Ernesto Lopez, the manager of the Partagas factory in Havana, gazed across the smoke-filled ballroom of the Meliá Cohiba hotel and grinned contentedly. The room was filled with 300 cigar aficionados from all over the world, attending a gala dinner at Havana's newest and finest hotel to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his factory and cigar brand.
Wearing smart suits, elegant dresses and the occasional dinner jacket, everyone in the room puffed on fine handmade cigars, drank Champagne and Bordeaux and ate paté and lobster. An extravagant event by anyone's standards, Lopez must have found it a relief from the daily hardships and economic realities just outside the hotel's front doors.
However, Lopez didn't find the bacchanalian atmosphere of the event out of place. He was elated that so many people from so many places--including about 30 Americans--came to his country last September to celebrate the anniversary. "All this is a great honor for me, my workers and my country," said the boyish Lopez, 37, who has run the Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas for the past eight years.
Minutes later, Lopez watched with a batallion of journalists as the classy event unfolded into a circus-like atmosphere never before seen in Havana. The guests roared in delight as a handful of their colleagues bid tens of thousands of dollars for a small selection of commemorative cigars made specially for the event. The top bid of $67,000 was made by Seita, the French tobacco monopoly, for a cedar chest humidor packed with 150 of the special-edition Partagas.
The cigars, bearing the red-and-gold labels denoting the 150th anniversary of Partagas, had been made a few weeks before by three of the factory's top cigar rollers, some who have worked for Partagas for more than four decades. The chest itself had been signed by Fidel Castro. It was the last of 150 numbered humidors made by Partagas to commemorate its birthday and the only one signed by Cuba's leader. The remaining chests are to be sold through major retailers around the world for about $8,000 to $10,000 each.
The obvious person missing from the event was Ramon Cifuentes, 87, a member of the clan that controlled the Partagas factory until the early 1960s and an international figure in the cigar world. Like other owners of Havana's top cigar factories, Cifuentes fled his country and began making cigars elsewhere after the Cuban government took control of his business. Although he did not attend the Havana event, Cifuentes celebrated the Partagas milestone a few weeks earlier in Orlando, Florida, under the auspices of General Cigar Co., the U.S. firm that produces Partagas in the Dominican Republic and distributes the cigars in the United States. Except for a small change in the gold-and-red band where the word "Habana" has been replaced with "1845," it is difficult to notice the difference between a Dominican Partagas and a Cuban one.
For the 150th birthday of Partagas, General Cigar invited a group of U.S. cigar retailers to Universal Studios Florida in Orlando (site of this year's Retail Tobacco Dealers of America convention) to watch a '50s musical skit and video display on a private sound stage as they ate steak and drank California wine. After dinner, Edgar Cullman Jr., whose family owns General Cigar, told the group that "we've heard that there is a celebration in Havana to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Partagas, but I can assure you that they are not going to have as much fun as we have had tonight."
Like everyone else at the Florida party, Cullman was casual and relaxed. He wore jeans, a button-down shirt and blue blazer, not forgetting his Blues Brothers-style Ray-Ban sunglasses and hat. This was not a fussy, ceremonial occasion. It was a relaxing way to celebrate the success of a handmade cigar brand that continues to be one of the most popular in America. After his brief speech, Cullman and his few hundred guests spent the remainder of the evening enjoying the amusement park, closed to all but General Cigar's guests.
The dissimilar styles of the two parties couldn't have better underlined the differences in Partagas cigars from both countries. The original Partagas is an icon of fine Cuban handmade cigars. One of the oldest cigar brands in the world, it has been meticulously produced in the same factory in Cuba, in virtually the same way, for 150 years. Partagas in the Dominican Republic, by comparison, is a relatively new creation. First made in 1978 in Jamaica and a year later moved to the Dominican Republic, the brand serves as a benchmark for premium cigars around the world. In fact, the Cubans could learn a thing or two about quality control and manufacturing systems from the General Cigar factory in Santiago.
