Cigar Aficionado

Remembering Alfons

I opened one of the cabinet humidors in the office this morning, spied a box of cigars in a corner, and couldn’t help feeling a bit sad. It’s a box of Alfons Mayer cigars, and I’ve had them since 2005.

Alfons Mayer was an outstanding tobacco man, one of the world’s best, and for years he was the tobacco buyer for General Cigar Co. Think of this for a moment—he bought all of the tobacco for a company making tens of millions of cigars every year. He lived on a plane, visited virtually every country that grows usable cigar tobacco and was a walking encyclopedia of tobacco knowledge.

Alfons died just over a year ago, in October 2006.

It’s my job to get close to people in the cigar and tobacco industry, and I know most of the players very, very well. I count many of them as friends. I’ve interviewed many of those people dozens of times. With Alfons, it was different. He was incredibly media shy, and he turned down my frequent requests for an interview. I later found out that he had been turning down requests to be interviewed by Cigar Aficionado even before I joined the company in 1995.

Still, I would call Alfons every now and then, getting a little insight here and some insight there. And I would usually end with a request for him to sit down so I could really hear his story. The game went on for years, until one day he said ‘yes.’ He invited me to his house in New Jersey.

I arrived on a brutally cold winter day. Alfons welcomed me with a broad smile. The photographers were there, finishing his photo shoot, and he seemed to be enjoying himself. He had a cigar in his mouth, and, as always, his shirt pocket was filled to nearly bursting with cigars at the ready. (His favorite was Canaria d’Oro, a brand no longer made by General, wrapped in his favorite leaf of tobacco, San Andres from Mexico.) He gave me a cigar, an Alfons Mayer Breakfast, and I lit up and we began to talk.

Boy did we talk. I knew Alfons would have a good story to tell, but I was amazed at his life’s journey, from living in Nazi-occupied Holland as a young man to his apprenticeship in Cuba and then to buying tobacco for General, taking epic trips to cigar countries far and wide. He was a great talker, and a man of great humor who would cackle loudly after a funny joke.

I spent hours with Alfons, and at the end of the interview he showed me around his incredibly cluttered office. Turns out we both rooted for the same football team, the New York Giants. He then went to a large cabinet humidor and brought out a box of Montecristo No. 1 cigars. From 1959. He opened the box and showed off the perfect forms of 25 absolutely drop-dead gorgeous cigars. He then removed two, and said we should sit down and have another smoke.

We lit the cigars and talked for another hour and a half. The Monte was absolutely brilliant, with a perfect burn, full draw and complex flavors that went on and on, and a long finish that never wanted to end. It was probably the best cigar I’ve ever smoked, and maybe ever will.

It came time to say goodbye, and I handed Alfons a couple of Cubans I had brought for him, a San Cristobal de la Habana El Morro and an H. Upmann Sir Winston. He thanked me, invited me back again soon, and I left.

A few days later I received a fax from Alphons. It was a detailed breakdown of each cigar, with guesses on the specific breakdown of the tobaccos inside. “Volado thinner leaf texture plus or minus 20 percent and 15 percent ligero, probably out of the area of Neiva and Zaza del Medio district…” he wrote on one. It was the work of a scientist who had knowledge of tobacco that few could equal.

The fax from Alfons.

Alfons called after the article came out, and he absolutely loved it. We chatted often, but I never did make it back to see him. I kept putting off the return visit for one reason or another: too many things going on, other stories to do, just not enough time. We never shared another smoke.

Read the Q&A if you get a chance, and share my sorrow that the cigar world no longer has one of its truly great players. And if there's something you've been putting off, maybe take a few moments and do it now, rather than saving it for another day.

"Wow, what it must have been like to sit down and actually smoke with someone teeming with tobacco knowledge like that. To be able to smoke a cigar, and tell you what is in it...amazing. Creating a perpetually new website and getting it off the ground took a tiny pinhole of knowledge compared to what he must have known about tobacco. Legend." —November 30, 2007 16:38 PM