Part of the learning curve for newcomers to the cigar world is that even while they’ve diligently memorized names of classic Cuban cigars, when they see those brands displayed on a store shelf in the United States they are quite different animals made in a different location.
For almost every Cuban Montecristo cigar, there’s a counterpart that was made in the Dominican Republic. A doppelganger of sorts. For every Partagás made in Havana, there’s a Partagas made on the next island over in Santiago. And for every cigar roller making Romeo y Julieta with Cuban tobacco, there’s a roller making Romeos with everything from Indonesian wrappers to Nicaraguan fillers. The Cubans are shipped all over the world, except for the United States, where the non-Cubans are sold. These parallel brands exist because of the 1962 trade embargo outlawing Cuban cigars in the United States and—for the most part—because brand owners who had seen their companies nationalized by the Cuban Revolution felt they should have the right to their trademarks.
When Fidel Castro nationalized the cigar industry in 1961, the owners of each major cigar brand fled Cuba and started over elsewhere. More than a decade later a landmark legal decision (Menendez vs. Faber, Coe and Gregg) granted the original Cuban owners the right to sell non-Cuban versions of the brands they had lost in the U.S. But there were two major stipulations. First, the cigars couldn’t use Cuban tobacco anymore, because of the embargo. Second, parallel brands could only be sold in the United States.
Most of the popular U.S. cigar trademarks today are in the hands of major corporations. They were acquired through a series of negotiations, acquisitions and mergers. If anything, the story of the parallel brands is an interesting study of trademark law and how it applies to countries under a trade embargo—and each parallel brand does indeed have a story. Here are the histories of the major Cuban brands whose trademark names would eventually be reborn as mirror brands in the United States.
That fact that Montecristo is one of the foremost names in cigars—even nonsmokers know the name—dates back to the expertise of Alonso Menendez. A Spaniard with knowledge of tobacco, he made his name when he purchased Cuba’s Particulares factory in the 1930s. In 1935, he created Montecristo and an unforgettable logo to go with it: six rapiers forming a triangle and a fleur de lis in the middle (a motif still used today). The next year, Menendez picked up a partner, José Manuel “Pepe” Garcia, and formed Menendez, Garcia y Cia. The high-volume sales of Montecristo cigars allowed the company to acquire the H. Upmann factory (as well as the then-troubled brand). In just 20 years, Montecristo was an internationally recognized label.
Forced to turn it all over to the Castro regime after the Revolution, Menendez and Garcia became interested in creating and selling non-Cuban versions of Montecristo. They started with Montecruz, a spinoff of the Montecristo brand made in the Canary Islands. Their newly formed company was called Compania Insular Tabacalera S.A. (CIT). Montecruz contained no Cuban tobacco, but resembled Montecristos in both price and packaging. In a sense, Menendez and Garcia were copying themselves in almost every way, short of saying “Montecristo” on the box. However, in March 1972, Menendez fought in U.S. courts for the U.S. rights to the Montecristo name, taking on Faber, Coe and Gregg, the biggest importers of Cuban cigars into the United States, in Menendez vs. Faber, Coe and Gregg Inc. Menendez won. The case not only granted Menendez and Garcia the trademark rights to sell cigars under the Montecristo name in the United States, it also set a legal precedent for Cuban expatriates who had had their brands confiscated by the Castro regime.
The same year, Consolidated Cigar Corp. (at the time owned by Gulf + Western) decided that it wanted in. The large corporation bought a controlling interest in CIT. To better protect the trademarks, Consolidated and Garcia created a Netherlands Antilles company called Cuban Cigar Brands N.V. By 1975, the trademark was secured, but it would take a few years for the first non-Cuban Montecristos to reach the United States. They were made in the Canary Islands, then in the Dominican Republic.
By 2000, a series of mergers left Consolidated Cigar in the hands of Altadis U.S.A. Today, major resources are spent by Altadis to develop and promote its flagship Montecristo brand in the United States. A dozen versions of the non-Cuban Montecristo now exist. A few versions are made in Nicaragua, but most are produced in the Dominican Republic.
The creation and trajectory of H. Upmann is very similar to that of Montecristo, as they were eventually rolled in the same factory and owned by the same company before the Revolution.
H. Upmann was created in 1844 by banker and financier Hermann Upmann. The story goes that Upmann had the cigars made for preferred clients in what was intended to be a side project rather than a major business. Nevertheless, by the turn of the century, H. Upmann cigars became enormously popular, being made in more than 200 different sizes and selling some 25 million cigars per year—and sales were growing. That is, until 1922.