Walking through the factory in Santiago's free trade zone, you quickly get the feeling that nothing is spared to produce the best quality cigars--which is why some of the neighboring cigar producers call General Cigar Dominicana "Disneyland," due to its seemingly endless supply of resources. The factory's cleanliness reminds visitors of an electronics or pharmaceuticals plant. Everything seems to be in the right place and in perfect condition, from the cigar rollers' finely polished wooden desks to the museum-quality century-old manual printing presses for the box labels.
"I am given the best materials in the industry, and I have to make the best cigars in the industry," says Edward Butler, 41, the manager of the factory. Energetic and thorough, Butler has been running the factory for almost two years and continues to fine-tune the production. "I have tried various things since I have been here," says Butler. "But in the end, it is a matter of pride and motivation. You essentially can't change how a handmade cigar is made. The people who make cigars are the most important thing [next to the actual tobacco]."
General Cigar Dominicana produces about 12 million cigars a year--about 8 million Partagas and 4 million Macanudos. (The majority of Macanudos, about 12 million a year, are still made in General's factory in Jamaica.) The 70,000-square-foot factory in Santiago employs about 600 people, with about 200 of them making the cigars. An adjacent tobacco processing and shipping warehouse run by General's parent company, Culbro, encompasses another 130,000 square feet and has another 600 or so employees.
Production has doubled at the factory in the past year, Butler says, mostly due to incentives for the rollers and streamlining a few processes. "But we do not want to pray to the god of speed and lose quality," emphasizes Butler. "We are not going to fall into the trap of just making the most cigars we can. At one time, the soldier concept was in here, where people felt that they were not to think but simply make cigars. Now, people take responsibility for what they do. We have empowered the people."
If the recently produced Partagas 150 Signature Series is any indication of the new cigars coming out of General Cigar Dominicana, Butler and his co-workers are certainly on a very good roll. These are some of the most exciting cigars to come out of the Dominican Republic in a long time. From their 18-year-old Cameroon wrappers to their fabulous cedar cabinet packaging, the Partagas 150s are already a collector's item.
The cigars come in eight sizes, ranging from a 4 1/2" by 38 ring gauge robusto to a 7" by 52 ring gauge Don Ramon. They range in price from $5.50 to $12. Only 1 million of these cigars will be made. The largest production of the range is the 6 3/4" by 43 ring gauge Partagas A, with 300,000 cigars; the smallest number produced is the Don Ramon, with a mere 10,000 made.
"We have done everything possible to produce a great cigar," says Benjamin Menendez, 57, a senior vice president at General Cigar and one of the most knowledgeable cigar men around. He and his family owned the H. Upmann factory in Havana before the Cuban Revolution. "The blend of the Signature Series is virtually the same as our normal Partagas, except for the special Cameroon wrapper. Don't forget the wrapper can account for a large part of a cigar's taste."
If you can't find one of the Partagas 150 Signature Series cigars, look for some of the top mainstay shapes, particularly the Partagas No. 10. At 7 1/2" by 49 ring gauge, the No. 10 falls just between a traditional double corona and a Churchill and consistently delivers very good to outstanding quality. It's a medium-bodied smoke with plenty of coffee, nutty character and a long aftertaste. It sells for about $4. Menendez describes the taste of Partagas as "rich" and "full-bodied." He regularly tastes all the cigars in the Partagas range with a small panel of colleagues to assure that style and flavor are maintained. "The idea was always that we wanted to make a cigar as close as possible to the Cuban equivalent," says Menendez. "And it is the best cigar possible for where it comes from. I am very proud of the quality."
