At the 2019 International Premium Cigar & Pipe Retailers Association trade show and convention, Ventura Cigar Company introduced its latest brand, Cuban Cigar Factory. While the cigars might currently have only been on the market for a few short months, their heritage easily combines more than 100 years of knowledge and experience inside the tobacco and premium cigar worlds as Michael Giannini, Ventura Cigar Company’s general manager, turned to two longtime industry friends—Manuel “Manolo” Quesada and Benjamin “Benji” Menendez—to create the cigars’ blends.
In 2017, Ventura Cigar Company acquired Cuban Cigar Factory, a San Diego, California-based cigar retail store that produced its own lines for wholesale distribution. Since the acquisition, Ventura Cigar Company has added Cuban Cigar Factory’s original brands to its nationwide distribution network. Both the Benji Menendez for Cuban Cigar Factory and the Manolo Quesada for Cuban Cigar Factory cigars mark the first releases for the Cuban Cigar Factory brand as part of Ventura Cigar Company.
The Benji Menendez for Cuban Cigar Factory cigar is made using an Ecuadorean Connecticut wrapper, a Dominican binder, and Dominican and Nicaraguan filler tobaccos. The Manolo Quesada for Cuban Cigar Factory is made from an Ecuadorean Habano wrapper, Ecuadorean binder and Dominican filler tobaccos. Both cigars are available in three sizes: Robusto (5 x 50), Toro (6 x 50) and Belicoso (6 1/4 x 52). All cigars in the line are packaged in 20-count boxes, and they are all manufactured at the Quesada Cigars factory in Tamboril, Dominican Republic.
“I wanted to honor the stories and legacy of Benji Menendez and Manuel Quesada,” says Giannini. “Benji is such an accomplished cigar master that I couldn’t let him fade away in his retirement. I want the next generation of cigar consumers to remember this giant of a man. I wanted to tell the story of Manolo Quesada, who is Benji’s great friend and an accomplished cigar master in his own right. I wanted to tell their stories, as they are a part of a cigarmaking generation we will not see again.”
The Benji Story
It’s difficult to imagine a career more diverse and impactful on the premium cigar industry than that of Benjamin “Benji” Menendez Torano. He’s had a hand in the development of the tobacco and premium cigar industries in eight countries since the early 1960s, after the Fidel Castro regime nationalized the Cuban cigar industry and took his family’s cigar factory away from them. Since then, Benji has been the mastermind or part of the teams behind many of the world’s most famous and best-loved premium cigar brands that have been created in the last 50-plus years.
“Benji is the only one in our industry today who has been around in eight countries making cigars,” Quesada comments. “He made cigars in Cuba, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Honduras, the Canary Islands, Brazil and in the United States. That is one heck of a career behind him.”
Born on March 11, 1936, Benji jokes that his career in tobacco, which lasted 62 years, began when he was still inside his mother’s womb. His father, Alonso Menendez, was the majority owner of the Cuban cigar factory where the legendary H. Upmann and Montecristo cigars were made. His mother, Maria de la Soledad, belonged to one of the island nation’s largest tobacco-growing families. Tobacco and cigars were the subjects of constant conversation in the Menendez household—both before and after Benji’s birth—so it was almost impossible for him not to have absorbed by osmosis some of the knowledge that his family passed around throughout the day. Growing up, Benji enjoyed playing inside the factory and visiting his grandfather’s tobacco farm. While no one ever directly told him that he must work in tobacco, Benji never considered any other career. After completing his education in the United States, he returned to Cuba and began formally working in September 1952 at the factory in which his father was majority owner.
On Jan. 1, 1959, the government of Cuba fell into the hands of Fidel Castro, and on Sept. 15, 1960, the Castro regime nationalized the Cuban cigar industry, wresting control of the factories and fields from the families who had owned them. Benji left Cuba and came to the U.S. and obtained a job with Philip Morris selling cigarettes in Miami. When his father established a new factory in the Canary Islands—Campania Insular Tabacalera—in 1962, Benji returned to the cigar industry and was instrumental in establishing the brands Don Diego, Flamenco and Montecruz while working at the factory.
