Arnaldo Bichot, at what age does one retire in Cuba?
I retired when I was 69 years old. But I couldn’t stand being at home very long, so returned to the factory. Now, though, I’m really thinking about slowing things down a little.
How long have you been working in the tobacco branch?
My whole life. I started at the age of 14 or 15 in an escogida, where the tobaccos are sorted. That was in the year 1948. After that, I changed factories, got to know many different processes that the tobacco goes through … the fermentation and drying processes.
In Cuba there is a Maestro Ligador for every brand. He is responsible for all the blends of the brand.
In the year 1958 I finally started a job at Por Larrañaga in the export department, where tobacco was prepared for further sale.
Following the triumph of the revolution, our factory was consolidated with the La Corona factory; back then it was one of the first merges. Before the revolution, in the country, there were hundreds of chinchales, small manufactures that had perhaps seven or eight employees. In Havana five large manufacturers were produc-ing for export: H. Upmann, Romeo y Julieta, Partagás, La Corona and Por Larrañaga. After the revolution, production was reorganized and merged.
Is there anything to the rumor that after the revolution production of the brands was to be temporarily replaced by a single brand called Siboney?
No, the brands were continued. Also after the revolution, production remained oriented towards the needs of our customers abroad.
How did you learn the craft of blending?
Back then, Por Larrañaga was considered the ‘university of tobacco’ and enjoyed an excellent reputation. If an employee left the factory for whatever reason, all doors were open to him.
When someone came from Por Larrañaga, not many questions were asked. At that time, Por Larrañaga was a leader in quality. For me it was a great fortune to learn here. One time, a customer came to us in the export department. He wanted to buy raw tobaccos for his production abroad.
We walked around, showed him this and that tobacco and finally the customer chose his bales. After he had said good-bye, I was summoned to the director of the factory. He asked me, ‘Why did you make a face in front of the customer?’ I explained to him that the customer’s tobacco hadn’t finished fermenting yet and that he shouldn’t have bought the tobacco in that condition.
I was then instructed by the director that the customer had a very good understanding of his craft and had calculated in the time for transport as well. So, I was always learning. I finally became Maestro Ligador [master blender] at La Corona.
What are the tasks of a Maestro Ligador?
In Cuba there is a Maestro Ligador for every brand. He is responsible for all the blends of the brand. Today the production of the brands is spread out over various factories.
It could be, for example, that the Cohiba factory has certain formats produced in another factory, for capacity reasons. Despite this, the Maestro Ligador of the mother house, in this case El Laguito, always stays responsible for the blends; he puts them together, then delivers them to the appropriate factories.
What do you do when you choose the tobaccos for a particular format?
First, the quality of the tobacco is tested. If the tobacco is shiny when you take it between your fingers, it isn’t ready yet and the fermentation not yet finished.
The recipe can’t completely describe the taste of a cigar.
A good, ready-to-smoke tobacco can be recognized by its sweet, rich scent. When you put it in your mouth the tobacco has a fine taste, like honey. But the truth is that in Cuba all the tobaccos are good.
Tobaccos from the Vuelta Abajo region, which can’t be accepted due to their quality, practically don’t exist. The tobaccos for a specific cigar are chosen corresponding to the desired strength and aromas according to the particular recipe.
What’s in such a recipe?
Now, that’s naturally a secret. Generally speaking, the recipe records the strength and aroma of every cigar – that is, the composition of the types of leaves seco, volado and ligero.
Is there information available about which region or which farm the tobaccos for a particular format have to come from?
The Maestro Ligador has to know the growing regions and vegas well. In every growing region we have several vegas, that is, farms, that apply to the required flavor profile. In the almacén, in the tobacco warehouse, I choose the leaf that I like the best.
It could be that the tobaccos from one and the same vega have different characteristics. That’s why a Ligador is needed to check the quality and choose the best leaf for the corresponding format. You can’t put this down in writing. Another criterion is the maturing process. In some blends we use tobaccos that have matured longer.
What differentiates Partagás from other brands?
Firstly, of course, the specific composition of the blend, its strength and its aroma. In addition, I pay attention to certain things. For example, I prefer to choose binders from San Luis that are somewhat stronger than those from San Juan. Every Maestro Ligador has to know his brand and its characteristics exactly. If I were, for example, to switch to Romeo y Julieta, I would have to choose sweeter, more delicate tobaccos.
What is the specialty of the tobacco that you chose for the Partagás Lusitanias Gran Reserva Cosecha 2007?
For me, this tobacco is una maravilla [a marvel]. It comes from the best vegas from San Juan and San Luis. They are leaves that are matured for five or six years. Each tobacco warehouse has a galera de añejamiento, a section for the aging process, where the tobaccos age slowly and naturally.
During this process they develop their fine aromas. The aging has the biggest effect on the ligero tobacco because it is the strongest. A special feature is that it conserves its characteristics. You can expect the Partagás Lusitanias Gran Reserva to have the same aroma and the same sweet and wonderful taste in a year’s time as it will develop today.
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Winter Edition 2013. Read more