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Cuban cigar wars: A legendary exile braces for U.S. re-opening

First Published      Last Updated Jun 18 2017 01:03 pm

Manuel Quesada puffs on one of his creations-a funky-looking thing called a Q D'etat-as he tells a story about the Cubans getting under his skin. It was at a dinner last year in Germany, when Cigar Journal honored him with a lifetime achievement award. Everyone rose for a standing ovation except the people at the Cubatabaco table, the representatives of the state-run monopoly.

To be fair, the presenter had just recounted how the Quesada family had to flee the island in 1960, their business having been seized by gun-toting forces loyal to Fidel Castro. It was a decidedly uncomfortable several few seconds, ending only when an executive from another table scurried over and persuaded the Cubans to get to their feet.




"They were shamed into standing up," Quesada says, stewing over it. "I consider myself to be a kind and peaceful man, but do not piss me off. That's why I don't go to Cuba. Because they will piss me off."

He's some 800 miles away at the moment, in his family's hazy cigar lounge in Santiago, the colonial city in the heart of the Dominican Republic where he, his father, brother and a cousin built a new tobacco enterprise in exile. It's a 20-minute drive from the red-brick factory that produces Quesada Cigars' iconic hand-rolled Fonsecas, everything from short, stubby robustos to giant Churchills, most fitted with the signature red and gold band, and all sold exclusively in the U.S.

Many of them look just like the Fonsecas manufactured to this day back in Havana-parallel-universe twins marketed everywhere but the U.S., thanks to the six-decade-old trade embargo, and another reason for Quesada to be angry.

He's insulted by what he views as an uneven, inferior product and infuriated that it's held in such high esteem around the world. Sure, Cuba's clay-rich soil produces terrific tobacco, but the dedication to the craft of cigar rolling has evaporated under communist rule.

"We have nothing to fear from that country," he belts out in near-perfect English imbued with a hint of southern twang he picked up over the years. "There's no pride, there's no care."

Ever since John F. Kennedy slapped the embargo on Cuba, the communists and the exiles have never competed against one other in the U.S. market. What will happen when they do is a favorite topic in cigar circles. America represents about a third of the $21 billion global cigar market, which Cuba would love to tap and producers like Quesada definitely do not want to lose.

There's no telling when the sanctions might finally end. President Donald Trump said Friday he was ratcheting back up limitations on certain types of travel and business transactions with Cuba. But ever since his predecessor Barack Obama began re-establishing ties with the island in 2014, there's been a greater sense of urgency in the cigar world to planning for the time when wrappers tagged "Habana, Cuba" appear in U.S. shops.

"We talk about it all day long," says Quesada, who turned 70 in April. "We will give them the fight of their life. We're not unprepared."

The scion of a century-old Cuban tobacco clan, he was 13 when the Castro troops stormed his father's tobacco brokerage. Manuel Jr. fled to Miami with his mother and siblings; Manuel Sr. was forced to stay behind for a year to teach the bureaucrats his business. It happened to all the families; the communists nationalized nearly all commerce on the island where Spanish occupiers stumbled upon tobacco five centuries ago.

The tobacco refugees scattered to Florida, the Caribbean, Central America, even the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa, searching for soil and climactic conditions like Cuba's, the perfect combination for producing rich, slow-burning leaves. They recreated their old labels.

Today, there are two called Partagás, two called La Gloria Cubana, two called Montecristo, two called Romeo y Julieta, and two called Hoyo de Monterrey-one made for the U.S. market, the other produced in Cuba to be sold everywhere else. It's the same duality that reigns in the rum industry: Bacardi produces the expat version of Havana Club, while the Cuban government has partnered with Pernod Ricard to distill its Havana Club; the two sides have been feuding in court for years over control of the trademark.

Almost all the cigar refugees would in time sell their brand rights, and they eventually made their way into the hands of Scandinavian Tobacco Group A/S and the U.K.'s Imperial Brands Plc. (Imperial is aggressively playing both sides of the trade, having also formed a partnership with Cubatabaco to distribute all its cigar exports.)

The Quesadas kept the business in the family, cultivating a 155-acre farm in the Dominican Republic and also sourcing leaves for its blends from Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Ecuador, Indonesia, the U.S. and Peru. Some of the blends, in fact, have elements of the old Cuban flavor. In the 1960s, someone managed to smuggle a supply of seeds off the island, and the company today grows five varieties of Cuban tobacco.

"A little envelope with grams of seed will grow a whole country," Quesada says.

That Cuban tobacco grown in Cuba soil is a superior raw material to that found anywhere else on Earth is of little debate among the cognoscenti. There's just something about the orange-hued clay of the Pinar del Rio valley that runs along the island's western tip. Where there's some disagreement is whether that raw-material edge always translates into a better finished product.

For Giuseppe Ruo, the cigar sommelier at London's Wellesley hotel, the answer is an unequivocal yes. He finds Cuban cigars so far superior that he refuses to stock anything else in the hotel's walk-in humidor, the U.K.'s largest. But Jorge Luis Armenteros, who trains cigar experts at Princeton-based Tobacconist University, sees things a bit as Quesada does. The communist government just doesn't have the entrepreneurial spirit, he says, to keep pace with the exiled artisans and newcomers who've taken up the craft in surrounding countries.

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