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Humble Beginnings

Spending so much time in Central America has really opened my eyes to the world of tobacco. One of the things I have noticed about some of the greatest tobacco men in the industry is their humility. It is a common thread among the true greats. I am always eager to ask them about their craft, how they learned and how they do it, but their reserved demeanor makes it difficult to get them to talk about themselves. However, when you do finally get these guys to open up, you better have your listening ears on because you are in for a rare treat. I had one such opportunity on a recent trip to Nicaragua, which I would like to share.

It was March of 2009 and I was flying in to inspect some production in Estelí. My trip also happened to coincide with Abdel (AJ) Fernandez’s 30th birthday, so on my way through the duty free store I picked up a nice bottle of single barrel bourbon to celebrate with him. After a few days of work, I made it over to his house to crack the bottle with some of his friends, and after a few cocktails, I had him talking about everything from his time in Cuba and his move to Nicaragua to his plans for the future. Realizing the unique events unfolding, I pulled out my recorder and simply listened. Below is a summary transcript as spoken word for word by Abdel.

“I did not take a serious interest in tobacco until the age of 10. Before then, I was just doing whatever I could to survive. In Cuba, you have to stay busy if you want to put food on the table. Unfortunately, doing what you wanted to do often came second to doing what you had to do to survive. It wasn’t until my 10th birthday when I decided to put my passion first. I started following my dad, every day, to learn about tobacco and the things his father had passed on to him.

It was during the next three years I committed our family’s fermentation recipe to memory, knowing this information could very well provide for my own family someday and possibly give me the tools I needed to leave Cuba. When I was 13, my father had an opportunity to go work with for his cousin, Nestor Plasencia, in Central America (Nestor Plasencia is the largest grower of premium Cuban-seed tobacco outside Cuba). Wanting to continue my education, and with a good foundation of knowledge already established, I turned to my friend and neighbor Alejandro Robaina for help. We had always been close and in the cigar world he was considered the last great tobacco man from the old days. Without my father in Cuba, he was the only person I felt could help me on my journey. From that day forward, my time was split between school and doing odd jobs to earn what money I could, with every other free minute spent at Alejandro's side. It was here that I separated the family traditions I learned from my father with the old methods Alejandro learned when he was my age. I quickly came to realize that the things I was learning were secret methods that dated back centuries to Cuba’s first natives, and I was privileged to know that I would be one of only a few people in the world to receive such important knowledge.

For 15 years, I spent as much time with Alejandro in the farms as I could before I finally had the chance to leave Cuba and join my father in Nicaragua. Upon my arrival, I took a job at my father’s side and started exploring, but soon realized I did not have the desire to work for other people. In Cuba, I always depended on myself and I wanted that same autonomy in Estelí. During my time, I visited many of the factories throughout town and I realized the slow and timeless process of cigar making I had learned from my father and Alejandro had been somewhat forgotten by many of the makers in Nicaragua as corners were being cut in the interest of putting quantity first and quality second. I knew that with my unique knowledge I could bring my ways to Estelí and make the kind of cigars I remembered my grandfather enjoying when I was a boy. I saved my money for the first year to open my own factory and when I finally got my plan together I came home one night to find I had been robbed. My wife and I were out and when we came back, we found our house in the barrio had been turned upside down. This was a very sad moment for me. Not only did I lose my savings, but also the reality of the dangers of the area where I lived began to sink in. Hearing about the break in, Gilberto and Carlos Oliva (Oliva Cigar Company) reached out to me. The Olivas are relatives of mine and despite the fact that I would not accept their help, they insisted and gave me a place to stay, money and tobacco so I could continue with my dream. This gesture is something I will never forget. In fact, today, Carlos Oliva is my best friend and the God Father of my daughter.

Starting a business in Estelí was more challenging than I ever anticipated. I could make cigars, but without any contacts in the US, I could not find buyers. Because of my commitment to the old ways, my cigars were more expensive than many of the other factories, and without a network of clients, there were times I felt like I was not going to make it. I always made sure I paid my employees, many times at the expense of paying myself or even eating dinner. I believed in myself, but I knew if I did not have loyal workers, I would be limited in my success. Finally after my first year, with hardly any customers, I was ready to close my doors when Kris Katchaturian found his way into my factory. Kris has been in the cigar industry for a long time and had just the contacts I needed. He smoked my cigars, understood my passion and immediately told me to start making as many cigars as I could; he would find buyers. With my new partner, orders began rolling in from some of the top brands in the United States. With the first profit I earned, I paid off my debts and paid for safe passage for the rest of my family to join me in Estelí. As my business grew, I continued my dream of bringing the old ways of Cuba to Estelí. I reached out to some people I grew up with in Cuba that worked in tobacco. Not the people trained in the factories, but guys like me, guys that were taught by their father and their father’s father. Tradition is very important to me, and I knew by bringing like-minded people to my operation, I could establish a factory unlike anything in Central America.

Today, all of my top people are some of the most knowledgeable in the world, each hand selected from my town in San Luis, Cuba. Everyone from my farm technician to my rolling and fermenting supervisors are well versed in the old ways. One of the happiest days in my life was last year when I moved into my new factory in the heart of Estelí. To this day, I still pay rent on my old factory because I don’t want to give it up. It is a reminder of humble beginnings and I still go there from time to time to just sit and think.”

As Abdel finished his story, the room was in dead silence. I don’t think anyone muttered a word for a good 15 minutes, and even then it was Abel saying “vamos a comer” (lets eat). Since I heard this story, I think about it every time I pick up a cigar. Abdel’s story is not unlike many other great cigar makers who have suffered and lost everything only to work hard and earn it back. As you light your next cigar, I would urge you to think about the history and effort that went into creating it. Only then will you truly appreciate what it means to enjoy a premium cigar.

Published Wednesday, May 13, 2009 5:44 PM by Alex Svenson



clearlysuspect said:

Wow.  What an amazing story.  Thank you so much for sharing this.  I'm looking so much more forward to my cigar tonight.
July 13, 2009 11:13 PM

Medhat said:

such great story, thanks a lot for sharing this :)

I smoke once a week, to keep this appreciating and the enjoying of a Cigar...
September 1, 2009 11:50 PM

morenoa said:

Wow thanks for the story.

Some day I will open my own Cigar Lounge is Southern California.
December 12, 2009 4:10 PM

morenoa said:

Wow thanks for the story.

Some day I will open my own Cigar Lounge is Southern California.
December 12, 2009 4:10 PM
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About Alex Svenson

I enjoy at least one premium cigar everyday and have the privilege of working directly with every major cigar maker in the industry. I love developing new and exciting cigar blends and bringing only the best this industry has to offer to our Cigar.com clients.

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