In 1972, the Menendez family sold Camparia Insular Tabacalera to Gulf and Western Industries, and Benji stayed on with the company until 1977, when he left to establish a factory in Brazil. The Brazilian company failed, however, and in 1981 Benji met Edgar Cullman Sr., who offered him a job with General Cigar Company to manage its cigar operations in both the Dominican Republic and Jamaica, and where he worked alongside the legendary Ramon Cifuentes, who had created the brand Partagas in Cuba. Benji stayed with General Cigar Company for 15 years before accepting a position with Tabacalera, the Spanish tobacco monopoly. Benji remained at Tabacalera as it transitioned into Altadis after merging with the French tobacco monopoly, Seita, and then returned to General Cigar Company as senior vice president of premium cigars in 2003. In this capacity, Benji mentored younger cigarmakers inside the company and traveled to premium cigar retailers, serving as an ambassador for General Cigar Company and its brands and sharing his deep tobacco knowledge with consumers until his retirement on Jan. 1, 2014.
“Since I have retired I have been taking life easy,” Menendez says. “I now have three jobs—watching TV, taking care of my grandchildren and signing checks, so it was a real honor for me that Michael would ask me to be a part of this project. The Benji Menendez for Cuban Cigar Factory cigar has a light-colored Ecuadorean Connecticut seed wrapper. It’s a stronger cigar than the typical Connecticut seed cigar. It has some kick to it, but it’s a very pleasant smoke. I like it a lot.”
At 73 years of age, Manuel “Manolo” Quesada is still actively involved in the premium cigar industry, serving as an ambassador for his family’s Quesada Cigars company. The Quesada family got involved in tobacco leaf brokerage in Cuba in the late 19th century, and by the beginning of the 20th century, Antero Gonzalez, Quesada’s great-grandfather, owned one of the world’s largest tobacco brokerage firms. Like his friend Benji, Manolo grew up in the industry and started working for his family’s company when he was still a teenager. Also like the Menendez family’s experience, the Quesada family left Cuba after the Castro regime nationalized the country’s cigar and tobacco industries and seized their business.
Quesada and his brother, Alvaro, attended school in the U.S., with Manolo studying business administration and marketing at North Carolina State University before he was conscripted and served a tour of duty in Vietnam as part of the U.S. Army. After his service, Manolo completed his education at Florida State University and then joined the leaf brokerage company that his great-uncle, Manolo Gonzalez, had started in the Dominican Republic.
After nearly a century as leaf brokers, the Quesada family entered the premium cigar business in June 1974, when they established Manufactura de Tabacos S.A. (MATASA, which the family renamed Quesada Cigars) in Santiago, Dominican Republic, with just a few bales of tobacco, three rollers and $100. MATASA/Quesada Cigars initially made just three brands—Sosa, Fonseca and Ma’Haya—but has since grown its brand portfolio to include Fonseca and Quesada cigars, Vega Magna, Casa Magna and a host of private-label brands for companies such as Nat Sherman International.
Old World Meets New World
Having worked at General Cigar Company with Menendez and having formed a close friendship with Quesada, Giannini wanted to use the first Ventura Cigar Company release in the Cuban Cigar Factory line as a vehicle to explain the history of the premium cigar industry in the last 60 years or so. Anyone spending any amount of time in a premium cigar store will likely hear questions from casual cigar smokers or people buying gifts for the cigar smokers in their lives about why a particular cigar is made in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras or another location instead of Cuba—or why Cuban cigars aren’t available in the U.S. Having Quesada and Menendez crafting these cigars for Cuban Cigar Factory is Giannini’s attempt to answer those questions and introduce, or perhaps reintroduce, these two accomplished cigarmakers to the Generation X and Millennial generations.
In creating a historical record, historians pore over primary research—letters, diaries and other similar paraphernalia—of the people and times they are writing about. These primary resources offer firsthand eye-witness testimony from the people involved in the historical event and record their reactions to it, and it is up to the historian to provide the context on which to interpret those primary resources. Thanks to Giannini’s collaboration with Menendez and Quesada, Ventura Cigar Company’s Cuban Cigar Factory offers cigar lovers everywhere a chance to experience premium cigar history through a primary source made by two industry legends, one puff at a time.
“It was Michael Giannini’s idea of telling a story of two gentlemen who have been around for a while that may have learned a couple of things and may have done a few things along the way,” Quesada says. “Bringing us together with Ventura and Cuban Cigar Factory is one heck of an idea. The idea of bringing the old—Benji and I—into the new world of all these new smokers was his idea. The Benji Menendez for Cuban Cigar Factory and Manolo Quesada for Cuban Cigar Factory cigars are creating a bond between generations, and the result is two cigar lines that offer two very distinct taste profiles but that will please a lot of cigar smokers no matter to what generation they belong.”
This story first appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Tobacco Business magazine. Members of the tobacco industry are eligible for a complimentary subscription to our magazine. Click here for details.
– Story by Stephen A. Ross, editor-in-chief of Tobacco Business Magazine.