Q&A: Talking Tobacco With Siegfried P. Maruschke, Jose Mendez & CO.

With the help and guidance of his father, Siegfried P. Maruschke runs Jose Mendez & Co., SRL., a major leaf broker located in Moca, in the Dominican Republic. The company has been around for more than 50 years and houses massive inventories of tobacco. It is also one of the main suppliers to Altadis U.S.A. Inc. The 43-year-old Maruschke might be a behind-the-scenes operator, but he's involved in every pre-industrial aspect of tobacco from growing to fermentation. Senior editor Gregory Mottola spoke to Maruschke about his family's history and the tobacco of the Dominican Republic.

MOTTOLA: How long have you and your family been leaf brokers?

MARUSCHKE: My family's history in tobacco dates back to the late 1800s and begins with my great-great-grandfather Don Santiago Ramos, a Spanish immigrant who ran a convenience store in Pinar del Río, Cuba. Farmers would pay for the goods they bought in his store with tobacco. This tobacco was then sold by Don Santiago to middlemen, who then sold it to the factories in Havana.

Q: And tobacco has been in your family ever since?

A: Yes. Don Santiago's tobacco inventory had grown so much that he was able to sell tobacco directly to the factories in Havana. His daughter Juana married Domingo Mendez, a Spanish immigrant. When Santiago passed away, Don Domingo took over the family business and expanded it by purchasing land and growing his own tobacco. Eventually Don Domingo moved his family to Havana and built a cigarette factory. Don Domingo's sons, the eldest of whom was my grandfather Jose "Don Pepe" Mendez, followed in their father's steps expanding the cigarette operation.

Q: Were cigarettes a successful business?

A: The factory became the largest cigarette factory in Cuba and their brand the best-selling cigarette brand in the country. As a result of the Cuban Revolution, the cigarette factory, farms and all the family's tobacco operations were expropriated by the government. In 1962, my grandfather and his family moved to the Dominican Republic and started buying and selling Dominican tobacco.

Q: And that's where the company started?

A: That's how Jose Mendez & Co. was born and how we started in Dominican Republic. My father, Siegfried Maruschke, joined the company in 1971 and, along with my mother, Mercedes, Don Pepe's daughter, still heads our company. Our volume of operations has steadily grown as the demand for Dominican tobacco has increased.

Q: What year did you personally enter the industry?

A: My love of tobacco started in my early childhood. I have fond memories of going to the tobacco fields, first with my grandfather and later with my uncle and my father. I started working on a regular basis in 1994, after completing my studies as an industrial engineer.

Q: Could you please explain your relationship with the tobacco growers of the Dominican Republic?

A: We have contracted farmers who either work their own land or leased land. We work very closely with them, as we have a team of agronomists who visit their farms regularly, supervising all aspects and development of the crop. We provide them with 100 percent of their production financing as well as seeds, fertilizer and the crop protective agents needed.

Q: Are the relationships close or just business?

A: We feel like a close family. I know each and every farmer by name. Most of our farmers are the descendants—sons or grandsons—of the original farmers who started growing tobacco with Don Pepe in the 1960s when he started here. This solid relationship has endured for more than 50 years.

Q: How many different types of tobacco did you have to work with when you started?

A: When I entered the industry, we worked with Dominican Piloto, Dominican San Vicente and Dominican Olor.

Q: What types of tobaccos do you grow, or have grown for you, today?

A: We grow a large amount of Piloto Cubano and also various Dominican types that are descendants of the original Cuban seeds brought from Cuba. We grow Criollo, Corojo, Havana [2000] and the different Olor types.

Q: Do you sell your tobacco to much of the cigar industry or to mostly Altadis?

A: Altadis U.S.A., of the Imperial Tobacco Group, has been a major and loyal customer since we started operations in the Dominican Republic in 1962. A significant percentage of our production goes to their factories. We've been working closely with Altadis U.S.A. for years and have a great relationship.

Q: Which cigar brands use your tobacco?

A: Although our customers don't discuss the composition of their blends with us, I believe most of Altadis U.S.A.'s premium brands that utilize Dominican tobaccos use our tobaccos, including some of their most iconic brands like Montecristo, Romeo y Julieta and H. Upmann.

Q: Can you explain what "Cuban seed" means and the difference between first- and second-generation Cuban seeds?

A: Cuban-seed tobacco is tobacco whose origin traces back to Cuba. First generation seeds are directly from their original country. Second-generation seeds are from subsequent crops grown in the host country but they have had time to better adapt to the new environment. First generation-seed tobaccos produce lower yields and are less resistant to diseases compared to those seeds from crops of native origin. The flavor, strength and aroma of a tobacco are different in every country and are not the result of first- or second-generation tobacco. They are the result of the biological interaction of soil, sun, temperature, humidity and agricultural practices.

Q: When did you first start to grow or sell Cuban-seed tobacco?

A: In the 1960s, when the seeds were brought from Cuba into the Dominican Republic.

Q: How do seeds migrate out of Cuba?

A: In those years, seeds were brought in balls of cotton, handkerchiefs, envelopes, matchboxes, inside the clothes in suitcases, or in every way you might think possible. My grandfather contributed to the development of a market for tobacco similar to Cuba's but grown in Dominican soil.

Q: You mentioned that you grow Corojo.

A: Corojo was for many years the standard for cigar wrapper tobacco. It was originally developed in Cuba. Corojo seeds were taken to other countries and, after adapting to the new environment, acquired a distinctive personality in every one of those countries. We grow Corojo tobacco in the Dominican Republic.

Q: What type of tobacco do you have/sell the most of?

A: We are among the main Piloto Cubano and Olor tobacco growers in the Dominican Republic. We work very closely with our customers and will also grow those tobaccos they may deem appropriate for their needs.

Q: What does it take to come up with a new tobacco varietal?

A: Developing new tobacco types requires a lot of time and dedication, and many crops. It is a lot of trial and error to develop a tobacco with a desired characteristic, appropriate yields and resistance to the different diseases. This is important work that I think will contribute to the future, keeping the market dynamic and cigar passion alive.