Back in Havana, Lopez is equally delighted with the quality of the cigars coming out of his factory at 520 Calle Industria, a stone's throw from the capitol building and just behind Menendez's former factory, H. Upmann. "Partagas has always made great cigars," says Lopez. "And we have maintained the highest quality." Despite the difficult tobacco harvests of the past four or so years, Lopez believes that his factory has been one of the leading export factories in Cuba. Partagas cigars such as the double corona-sized Lusitania (7" by 49 ring gauge), the 8-9-8 (6 11/16" by 43) and robusto-sized Series D No. 4 (4 7/8" by 50) are classics. They all show the typical Partagas strength with forward tobacco flavors and a hint of earthy spiciness.
Annual production at the Havana Partagas factory--also known as the Francisco Perez German factory--totals just over 4 million cigars. The Partagas brand represents just under half of that, with Cohiba taking another 25 percent and the remainder divided among the brands of Bolivar, Ramon Allones, La Gloria Cubana and a few others. "We basically make all the brands that the Cifuentes family used to make here, plus Cohiba and a few pyramid-shaped cigars," says Lopez. "We have the capacity to make 8 million cigars here. We are only limited at the moment by the tobacco harvests, which have been small in recent years. The newest harvest was better, so, we should have a larger production next year, maybe reaching 5 million cigars."
Although 2 million Partagas are made in its namesake factory, says Lopez, total production of the brand is much larger. Partagas is Cuba's second largest brand, after Montecristo, with nearly 10 million cigars sold with its red-and-gold band. Cigars produced within the Partagas factory have a stamp "FPG" on the bottom of the boxes. What isn't produced in his factory is farmed out to others. For instance, the La Corona factory, also in Havana, produces a large amount of machine-made cigars. Among them are the beautiful Partagas Presidente perfecto and the ubiquitous demitasse Partagas Chicos. Most machine-made Cuban cigars are wrapped in cellophane before being boxed, which is one way to tell the difference from a handmade one. "We still oversee the production of Partagas cigars in other factories," says Lopez. "Plus, we send them the raw materials to make the cigars, which assures some consistency in the blend."
Partagas is the most diverse brand of all Cuban cigars, according to Lopez. It encompasses 95 vitolas, or shapes, although only 32 are currently being produced. The largest production Partagas cigar currently made at his factory is the robusto Series D No. 4, which should number about 350,000 cigars this year. Second is the handmade demitasse Chicos (La Corona makes the machine-made ones) at about 255,000, with the double corona Lusitania following with about 78,000. The famous Partagas 8-9-8 is next with about 60,000. Working with so many brands and sizes is admittedly a headache for Lopez, which is why he established a tasting panel of 12 people to help observe and maintain the consistency of the various blends they use. "They taste the cigars everyday," says Lopez. "Before I came we didn't have this panel, and I think it has made a big difference in keeping up the quality."
The five-story, brown and beige Partagas factory has changed very little over the years. The tobacco processing areas, rolling galleries and aging rooms look exactly the same as they have for decades. Although the building was renovated about five years ago, it looks slightly decrepit. The only changes are the many new faces now working there, although quite a few workers have been there for decades. "We have a very young management team," says Lopez. "We are young but have the experience. About 70 percent of the people here are under 30 years old."
Nonetheless, one of the "old-timers" and the factory's leading roller, Orlando Ortega, 61, says they have never made better cigars at the factory than today. "There is more harmony now at the factory," he says. Ortega was hired by the Cifuentes family in 1954. "The workers have no fear of the owners, and we have a say in what we do. It was good then but it is even better now."
"The factory was obviously very good under the control of a family," adds Lopez, "and we have tried to maintain that when things changed after the Revolution. But you must remember that Partagas is more than just a brand or a factory. It is a part of the national treasure."
The origins of Partagas trace back to 1827 when Jaime Partagas began making cigars in a small shop in Havana. Originally from Spain's Catalonia region, Partagas came to Cuba for the tobacco processing business and soon couldn't resist the temptation of making his own cigars. Many small cigar shops were started at the time due to a reduction of taxes on cigar manufacturing and a dismissal of stringent trade union regulations. Partagas began buying various tobacco plantations in the Vuelta Abajo and Semi Vuelta regions and building large stocks of tobacco--a move that helped him through a horrific hurricane in 1844 that wiped out many growers.
