Legendary cigarmaker Ramón Cifuentes Toriello, the mind behind Partagas cigars for decades, died at his sister's home in Madrid on January 3. He was 91.
Cifuentes's life paralleled the rise, fall and rebirth experienced by many Cuban cigarmakers. Fidel Castro took control of Cuba on New Year's Day 1959, and soon seized the nation's cigar factories, locking Cifuentes and the other owners out of their companies. The Cubans offered Cifuentes the job as head of the nation's cigar industry, but he refused. In 1961, Cifuentes fled the country to New York City, virtually penniless.
His wife took a job in Bloomingdale's and Cifuentes went to Connecticut to work with the tobacco grown by the Cullman family, owners of General Cigar Co. General eventually put Cifuentes in charge of its premium cigar operations in Kingston, Jamaica, and the Cuban master instructed General's workers in the cigarmaker's art. "He's responsible for teaching us how to make a great cigar," said General chairman Edgar M. Cullman. "I learned more from him about the quality of a cigar than from anyone else."
Cifuentes dreamt of Castro's fall, wanting to return to his homeland and the cigar brand he left behind, but by the mid-1970s he began to lose hope. "I think he got disillusioned that he was never going to go back to Cuba," Cullman said in a 1994 interview with Cigar Aficionado. In 1974, the Cifuentes family made a deal with General to manufacture Partagas cigars in Jamaica. General paid the family a fee and agreed to pay a royalty for every Partagas cigar it made.
The first non-Cuban Partagas cigars hit the market in 1977, and the brand--now made in General's plant in the Dominican Republic--is among the best-selling premium cigars in the United States today, with more than 12 million cigars sold each year. They're made with Dominican and Mexican filler tobaccos, Mexican binders, and wrappers grown in Cameroon in west Africa. General immortalized Cifuentes, an attractive man who was sometimes compared to Douglas Fairbanks Jr., in its Partagas ads for many years. In 1995 the company celebrated the brand's 150th anniversary with a limited-edition Partagas 150 Signature Series cigar.
Created in 1845 by Jaime Partagas, a Catalonian immigrant, and carried on by the Cifuentes family, Partagas was one of Cuba's oldest and most famous brands. Rudyard Kipling once reportedly referred to himself as "a priest of Partagas," and Evelyn Waugh immortalized the brand in his novel Brideshead Revisited.
Cifuentes's father, Ramón Cifuentes Llano, acquired the company at the turn of the twentieth century. When Cifuentes Llano died, the business was passed down to his three sons, who had learned cigarmaking at their father's side.
Cuba's landmark Partagas factory is the only Havana cigar factory officially open to tourists, but Cifuentes never returned to it after he left Cuba. He worked with General Cigar until he was in his 80s, overseeing the manufacture of Partagas cigars, and spent his later years in Spain.
"He was a complete tobacco man," said his nephew Leopoldo Cifuentes, 59. "He dedicated all his life to tobacco."
THE LOST INTERVIEW WITH RAMON CIFUENTES
In October 1991, Ramón Cifuentes traveled to New York City and met with Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Wine Spectator magazine, and James Suckling, a senior editor at the magazine. It was a year before the launch of Cigar Aficionado, and Shanken and Suckling were learning about the cigar business from one of its most legendary figures.
Cifuentes, heir to Cuba's famous Partagas brand, spoke about his early days in Cuba, his feeling of loss when his family's cigar factory was seized by the Castro government, and his rebirth as a cigarmaker in Jamaica and the Dominican Republic. He also spoke of his dreams to return to his homeland, a dream he never realized before his death in January. This interview has never been published before this year.
Cigar Aficionado: When did you leave Cuba?
Cifuentes: I left in 1961. 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.
CA: Didn't they want you to stay?
Cifuentes: Sure, they asked me to stay. They offered to give me control of all the factories. I said no.
CA: All of the factories, not just Partagas?
Cifuentes: Yes, to run everything.
CA: So how long after the military came to your factory did you leave Cuba?
Cifuentes: A few days.
CA: Then where did you go?
Cifuentes: To New York.
CA: Was this when Cuba wanted to get rid of all the brand names and have only one Cuban cigar?
