The ambassador of General Cigar for CAO and a cigar master was not born in a tobacco field. His relationship with cigars started late, and he had to train for many years to become what he is today. We met him in Dortmund.
Now a tobacco master at General Cigar, you didn’t play in tobacco barns when you were a kid …
You’re right. I was born and raised in Tampa, Florida. I have a history of cigar making through my grandparents. They were master rollers in Cuba. They left the island in 1954, then rolled in factories in Tampa. The cigar skipped a generation because my father never smoked a cigar in his life. I had my first cigar at twenty. I was hooked and I said: ‘This is something special, I want to learn more about this.’
So you stepped up instantly in the cigar industry?
Oh, no. I didn’t come to cigars that quickly. I had an up and down career. I was searching … I didn’t want to settle for something I didn’t love. Before I went into the cigar business, I was a regional salesman for a foreign agency. I made great money, but to me it was not the key.
Tell us about your first years at General Cigar.
In January 2000, I was hired to work as a sales rep. I was General Cigar’s number one sales rep for about three and a half years. The owner at that time was Edgar Cullman Sr. Around 2005, he saw something in me. He said: ‘You have a passion for my products. We need cigar blenders because ours will retire one day. Will you allow us to train you?’ I couldn’t say yes quickly enough! For three months, I went to the Dominican factory in Santiago where I learnt all about the process. One week later, I was in the Honduran factory doing the same thing for three more months.
I didn’t want to settle for something I didn’t love.
Was that when you met Benji Menendez?
Absolutely. The connection with Benji was automatic. I grew up without any kind of father figure in my life. I was always looking for an older gentleman to teach me about life. Unfortunately, I didn’t meet that figure in my twenties. Benji’s like a father and a mentor to me.
Do you remember the first blend you created?
Oh, yes! It was for La Gloria Cubana. We made a cigar with two separate wrappers. A Connecticut Shade and a Sumatra wrapper. I had only worked for La Gloria for a year and a half. Then, in spring 2011, our blenders team merged with CAO.
What was your opinion on this brand, honestly?
CAO was losing some of its focus. I met the marketing team in Richmond and asked, ‘What’s the DNA of CAO?’ The answer was: ‘We introduce new tobaccos to the customers.’ CAO was the first to introduce Brazilian or Italian tobacco in other blends. So let’s go back to the roots! The buyer told us in a hopeful way that he’d bought some tobacco from Olancho in Honduras five years previously. We then created the OSA line. I wanted a full-flavored cigar – not a full-bodied cigar. This is my philosophy of blending: flavors first.
CAO is known to push the limits of marketing and packaging. Tell us about the Flathead line, launched in 2013.
If you look at the box design, it looks like the flathead car engine, the kind Ford introduced in the 1930s. It’s a way to honor the people who trust our cigars. Flathead was the fastest cigar brand to hit the million-dollar mark. It’s amazing.
You recently found a tobacco from Amazonia, used in the Amazon Basin released in August, which had never been seen before.
We bought that tobacco, called Bragança, a year and a half ago. It’s grown in Amazonia, in the Rain Forest area, only every three years. We purchased 5,000 pounds [approx. 2.3 tons] of it to build our CAO Brazilia Amazon Basin. It’s the first tobacco that we don’t have to put through fermentation; it was ready to be used. After the harvest, the leaves are rolled in tubes for six months.
How did you deal with that tobacco?
The flavor is very unique. You really have to draw and draw after cutting it, to taste the aromas of raisins, prune and dry fruits. The body is very heavy. We started to blend cigars with 80 percent of it, but we couldn’t stand it. The right combination is 40 percent. The other 60 percent is seco from Nicaragua. It works perfectly. The band is a trimming of the leaf wrapped around the cigar. We made 5,000 boxes.
What projects are you working on for 2015?
We’re working on a new cigar, which will be a Flathead extension for the bikers. You’ve now been part of the of the cigar business for a long time. Are the relationships between the cigar makers as good as they seem? The only place we fight is in the humidor. Everybody wants to have their cigar boxes placed at the highest level. But you don’t move the boxes. It’s disrespectful. Outside the humidor, now, it’s amazing to me to see how this industry isn’t simply separate companies but a group of people sharing the same passion. I can go and ask advice from Pepin; I can ask Fuente for some tobacco. We are all brothers of the leaf.
This article was published in the Cigar Journal Winter Edition 2014. Read more