After amassing a fortune through cigars and tobacco, Partagas in 1845 built the Royal Partagas Cigar Factory (Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagas). He was revered by his workers and he believed that keeping them content was the only way to maintain output and quality. He was one of the few factory owners to allow daily readings of newspapers, novels and other literature to the rollers--a practice now widely in use.
The death of Jaime Partagas in 1861 came as a shock to the workers and the cigar industry at large. It was somewhat unclear how it happened, although some say that he was murdered while visiting one of his plantations in the Vuelta Abajo. Jaime's son, Jose, took over, but lacked his father's business acumen. He sold the business to Jose Bances, a well-known industrialist and part of a strong banking family in Havana. By the turn of the century, however, Bances was in bad financial shape and had to sell most of his tobacco interests. In 1900, the Partagas factory was sold to Ramon Cifuentes Llano and Jose Fernandez. At the time, the factory was making 18 million to 20 million cigars year.
Originally from Spain, the Cifuentes were as close to nobility as anyone could be in Cuba. "I remember dealing with the Cifuentes before the Revolution," says one veteran English tobacco merchant. "All the members of the family were proud and aristocratic." The Cifuentes family took an extremely active role in the business and became known for its stern management practices and strict rules of production. For instance, the Cifuentes closed the Partagas factory for a short time during labor unrest in Havana in the 1930s, moving its cigar production to the town of Beujucal, where cheap, non-union workers could be found.
Their reign, however, came to a quick end in September 1960. "It just happened one day," Ramon Cifuentes said during an interview a few years ago. "They arrived at our door and said: 'We're here to intervene the company.' They didn't allow me to take anything from there." All the factories were taken over that same day as the government claimed that factory owners' "self-centered attitudes" were contrary to the interests of the national economy. The government argued that the owners were in effect abandoning their businesses, and were creating debts, unemployment and a reduction in the supply of Cuban cigars in foreign markets. "We really were given no choice," said Cifuentes, now retired in Madrid. "They even asked me to run all the factories for them, but I said no. I couldn't agree with the whole thing."
Cifuentes left Cuba. He first moved to New York; apparently he was stretched financially, since all of his investments outside of Cuba had been in Mexico, and he couldn't get to the money due to economic restrictions there. His wife even had to work in Bloomingdales' crystal department to help make ends meet. His two brothers were better off since their money had been in Spain. So, inevitably, Ramon, with his reputation as a tobacco man, began selling Connecticut wrapper tobacco to various markets in Europe.
It was during this time in the early 1960s that Cifuentes began working for General Cigar. The Dominican Partagas was not launched until the late 1970s because it took that long for U.S. courts to decide that Cifuentes was the rightful owner of the brand in America and the Dominican Republic. For the rest of the world, Cuba retains control of the brand, either directly or through its agents.
"I can't change what happened because of the Revolution, but I would love to spend some time with Ramon Cifuentes in this factory," says Ernesto Lopez, when asked about the changes in ownership. "He has such great experience. I could learn so much from a man like him, although I am sure he could learn a few things from me. I really think that if he was in the factory now, he would be very happy with it. I think that we have honored what the Cifuentes family has done here and all the other families before it."
At that moment, Lopez seems to lose his concentration. He looks down for a moment, thinking. A few seconds later he looks up and says: "I would love to give Don Cifuentes some of our commemorative 150th anniversary cigars. I would really love that, and I am sure many of the workers here would have the same feelings."
A gift of six tapered double corona cigars were given to Nicolas Freeman, chairman of Hunters & Frankau, the agent in the United Kingdom for all Cuban cigars, and a longtime friend of the Cifuentes family. "What a beautiful idea," Freeman says, taking the cigars in Havana to deliver to Cifuentes in Madrid. "I am sure Cifuentes will be very touched by the gesture."