Big Smoke Meets WhiskyFest 2022 Seminar: The Legend of Montecristo

Photos/Josh Ritchie

Benjamin Menendez, who did Montecristos in Cuba alongside his father

“Everyone knows the Montecristo brand,” said cigar lover stage editor Greg Mottola on Saturday morning. “If you don’t, you’re in the wrong room.” The crowd, most of them puffing on cigars, laughed at the joke as Mottola introduced his guests to talk about one of the world’s most famous cigar brands.

Montecristo seminar

Cigar Aficionado editor-in-chief Gregory Mottola

Benjamin Menendez and Rafael Nodal joined him on stage, each with a considerably different perspective on the brand. Menendez portrayed the story of Montecristo. The man, who worked for 63 years in the cigar business (including many years at General Cigar Co., then at Altadis USA) got his start in Havana at his father’s H. Upmann factory, l place where Montecristo became one of the most famous cigar brands in the world.

“My father wanted to make a cigar that would be a premium cigar. He chose tripe, binder and wrapper for the cigar, and it became Montecristo.

Menendez brought the crowd back to Cuba before Castro, when Cuba itself was a booming market for Cuban cigar sales. “Cuba was the #1 market for Cuban cigars, it was the best market for cigars made in Cuba. As a competitor we had Tampa,” he said, referring to the millions and millions of cigars that have been rolled in the United States, using imported Cuban tobaccos. “Montecristo was very successful.”

Montecristo seminar

The public listening to the presentation of Montecristo

The Menendez family lost the Montecristo brand – and all of its assets – to the Cuban Revolution. “The day the factory was taken,” Menendez said, “was September 15, 1960. I was there.” The day before, he noted that the factory had produced 105,000 cigars. “When I arrived at the factory at 7 a.m., I found myself with a militiaman. He said, we take the business.

The Montecristo brand, like so many other brands born in Cuba, and seized by the Castro regime, ended up with a non-Cuban version aimed at the American market. Today, non-Cuban Montecristo cigars are owned by Tabacalera USA, where Rafael Nodal is responsible for product capacity.

Nodal started talking about what to do with Montecristo in 2017, he told the crowd, looking not to damage such a venerable brand. “How did you handle the pressure? asked Mottola. “I go to church a lot,” Nodal said with a laugh. “My first goal when I started with Montecristo – I just didn’t want to waste it,” he said. “If I could do a little better, that was the goal.”

Montecristo seminar

Rafael Nodal, Product Capability Manager of Tabacalera USA, owner of non-Cuban brand Montecristo

Nodal and his team started making Montecristos in Nicaragua, with the blending skills of AJ Fernandez. The Montecristo Nicaragua series was the first. Later came the Montecristo Montecristo 1935 Anniversary Nicaragua, and the torpedo-shaped #2 size in that line scored 95 points and was named cigar lover Cigar No. 2 of 2021. A sample of one of these cigars was in the Boveda bag for seminar guests, handed out at the start of the conversation.

The pair talked about the changes in the cigar industry and the different tastes found in the market. Menendez spoke about the quality differences between cigars from Cuba and cigars made elsewhere, and predicted that when the embargo ends, Cuba won’t have an easy battle in the stores. “Cuban cigars will be available in this country,” he said, “but they will face an uphill battle.”

Then, discover the seminar that followed this one: Nicaragua: the hottest country for tobacco.

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