While America was experiencing its age of prosperity—and consuming a good portion of H. Upmann cigars—Upmann’s bank in Cuba went insolvent. The brand and factory ended up under the ownership of the English company J. Frankau & Co. Ltd. before the brand was finally rescued by Menendez, Garcia y Cia., which was seeing tremendous success with its Montecristo brand. It bought H. Upmann and moved production of Montecristo from the original Particulares factory to the expansive H. Upmann factory.
The commercial success of Montecristo allowed Menendez and Garcia to bring H. Upmann back to life and to reestablish it as one of Cuba’s preeminent brands before it became property of the Cuban government.
Subsequent to the Cuban nationalization of the cigar industry, Mendendez and Garcia successfully registered the H. Upmann trademark, along with Montecristo, for U.S. distribution. They produced H. Upmanns in the Canary Islands before selling the rights to Consolidated Cigar, which began to sell non-Cuban H. Upmanns in the U.S. in 1975. Consolidated eventually became part of Altadis U.S.A., which now makes H. Upmann cigars in both Honduras and the Dominican Republic.
Romeo Y Julieta
Founded in Cuba in 1875 by Inocencio Alvarez and José “Manin” Garcia, the Romeo y Julieta brand would not thrive until it was taken over by Rodriguez, Arguelles y Cia. One of the principals, José Rodriguez Fernandez, was especially driven to expand the brand. Known as Don Pepin, he aggressively promoted internationally. By 1910, the factory was producing more than 20 million cigars annually, most of which were going to the United States and England.
Don Pepin never saw Castro’s Revolution or the nationalization of his brands. His son, on the other hand, experienced the full brunt of Castro’s takeover. Stripped of his brand and company, Rodriguez fled to the U.S. where he met Wally Frank, owner of cigar distributor Hollco Rohr Inc.
“Mr. Frank was keeping the Romeo trademark alive in the U.S.A. for Mr. Rodriguez by making a few RyJs in our Kingston, New York, machine-made factory and selling them in interstate commerce,” says Brad Weinfeld, who was vice president of Hollco Rohr in the 1970s. Every year, Frank offered to buy the Romeo trademark, but, like many of the Cuban exiles, Rodriguez believed that Cuba would be opening up again soon, so every year, he declined.
“When Rodriguez passed in 1976, Mr. Frank went to Spain to meet with his widow and purchased the five trademarks. Romeo, Saint Luis Rey, Juan Lopez, Gispert and Quintero,” says Weinfeld.
In 1978, Manuel “Manolo” Quesada began to make the first handmade non-Cuban Romeo y Julietas at his MATASA factory in the Dominican Republic (a few were previously made by machine for interstate commerce to keep the U.S. trademark alive). The blend was typical of the time—Cameroon wrapper with Dominican filler. Quesada produced Romeos in small quantities until Hollco Rohr was acquired by tobacco giant Tabacalara S.A., in 1997. Two years later, Tabacalera merged with SEITA to form the mega-cigar company Altadis. Romeo y Julieta production was taken away from MATASA and moved to Tabacalera de Garcia, Altadis’s massive cigar factory in La Romana, Dominican Republic. It now comes in myriad varieties (made in both Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic) and today is the best-selling premium brand for Altadis.
Hoyo De Monterrey
Hoyo de Monterrey was named after a hole—a very special hole. The Hole of Monterrey—or Basin of Monterrey, if you want a more romantic translation—refers to a fertile plantation bought by tobacco grower José Gener in 1860. Located on a river’s edge in the Vuelta Abajo region of Cuba, it periodically flooded and collected sand and vegetal matter, which made for a fine, silky soil and remarkable tobacco. In 1865, Gener registered the Hoyo de Monterrey trademark. The brand’s cigars were said to contain tobacco from that magical lot.
Gener died in 1900 and the business was taken over by his daughter. In 1931, she sold the Hoyo and La Escepcion brands to Fernandez, Palicio y Cia., a partnership between Ramon Fernandez and Fernando Palicio. (It is not clear if they bought the Hoyo de Monterrey farm or had access to its tobacco.)
After the Revolution, Palicio found himself in Tampa, Florida where he sold the Hoyo trademark to Daniel Blumenthal, chairman of Villazon & Co. By 1965, Hoyos were being produced in Honduras by Frank Llaneza at the Villazon factory.