Cifuentes: Some time ago, a man named Riarra was in charge of the Commission of Defense of Tobacco, which used to take care of exports. He told me they had in mind to make only one brand. I said to make one brand is the worst mistake that you can make, because you have no competition. He said, "You're right."
CA: The same day, they took over all the factories? Romeo y Julieta, Partagas, all of them?
Cifuentes: They took all the factories.
CA: When you left Cuba in 1961 and came to New York, did you have family here?
Cifuentes: No. I came with my wife.
CA: Were you able to take some of your assets and wealth out of Cuba so that you could live?
Cifuentes: No. They took everything.
CA: It's the same as the Menendez brothers. They didn't take anything with them because their father didn't believe that it would ever happen.
Cifuentes: We thought we were going back!
CA: So you went from having wealth to having nothing. How did you live all those years?
Cifuentes: My wife started to work in Bloomingdale's, in the glassware department.
CA: And what did you do?
Cifuentes: I went to Connecticut. I started to work with the tobacco there.
CA: So you started to work for Culbro? [Editor's note: Culbro is the former parent company of General Cigar Co., now owned by General Cigar Holdings Inc.]
Cifuentes: Yes, in 1964, something like that.
CA: But you had known Mr. [Edgar M.] Cullman [the chairman of General and Culbro] in Havana, no?
Cifuentes: No, I didn't know him.
CA: How long have you been in the Dominican Republic now?
Cifuentes: About 18 years.
CA: How would you compare a Dominican Republic cigar to a Cuban cigar in terms of flavor, and body and taste? Cifuentes: The tobacco that we grow in the Dominican Republic is in a place that has very good soil, and we are also using the same seeds that we used in Cuba. And you want to compare--are you talking about comparing to the old time? Because the old time was completely different. Now, the way [the Cuban government is] making cigars, the whole thing has been spoiled. You cannot compare. The difference is tremendous. The factories that we have in the Dominican Republic have tremendous control over everything. So it's much better than a Cuban cigar.
CA: But how would you describe the flavor and taste of a Dominican cigar?
Cifuentes: Dominican cigars are very smooth, and have good taste and good flavor. The Cuban cigars are very harsh and bitter.
Cifuentes: Spicy! So it's a big difference.
CA: Why is that? Is it just the microclimate? The soil?
Cifuentes: No, it's the tobacco that we use. The tobaccos are different. Tobaccos that are properly fermented and properly cured and properly grown, so you have a big difference.
CA: Do you smoke Cuban cigars today?
Cifuentes: No, I don't smoke Cuban cigars, I smoke this! [He holds up a cigar.]
CA: What is that?
Cifuentes: This is a Partagas.
CA: You first began making the non-Cuban Partagas in Jamaica. Why didn't you stay there? Do you think the Dominican Republic has the best tobacco?
Cifuentes: I want to explain to you one thing. If we are in Jamaica, or we are in the Dominican Republic, we can use the same tobaccos. In a free zone, you are free to import anything for export. And we have a free zone both in the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.
CA: Tell us about the craftsmanship of the workers in the Dominican Republic.
Cifuentes: It's very good!
CA: Did some of them come from Cuba?
Cifuentes: No, I trained them.
CA: How long does it take to train a person to be a cigar roller?
Cifuentes: It takes about two years. The system that we have is very simple. We go to the molds. You have a buncher. The buncher can make about 600 bunches a day. And then a roller can roll about 300 cigars a day. So there's a team of three; two rollers and one buncher.
CA: Let us change the subject for a minute. You're 82 years old. Things have been changing very quickly in Cuba. Do you believe that relations between Cuba and America will be reestablished in the next few years?
Cifuentes: Depends on Castro.
CA: Do you think it's likely or unlikely?
Cifuentes: I don't know. I think the situation in Cuba is so bad...
CA: You've not been back to Cuba at all, have you?
CA: Do you long to go back?
Cifuentes: Yes, I will go back.
CA: It's a beautiful country.
Cifuentes: I love the country.
CA: I hope that someday you are able to go back and see, as we saw...
Cifuentes: I think, very soon, it's going to happen.