Cuba’s communists and exiles ready for great cigar smoke-off
The country’s tobacco is held in high esteem all over the world, but exiled artisans and newcomers are making inroads in surrounding countries, writes Jonathan Levin
Manuel Quesada puffs one of his range of 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 honoured 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 an uncomfortable 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 p*** me off. That’s why I don’t go to Cuba. Because they will p*** me off."
He’s 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’s 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 US.
Many of them look just like the Fonsecas made to this day back in Havana — parallel-universe twins marketed everywhere but the US, thanks to the six-decade-old trade embargo and another reason for Quesada to be p***ed off.
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. "There’s no pride, no care."
Ever since John F Kennedy slapped an embargo on Cuba, the communists and the exiles have never competed against each other in the US market.
What will happen when they do is a favourite topic in cigar circles. The US constitutes about a third of the $21bn global cigar market that Cuba would love to tap and producers such as Quesada definitely do not want to lose.
There’s no telling when the sanctions might finally end. President Donald Trump has yet to officially weigh in on Cuban relations. 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 plan for the time when wrappers tagged "Habana, Cuba" appear in US shops.
"We talk about it all day long," says Quesada. "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 junior fled to Miami with his mother and siblings; Manuel senior was forced to stay behind for a year to teach the bureaucrats his business. The communists nationalised 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 and 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 US 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 teamed up 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 and the UK’s Imperial Brands.
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 US and Peru. Some of the blends have elements of the old Cuban flavour. 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 is 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 UK’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 have taken up the craft in surrounding countries.
Today, Fonseca is one of four brands that Quesada Cigars sells. Each brand contains multiple lines; each line contains multiple shapes and sizes. They consistently make their way onto lists of the world’s best smokes compiled by Cigar Aficionado and Robb Report.
Quesada never doubted he would come face to face with his old Cuban nemesis at some point and he figures there’s at least one surefire way to ensure he can profit from such a scenario: striking an accord over the Fonseca name, with Havana agreeing to have his company distribute the Cuban versions in the US — or possibly allowing him to make his own cigars with Cuban tobacco.
Both sides would profit instead of squandering time and money in court. Habanos, a unit of Cubatabaco, did not respond to requests for comment.
The most famous tussle is Cohiba vs Cohiba, over whether General Cigar has the right to the US trademark. Cubatabaco, which makes Cohibas of its own, has been trying to cancel that trademark in a case that has been dragging on for 20 years. Cohiba was created especially for Castro back in the 1960s.
For Quesada, the fight will be over his five Fonseca lines. They may not be his best cigars but they account for a third of Quesada Cigars’s annual revenue. The brand is legendary. Registered in 1907 by Francisco Fonseca, it eventually found its way to the exiled Sosa family in Miami, with whom the Quesadas teamed up before acquiring sole ownership in 1995.
To this day, Quesada keeps a vintage Fonseca box in his office at the factory, where maps of Cuban and Dominican tobacco-growing regions cover the walls.
The cigar industry has grown in Quesada’s lifetime and has come under new pressures. Give him an opening, and he will rant about the US Food and Drug Administration’s plan to mandate that cancer-warning labels be slapped on his carefully crafted and varnished wooden boxes.