“Up to that point, [Palicio] hadn’t wanted to sell Hoyo de Monterrey because every day he had thought they were going back to Cuba tomorrow,” said Blumenthal in an interview with Cigar Aficionado before his death. “But he called me, and I went down to see him in Hialeah where we made a deal on Hoyo and Punch.”
Palicio sold his brands for almost $700,000. The first batches of Honduran-made Hoyos were blended with Cuban tobacco. Villazon had amassed a large amount of Cuban leaf before the embargo and blended it into the Hoyo brand up until the 1970s when the Cuban stocks finally ran out. It couldn’t legally advertise the tobacco’s origin on the boxes or anywhere else, but the blend spoke for itself and the brand took off almost immediately.
In 1997, General Cigar Co. purchased Villazon for $81.4 million and with it, the Hoyo de Monterrey brand. Today, the brand is still owned by General and offered in many varieties, most of which are made in Honduras.
Once the crown jewel of the premium Havana cigar trade, Partagás cigars were one of the most sought after smokes to come out of Cuba and perhaps the most highly regarded. Partagás & Co. was founded in 1845 by Jaime Partagas, a Spaniard once dubbed the “grandmaster of tobacco confection.”
After 50 years of operation, the company had amassed more medals of distinction from more expositions around the world than any other cigar brand at the time. What made the company unique was its lock on some of the most precious soil in Cuba’s Vuelta Abajo region. Partagás owned the plantations—nearly 30,000 acres—and was able to supply his factory with an almost unlimited source of prime leaf.
In the 1860s, Jaime Partagás was shot to death in one of his own tobacco fields. Thirty-two years later, the family sold the factory to banker José A. Bances, who then sold it to Ramon Cifuentes and José Fernandez of Cifuentes, Fernandez & Co.
On September 15, 1960, Cuban soldiers stormed the factory under orders of Fidel Castro. Cifuentes described the events of that day to Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado, in a 1991 interview.
“They took over the factory. They came inside, and said we’re here to [take over] the company. And they didn’t allow me to take anything from there,” said Cifuentes. The titanic brand of Partagás was nationalized, along with its precious plantations. In a strange twist, the government made Cifuentes an offer. They asked him to stay in Cuba and run all of Cuba’s factories. “They asked me to stay,” he said in 1991. “I said no.” He left Havana for the United States a few days later.
Instead of working for Castro, Cifuentes got a job working for Edgar Cullman Sr., president of Culbro Corp., at the time the parent company of General Cigar Co. For 10 years, Cullman offered to buy the Partagás trademark, but Cifuentes nursed the same dream of many displaced Cubans—that he’d soon be returning to his motherland, repatriated and ready to resume business.
Once Cifuentes accepted reality, he relented. In 1975, the Cifuentes family made a deal with General and the U.S. saw its first non-Cuban Partagas cigars in 1977.
“I heard two different stories about the contract,” said Benji Menendez, who made Montecristos and H. Upmanns for his father, Alonso, in Cuba before expatriating to the U.S. “One version said that Cifuentes got a certain amount of money for production and also on the sale of each cigar like a royalty. The other version said that it was an outright purchase. I’m not sure which one was true, but General owns it now.” It turns out both were true. Initially, it was not an outright purchase and a royalty was paid, but after a period of time General bought Cifuentes out.
Either way, who better to make the new Partagas cigar than Ramón Cifuentes himself? They were first produced in Jamaica under the supervision of Cifuentes and later in the Dominican Republic with Menendez. Together they helped to acclimate the U.S. to a new type of Partagas, one made in the Dominican Republic with Cameroon wrappers and Dominican fillers. (Unlike the Cuban version, the non-Cuban Partagas does not carry an accent in its brand name.) Partagas remains a major brand for General today, and along with the original style that bears a Cameroon wrapper, there are several other newer varieties.
Facts behind the Punch brand are a bit nebulous. It was registered in 1840 by someone named Stockman and named after the traditional Punch and Judy puppet shows. Ownership changed a few times before 1884 when Punch was owned by Manuel Lopez Fernandez. (The name Manuel Lopez appeared on Punch labels for quite some time, even after the Revolution.) After the stock market crashed in 1929, Punch was acquired by Fernandez, Palicio y Cia., makers of Hoyo de Monterrey and La Escepcion.
Over time, Punch cigars gained a large customer base in England based on the country’s appetite for Cuban cigars and cultural appreciation for the Punch puppet character. Succumbing to the inevitable, Fernando Palicio fled to the U.S. after Cuba’s mass nationalization, bringing with him the U.S. rights to the Punch trademark. He grudgingly sold the Punch trademark (along with Hoyo de Monterrey, see above) to Llaneza and Blumenthal of Villazon, who registered the Punch brand in 1965.
