito Molina.
Molina doesn't like to openly boast about the quality of the cigars of his factory. However, he's more than happy to point out other aficionados' enthusiasm for José Martí. "Who am I to say that I have the best factory in Havana?" he says with a giant grin and a smoldering cigar pinched between his teeth. "All I can say is that this year's two recipients of the Habanos Man of the Year award [Pedro Perez, former head of Tabacalera S.A., Spain's tobacco monopoly, and Marvin Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado] chose José Martí as their preferred factory. They both receive a box of cigars from here every year for the rest of their lives. Our cigars have to be the very best quality."