Alex Svenson: What are your first memories of tobacco?
Benji Menendez: I was about three or four years old. We used to go to my grandfather’s farm on Sundays and we would have a Cuban lunch, which is not really a lunch at all. It’s a full meal. Afterwards, we would go to the tobacco fields, whether it was planting or harvesting, and we would see how the crop was doing. That’s when I realized…it was like a subliminal message and that’s when I realized this is my world. My family wanted me to have a university degree which I have, but I have been in tobacco my whole life; I have never done anything else. I am celebrating 60 years in the business on July 7th.
AS: What were some of the jobs you had in the business when you were still in Cuba?
BM: I left Cuba in 1960 when I was almost 25 years old. I had spent 9 years going through the different departments of the company. I had to learn each and every department of it, and for a short stint, about a year and half, I was sent to the cigarette factory. There, I had to be the first operator of each machine as it was brought to the factory. Essentially, I had to learn every new machine and teach the people who were going to be running the equipment. And then one day my father asked me what I wanted to do…did I want to stay in cigarettes or want to go back to cigars? At that time, cigarettes were a very good business, a money making machine, but it didn’t have the charm of cigars. I made two very smart decisions in my life: One of them was telling my father I wanted to go back to cigars, and the other one was the day I married my wife.
AS: What is your role at General Cigar?
BM: Officially, my title is vice president of premium cigars, but I have never been one for titles. My role is the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done in my entire life: I work with the young people, the next generation of cigar masters of General Cigar Company, on developing blends. This is Jhonys Diaz, Francisco Rodriguez and Yuri Guillen for our Dominican brands; Rick Rodriguez for CAO in Nicaragua, and in Honduras, there’s a great team of gentlemen, such as Agustin Garcia, Ramon Bueso, and others.
Working for General Cigar, our team has great resources, resources that no one else in the business has. Their access to the best tobacco is second to none. This is all great, but it’s their passion for cigars that makes working with the next generation a dream come true.
My turn for stars and stripes, that is over. I feel very comfortable, not in telling them what to do, because that would be very silly on my part. What I say a lot of times is that I enjoy planting a seed in their brains and letting them grow the tree. I’m there to tell them, hey, you need some more water on that tree, but it is they who really grow the tree and this is the most beautiful thing in the world.
The best I can do for the company and the people and myself is to share whatever knowledge I have. The day I go to leave for the good Lord, whatever experience I have, it will be lost, so if I can share it before I go, that is my pleasure.
AS: Of all the blends you’ve made, which are your favorites?
BM: I made several blends in my life and when I say I made, this is not exactly true. I have had the privilege of working with great people. One of the best blends “I” made (and I put ‘I” in quotations) was Benji Partagas Master Series, a beautiful cigar. I’m very proud of the people that worked with me. We worked as a team to produce that cigar, and that was the most important thing, that everyone felt close enough to really be the owner of the project. Most recently, I worked with our Dominican team to develop Partagas 1845. This is one of the blends I am most proud of because it allowed me to see how much our team of cigar masters has grown, and how passionate they are about bringing the best cigars to the market. I served as an advisor on developing the blend, so I essentially planted seeds of thought in their minds. The team ultimately developed the blend they felt showcased the best that General Cigar has to offer. The blend is one of the best I have ever smoked, and I am so proud to have been given the opportunity to continue working with this great group of tobacco men.
AS: What new products are on the horizon?
BM: We never stop experimenting with tobacco. I just came back from a trip of smoking many blends, and I mean many blends. This part is the great joy for me. Some of the blends will come to fruition and some of them will not, but that doesn’t matter.
The thing is that we are always looking to make the ideal cigar. Are we going to come up with something great? Yes we will. I think it’s a little too early to talk about what’s to come, but I will say that we are working on some great new cigars, especially some big new releases that we are developing to release over the next few years for Partagas.
AS: In sixty years, you have witnessed great change in the cigar industry. What are the most important changes that you’ve seen?
BM: In 60 years, I have witnessed a lot of changes in the industry. I’ve seen the Cuban cigar business in its heyday, and I’ve seen the rise of the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua as the best tobacco-producing countries in the world. I’ve seen lots of other changes, but the most important thing is not what has changed but what has not changed. There isn’t a book or a manual that teaches you how to make a great cigar. The knowledge and secrets are handed down, from person to person and that will never change.
Another thing that has not changed is that a cigar can bring two people together like nothing else I have ever known. I am proud to have made my life’s work in a business that brings people together.
AS: Do you have any predictions for the future of the premium cigar business?
BM: People talk about legislation and taxation, and I agree, those are dangerous to the business. But I am convinced that there will always be a market for premium cigars, and I predict that the category will continue to grow. At a time when most things are made quickly and cheaply, premium cigars are one of the few remaining products that are made entirely by hand. A handmade cigar will always have a certain allure, and I am confident that that will never change. Cigars will always be a part of celebration, whether it’s a matter of celebrating a milestone or just celebrating life, and I don’t see that ever changing.