Like Hoyo de Monterrey, Punches were briefly made in Tampa before production was moved to Honduras. The cigars were originally made with both Cuban and Honduran tobacco. The Cuban leaf was slowly phased out over the course of a few years, but Punch gained a following in the United States among fans of stronger cigars. In 1997, General Cigar acquired Villazon, and with it, the Punch brand. Today General makes most of its Punch cigars in Honduras.
La Gloria Cubana
First registered in 1885, the La Gloria Cubana brand had little recognition before 1905 when José F. Rocha & Co. purchased it. Rocha also owned the Bolivar brand. In 1954, following Jose Rocha’s death, his family sold La Gloria and Bolivar to the Cifuentes family and production was moved to the Partagás factory under the supervision of Ramon Cifuentes. His operation came to a halt on September 15, 1960 when Castro’s soldiers marched into the factory and seized the firm as well as its assets.
In the shadow of Partagás and even Bolivar was the small La Gloria Cubana brand. According to Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, his father bought the rights to La Gloria in Cuba when he owned the El Credito factory (which he bought in 1948), though he never produced La Gloria Cubana brand cigars until coming to the U.S.
By the 1960s, Perez-Carrillo’s father reopened the El Credito factory in Miami. He started producing La Glorias on a very limited basis in 1974. “It wasn’t until the 1980s that I started using all the original Cuban art to help market the cigars,” says Perez-Carrillo about the brand his father brought to America. The Miami-made boutique cigars gained a local following at first but a high rating for its Wavell in this magazine gave La Gloria Cubana its boost to national fame. To meet demand, Perez-Carrillo moved production to the Dominican Republic in 1996. The brand’s growth got the attention of General Cigar, which purchased La Gloria in 1999. Today, the cigars are made in the General Cigar Dominicana factory and have an extremely loyal U.S. following.
Founded by José Fernandez Rocha in the early 1900s, Bolivars were produced and sold under his company J.F. Rocha y Cia. The British tobacco merchants Walters & Co. bankrolled the factory and also distributed the brand in England. This accounts for England and Europe being its primary market. By 1920, Bolivar made inroads in the U.S. thanks to distributor A. J. Billin & Co., though not very much is known about this company.
A portrait of the revolutionary Simón Bolivar appeared on the box, but the bands were much more understated, showing a gilded crest. That changed after Rocha’s death. In 1954, his family sold the brand to Cifuentes y Cia, known for their strong Partagás brand. No stranger to producing powerful smokes, Cifuentes produced some full-bodied Bolivars in its Partagás factory. At the same time, the bands were changed from a generic crest to include the Bolivar portrait.
Bolivars were enjoying consistent popularity in the years leading up to the Revolution. When Ramón Cifuentes came to the U.S., he worked for General Cigar and eventually sold the Bolivar trademark to General, which registered it in 1983. By the mid ’90s, General was making just enough Bolivars to keep the trademark alive, but not enough for full commercial production. Then, in the late ’90s, it made a Bolivar in the Dominican Republic, followed by a stronger version in Honduras. By 2005, General created a new core Bolivar brand blended to be powerful and earthy. Despite the brand’s rich history, Bolivar lagged on the U.S. market. In 2015, it was announced that Bolivar would be folded into its now defunct subsidiary called the Foundry Tobacco Co. Bolivar was reblended, repackaged and remarketed. General still owns the trademark.
No cigar brand in the world has as much fanfare, controversy or mystique as Cohiba. The cigar was created in Cuba in 1966 for Fidel Castro, who ruled Cuba at the time. Diplomats and dignitaries in Castro’s good graces got one—maybe even an entire case—as a gift. Cohiba came in one size, a long, thin lancero. Old photos of Castro often show him pontificating with a long, slender cigar in his mouth. Chances are, it was a Cohiba.
After the cigar had become mythic, Castro decided to share Cohiba with the rest of the world. They went on sale in 1982, in Spain, and sales were soon expanded on a global basis.
While the original Cohiba band was dull and brown, it quickly morphed into one of the most recognizable cigar bands in the world, with unmistakable branding: yellow and black, a grid of white dots, bold-font lettering, a Taino Indian head. Over time, the label has evolved and is now full of gold embossments and holographic elements meant to thwart counterfeiters.
