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The Woman Behind Cohiba

Cuba's First Female Cigar Factory Manager, Emilia Tamayo, Is Making Changes at El Laguito, Maker of Cohibas
| By James Suckling | From Matt Dillon, Spring 96

Beaming with confidence, Emilia Tamayo is more than pleased about being named Cuba's first female cigar factory manager. Not only does she believe her achievement means much to the advancement of women in Cuba, but she also expects to improve the quality of the cigars from her factory, El Laguito, home of Cohiba.

A handsome, jovial woman, the 46-year-old mother of one became the director of Havana's most famous factory early last year, after working as an administrator there since 1975. Her husband, Jorge Tizon Delgado, also works at the factory, in leaf processing. "We are making better cigars now," Tamayo says proudly, sitting in her bright office one warm fall afternoon in Miramar, a suburb of Havana. "The mood of the workers was down a bit for a few years. Now the spirit is better. They are making more cigars and we have helped the workers understand the necessity for quality."

Looking at her office, the changes are more than evident. Freshly painted and bright with lovely paintings and drawings on the walls, the once dark and dank office has undergone a metamorphosis. There's a positive ambiance everywhere in the factory, from the fresh coat of paint to the smiles on the workers' faces. "I have initiated lots of new things here," she says with a slightly triumphant smile. "But if you mean this office and the new paint in the factory, well, don't forget that I am a woman and I like my surroundings to be beautiful."

The El Laguito factory has been producing Cohiba cigars since the late 1960s (it began in 1961 as a cigar rolling school). The sprawling neoclassical building has long since stood for the best in fine hand-rolled Havana cigars. It's no wonder that the late doyen of cigars, Zino Davidoff, insisted that El Laguito be the source for his own cigars for nearly two decades. He was so enamored with the place that he went as far as saying that it was "the Davidoff factory" in most of his promotional literature.

Although the now retired Eduardo Rivera Irizarri, El Laguito director during the 1960s, was instrumental in developing Cohiba, Avelino Lara, 74, was always credited for nurturing the El Laguito factory to its showpiece status. Lara was the director of El Laguito for more than two decades, and his knowledge of tobacco and cigar rolling is legendary in the industry. Until his retirement last year, he set the tone for the brand, proclaiming that "Cohiba is the selection of the selection." His assistant director, Rafael Guerra, who left the factory last year, was also important in promoting the factory in recent years.

"Lara is a great man, and I don't have his knowledge of tobacco or cigars, but I have got other managerial skills," Tamayo says reassuringly. "I am a bit younger than Lara, and obviously I have got a different level of energy, vitality."

Three sizes of cigars have always been made at the factory. They are the long, elegant cigars Cohiba and Davidoff built their reputations on. The workers call them the No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3, but they are better known as the Lancero (38 ring gauge by 7.5"), Corona Especial (38 by 6") and Panatela (26 by 4.5"). Another slender cigar was introduced about 10 years ago, the Exquisito (36 by 5"), which remains Tamayo's favorite of the four. "I smoke two a day, one after lunch and the other after dinner," she says.

A limited amount of the Montecristo Especial and Montecristo Especial No. 2--the same sizes as the Lancero and Corona Especial, respectively--is also made at El Laguito, as well as the legendary Trinidad. The latter is the most sought-after cigar from Havana today, reserved for diplomatic gifts--although this may change, according to sources at Habanos S.A., the world distributor for premium Havana cigars. In the past, only a few dozen boxes of Trinidad (100 cigars in each) have been produced at the factory each month. Its cedar box now has a newly designed gold label with three intertwined "T" s.

With about 85 rollers, El Laguito annually produces around 2 million cigars. Another 1 to 1.5 million Cohibas--the Robusto (50 by 5") and the Esplendidos (47 by 7")--are produced each year outside of El Laguito, principally at the H. Upmann, Partagas and La Corona factories. Another 1 million Cohibas in the Siglo range (five sizes--40 by 4", 42 by 5", 42 by 6", 46 by 6" and 43 by 6 3/4") are made at La Corona factory. They are all supposedly made under the supervision of technicians from El Laguito, who also supply the tobacco for the blends to each factory.

Unfortunately, in recent years the quality of Cohiba has not been up to par in many cases. Particularly bad have been the Lanceros, which have often been tightly rolled and difficult to smoke. Tamayo says she has improved the situation through more stringent quality controls at the factory. Workers who roll Lanceros are now checked several times a day to make sure their cigars are not over a specified weight. This assures that the cigars have not been overfilled, which makes them heavy and often difficult to draw.

Counterfeits are another problem with Lanceros, says Tamayo, but it is something she has little control over. "These phony cigars are made in mass and it has really affected the prestige of the brand," she says. "This is what has affected the quality of Lanceros the most. But some of the blame lies on the consumer. A person who knows cigars must know that you can't buy a box of Lanceros for $5 or $10. That's like a Christian Dior dress which costs $1,000 selling for $10. You know something is wrong."

Another problem with Cohiba has been the inconsistency in the Robustos and Esplendidos. The latter have sometimes been rolled too tightly and the former have shown minor differences in flavor and style according to where they have been produced. Tamayo agrees to some degree with these observations, and she plans to take total control of the production of all Esplendidos and Robustos. "Perhaps it is slightly petulant to say, but I think that we can do better [with these larger cigars]," she says firmly. "It's logical. It makes sense. This is the home of Cohiba and Cohiba is mine."

Tamayo planned to train a handful of rollers at El Laguito beginning last December to roll the large cigars. In addition, she hopes in the near future to build an annex to the factory that would be used exclusively for the production of Esplendidos and Robustos. "I have lots of ideas for my factory," she says. "I want it to be all the things I have dreamed about. I would even like to have a small tobacco plantation here and a curing barn for tourists to come and visit and to better understand the process of cigar production."

Another major change at El Laguito has been the introduction of male cigar rollers. Since the beginning, the factory was reserved for women. In fact, the government used it as an example of how women had moved into work areas traditionally dominated by men. "But the women in my factory wanted to work with men," she says. "Also, the men wanted to make Cohiba. I don't see much difference between men and women in rolling. They both can make excellent cigars."

With such innovations, are there any other traditions Tamayo plans to change at El Laguito? "The ones that need to be changed," she says. "Life always needs to be changed."

Even with all the innovations, apparently her personal life hasn't changed much. She and her husband of 25 years, Jorge Tizon Delgado, 54, have always had the same arrangement, both at home and at the office. "My husband is used to being directed at the office and at home," she says with a laugh. "I guess some things never change after all."

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