Frank Llaneza: 1920—2010

Mar 19, 2010 | By David Savona
Frank Llaneza: 1920—2010
Llaneza, circa 1999.

Frank Llaneza, one of the pioneers of the premium cigar business, died yesterday, two weeks after his 90th birthday. He spent his entire adult life working around cigars and fine tobacco.

Llaneza was the former president of Villazon & Co., the makers of Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey cigars, and was still active in the cigar business at the time of his death, making new cigar blends and traveling frequently to Nicaragua. He most recently created cigar blends for Altadis U.S.A. Inc., including Siglo and Frank Llaneza 1961, both of which are made in Nicaragua.

Llaneza forged new ground in the cigar business throughout his life. He was one of the trendsetters in the use of Ecuador Sumatra wrapper, one of the first men to make premium cigars in Honduras, and one of the early advocates of making bold, flavorful cigar blends with non-Cuban tobacco.

"He was the most honorable and humble guy in this business," said John Oliva Jr. of Oliva Tobacco Co., the Tampa, Florida, leaf broker and tobacco grower. "He was truly one of the last guys in this business that you could do a deal with on a handshake."

"Frank was one of the first people I met in the industry and his knowledge and understanding of cigars was unparalleled," said Gordon Mott, the executive editor of Cigar Aficionado. "He helped me a lot learning about the industry."

"When I first met Frank over 28 years ago, I noticed he used the word 'honorable' in describing people for whom he had obvious respect," said Norman F. Sharp, president of the Cigar Association of America. "To me, he came to represent the living embodiment of an honorable man."

Llaneza worked in the cigar industry since the age of 15. "I used to go after school to Schwab Davis [a large cigar factory in Tampa at the time] and work in the packing room, punching holes in the heads of cigars," Llaneza told Cigar Aficionado in 1999. He spent many years in Cuba, and was in Cuba in 1959 when Fidel Castro rose to power. After the Cuban Revolution, his work was instrumental in getting Cuban seeds spread around Central America. His labors—conducted in faraway lands that were far less forgiving than they are today—was key to the development of the non-Cuban cigar industry.

"Angel Oliva [Sr.] and I took the first Cuban-seed tobaccos to Jalapa in Nicaragua in 1954," Llaneza told Cigar Aficionado in 1999. "And, by the end of the 1950s, he took some of the tobacco from Nicaragua back to Cuba to some of the farmers there so they could make cigars with it and smoke it just to see the possibilities of tobacco from Nicaragua. It was primitive in Jalapa back in those days. You couldn't get there. There was no road. You had to cross two rivers and there were no bridges. But after that, Mr. Oliva bought farms all over that area and built barns. We were finally able to use that tobacco as we needed it after we ran out of Cuban tobacco. At the time, there wasn't anything that even resembled Cuban tobacco anywhere else in the world."

Llaneza is survived by his wife, Diana, daughters Carol-Jean, Mary Frances, Ruth and Lynette, and many grandchildren.

To read Llaneza's Q&A with Cigar Aficionado's Gordon Mott, click here.