The story behind Cohiba’s Dominican-made U.S. counterpart differs from the rest of the parallel brands. Unlike most popular Cuban brands, Cohiba was created after the Revolution by the Castro government, so it was never seized from anyone. The disgruntled expatriates may have sought to reproduce their own family labels for the U.S. market, but they left Cohiba alone. Cohiba was not representative of their tobacco heritage, it was a symbol of the new regime. In the U.S., it belonged to no one.
General Cigar filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office in 1978 for the Cohiba mark. It was officially registered in 1981 and General began selling Dominican-made Cohibas in the U.S. in 1994. By 1997 General created what is known as the “red dot” Cohiba, with a logo featuring a red dot in the hole of the “O,” quite a different look from Cuba’s cigar. General didn’t buy the trademark from anyone and felt they didn’t have to. The Cuban government was outraged.
In response, Cuba sued over trademark infringement in January 1997. The case is officially known as Empresa Cubana del Tabaco v. Culbro Corp., and Cohiba has been in litigation ever since. For 20 years the suit has gone back and forth in a legal tug-of-war with wins and losses for both sides, not to mention millions of dollars spent on legal fees.
The case is presently tied up with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), which has yet to rehear it. Cuba still seeks to halt the sale of Cohibas in the U.S., and is demanding financial restitution. General claims that the embargo prevents the Cuban government from any trademark rights in the United States.
In the meantime, more than a half-dozen versions of Cohiba are made by General Cigar for the United States, and Cuba continues to come out with new varieties, including a 50th anniversary version created in 2016. The case of Cohiba v. Cohiba is still unresolved, with neither party backing down.
Like Cohiba, Trinidad cigars were not commercially available when they were created in the 1960s. They were reserved only for use as diplomatic gifts for visiting dignitaries. Boxes of these cigars have gone for dear prices at auction.
The first commercial Trinidads were sold in 1997, and they began as a single size called Fundadores. By the early 2000s, Cuba expanded the Trinidad line, adding three more sizes. The brand was small, but the mystique and allure was undeniable.
And it didn’t seem to have any political baggage either. Cuba always maintained that Trinidad was a post-Revolution brand and therefore, had no nagging business ties to the past nor any legal standing to be marketed in the United States. Not everyone agreed. Diego Trinidad Jr. certainly didn’t. He claimed his family did business under the Trinidad name well before Castro came to power.
Trinidad y Hermanos was founded by Diego Trinidad in 1905 as a tobacco company. Diego Trinidad Jr. took over the family business in 1920, incorporating in 1958 and renaming it TTT Trinidad. The business was confiscated a few years later.
Disenfranchised by the Revolution, the Trinidad family relocated to the U.S. and started Trinidad Tobacco Trading Corp. The Trinidads were looking for someone to produce their cigars and, in 1968, they found that someone in Tampa—the Fuentes. The Arturo Fuente factory made a line of Trinidad cigars for the Trinidad family out of its Tampa factory and did so up until the late 1970s. Production ceased after the Fuentes left Tampa, but in 1997, Fuente started making the Trinidads again, this time in the Dominican Republic.
The non-Cuban Trinidads came in two sizes, a Corona and Robusto and were made with a Cameroon wrapper. The rest of the tobacco was Dominican.
A legal battle ensued when the Trinidad family challenged the Cuban’s ownership of the U.S. trademark. According to the Patent and Trademark Office, the U.S. trademark for “TTT Trinidad La Habana, Cuba,” issued to Empresa Cubana in 1996, was based on the same Cuban trademark registered in 1958 by Trinidad y Hermano and was transferred to the Cuban government after the Revolution. This gave the Trinidad family a legal argument and a fighting chance.
“Our cigars are in the market with the exact replica of everything that [the Cuban version] has, which was ours to begin with,” said Trinidad Jr. in 1997. “Let’s see what they do about it.”
In 2001, the Trinidad family won the trademark case and was granted the right to sell Trinidad cigars in the United States.
By 2002, a full line of Trinidads hit the U.S. market, but the Fuentes had not made them. That same year, Altadis U.S.A., purchased the brand from the Trinidad family and subsequently produced Trinidads in the Dominican Republic. Altadis U.S.A. remains the current U.S. trademark holder for Trinidad cigars.
Naturally, the entire narrative and existence of parallel brands leads to one question: what happens when the embargo ends? Will Cuban and non-Cuban versions of Montecristo share shelf space? Now that parallel brands are deeply entrenched in the U.S. market, the notion of reintroducing Cubans raises entirely new legal conundrums of ownership, and distribution rights, not to mention competition law.
Legal battles are likely. So are long negotiations. As for the future of parallel brands, all anyone can do is speculate.