At the turn of the 20th century, Joseph Cullman Jr. began growing tobacco in Connecticut. Before that, his family worked as tobacco dealers, buying tobacco from others in the United States and reselling it to cigar makers. Joseph’s son, Edgar, joined the business following World War II, after completing his education in cigar rolling in a small factory in New York City. Edgar inherited his father’s love for tobacco and worked growing the beautiful Connecticut tobacco. By 1961, Edgar decided that only growing tobacco was not enough and, with some investors, bought General Cigar Company. At the time, the company’s biggest brand was White Owl. The cigars were made in Tampa, mostly by machines because, according to Edgar’s son, Edgar Cullman Jr., it was just too expensive to make hand-rolled cigars in the United States.
JAMAICA IN THE SIXTIES
During the mid-Sixties, Jamaica was the place to be. After all, it was home to James Bond’s creator Ian Fleming and offered beautiful beaches and scenery, and the flight from New York was not too long. In the mid-Sixties, Edgar Sr. was thinking about buying a vacation home there. Edgar Jr. explains: “He was going down to Jamaica on vacation and was looking at a piece of property. White Owl was the biggest brand for General Cigar and when my dad went to look at this little property on the ocean, there was this little white owl – a wild bird – sitting on the for sale sign. He said it was telling him, ‘You gotta do this!’ So he bought the place and started going to Jamaica on a regular basis.” In Jamaica there were also some small cigar manufacturers left over from World War II. “At the time, the UK was fighting a war and needed every dollar it could get its hands on,” remembers cigar legend and former senior vice president of General Cigar Benjamin “Benji” Menendez. “They couldn’t afford to use good money to buy tobacco. But Jamaica was part of the Commonwealth, and they printed all the pictures of the king they wanted. So the factory [there] was a joint venture of Fernando Palacio and Menendez y Garcia, my family’s company.”
The makers of Punch came up with a cigar they called Macanudo, the name coming from the former King of England, Edward VIII, who abdicated his throne in 1936 to marry a commoner, Wallis Simpson. Says Edgar Jr., “Edward was a big polo player in Argentina and learned the word Macanudo from the Argentinians, who said it meant super or fantastic. Edward adopted the word Macanudo and the cigar makers in Jamaica thought it was a good name.” Menendez says it was a profitable business in Jamaica. “After the war, the UK was in very poor condition. The Jamaican factories remained until the mid-1950s, selling about 13 million cigars to the United Kingdom.”
THE BEGINNING OF MACANUDO
The little cigar-making operation Temple Hall caught the eye of Edgar Sr., who had befriended Ramón Cifuentes – the legendary cigar maker who was in exile – whose family owned the Partagás brand. Cullman knew he wanted to move into premium cigars, and Temple Hall and its Macanudo brand offered him that opportunity. In 1968, Cullman bought Temple Hall and had his friend Cifuentes go there to help get them up and running. Cullman developed the idea for the Macanudo blend because of his terrific Connecticut tobacco. “When we started making Macanudo in Jamaica, we developed a process for aging and curing the Connecticut shade,” explains Edgar Jr. “It was always a very blonde and light tobacco and we had used it for White Owl cigars. It was not considered a premium tobacco, but we developed a process for curing; we used a different position on the stalk. The lower primings were for the White Owl, and the upper primings were a little heavier and richer tobacco. We developed that for Macanudo. It became one of the great selling points. We made millions of cigars one by one, by hand, and made sure of tremendous consistency with the blending of tobaccos.”
In 1974, a young Dominican who had graduated from Texas A&M joined the company. Daniel Núñez, who later became president of General Cigar, was working for the Tobacco Institute in the Dominican Republic as an agronomist at the time. “The director of the Tobacco Institute called me in and said Edgar Cullman was looking for someone, because he was experimenting with wrappers in the Dominican Republic. He was looking for an English speaker and a college graduate and I was the only one. Mr. Cullman looked at me and said, ‘Young man, if you give me the time, I’ll make a tobacco man out of you.’
” Núñez adds it was not an easy time. “When I went to Connecticut the first time, they put me in the working camp of the Mexicans and the Jamaicans because he wanted me to learn and wanted to see if I would tolerate it.” Núñez did, and he learned. Then he started going to Jamaica, where Cifuentes continued to educate him. “Ramón said: ‘I’m going to give you at least six months of my life, but it will be six days a week.’ He was there every day by 6:30, and then we would walk the floor. He was the first one to teach me how to roll a cigar. How to make the first fermentation bulk. Ramón took me like a boy and we would go after 5pm, after the workers had left. ‘I don’t want people to see I am teaching you how to roll a cigar,’ he would say.” Macanudo hit a sweet spot on the US market, and Núñez credits the Cullmans and Cifuentes for that. “Their philosophy that I follow to this day, is ‘no shortcuts.’ There was a time during the cigar boom when we didn’t deliver Macanudo for six to eight months because the tobacco was not ready.”
By 1983, Macanudo had become the biggest selling premium cigar in the United States. One of the other things the Cullmans insisted on was putting tobacco aside. Edgar wanted to do vintage cigars for Macanudo. According to Núñez, “It was not until that tobacco was fermented, and two years in the bale, then every six months or every year, we would make a cigar and taste it. Either we say, ‘wow,’ or it is not going to happen.” In 1989, Macanudo released its first Vintage Cabinet Selection using tobaccos from the 1979 crop. In the mid-Nineties, the cigar boom was going strong and Edgar Jr. wanted a place that cigar smokers could call home. In 1996, General Cigar opened Club Macanudo in New York City. “How do we take advantage of the lifestyle and the brand Macanudo to make something more expressive of their lifestyle?” asks Edgar. “The concept was a way to actu- ally live it. My wife did all the decorating. She’s an interior designer and started her business four or five years before Club Macanudo. She put a lot of detail into the whole decoration. For example, we actually took tobacco leaves and made a mold for pressing it into the plaster on the wall … you can see tobacco leaves make an interesting pattern.” With a special permit from the health department, Club Macanudo remains a haven for cigar smokers in New York. Twenty years ago, Macanudo started adding new tastes to its portfolio with the Robusto and then the Maduro. By 2000, all of the production moved to the Dominican Republic. In the intervening years, more brands were added to broaden the taste profile of Macanudo. In 2014, the Inspirado Orange line was added in Europe and two years later had its US debut. Last year, Inspirado White and Black were added. General Cigar Company president, Regis Broersma, says that Inspirado rounds out the brand, “This is a modern interpretation of the Macanudo brand, made for cigar smokers that are looking for new taste experiences.”
This year, Macanudo is launching Inspirado Red, which gives the line a Nicaraguan flavor profile. Red uses an Ecuadoran Habano ligero wrapper over a Nicaraguan Jalapa binder, and aged fillers – 12-year-old Nicaraguan Ometepe, 5-year-old Nicaraguan Estelí, and 10- year-old Honduran Jamastran. “With the Inspirado line, more and more people are turning to Macanudo,” says Broersma, “and this is exactly what we want to happen. This is not something we’re rushing. Think of it as a slow burn.
By introducing just a few new products to Macanudo each year, we’re making more of an impact with new and tenured cigar smokers, and the results have been extremely positive.” The company plans numerous events to mark the 50th year of the iconic brand, and Broersma notes that, already, Inspirado has become the second-largest selling segment in the Macanudo line. With the addition of Inspirado Red, it’s obvious that Macanudo is no longer just your father’s cigar.
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Summer Edition 2018. Read more