The goal of the “Legend Interview Series” is to do a multiple part series on Legends within the Cigar Industry. We are talking with as many key luminaries as we can about their take on the industry and where it is headed. We appreciate greatly those who have taken the time to participate in our series.
Our first Legend in the series is Sherwin Seltzer. Mr. Seltzer was an instrumental leader in shaping the course of Villazon and then General Cigars, when they acquired Villazon in the 90’s. The following interview recounts his highlights and thoughts about the industry throughout the decades.
1 How did you get into the premium cigar industry?
When I got out of college in 1957, I was looking for a job and my friend got me into Brown Williamson. At the time, they were the manufacturer of Viceroy and Kool cigarettes. I had a sales territory in New York City and while doing that, I found out about an opening in NYC at Faber, Coe and Gregg. I jumped on it. That was in 1958 and this was my first cigar job. Faber, Coe and Gregg imported most of the Cuban cigars brought into the U.S., such as Punch, Hoyo de Monterrey and a number of other brands. I worked for them in NYC before they relocated me to California to launch their national products division.
2 What are the biggest changes you have seen in the industry since you first got your start?
When I got into the business, there was tremendous brand loyalty. People stuck with one or two brands – they never changed. There was also much less competition at that time. Most of the premium cigars we smoked were out of Tampa (made from clear Havana tobacco) and back when I started, Cuban cigars only made a very small part of the business.
And after the Cuban embargo hit, 90% of the premium industry went to the Caribbean (Dominican and Jamaica) and Central America (Honduras, Nicaragua) to develop tobacco for use in cigars exported to the U.S. This was, of course a tremendous change.
When Cigar Aficionado magazine came out in the fall of 1992, they gave the manufacturers the opportunity to advertise and promote their products directly to the consumer which never existed before. It was the catalyst that made premium cigars more mainstream. In my opinion, Cigar Aficionado contributed greatly to the cigar boom of the mid ‘90s.
Nowadays, there are many more manufactures because of the availability of tobacco. There is a lot of competition, not only between manufacturers, but also between the top tobacco producing countries, like the Dominican, Honduras and Nicaragua. I’ve seen a big change in that each of these countries now has their own cigar festival. That’s a big step in the right direction, to see the different companies working together to promote the category.
In the cigar business, there has always been a lot of camaraderie, even among competitors, so I’m glad to see that that has not changed.
3 for those of our audience who have not been around for a long time, how, in your opinion, have the profiles of cigar flavors, consistency, and construction changed over the years?
Thanks to Cigar Aficionado and other consumer-focused magazines like Smoke, consumers became aware of taste nuances of cigars. When I started in the business, there was a lot less talk about flavor and tastes…no one ever said they tasted coffee notes or anything along those lines when they smoked their cigar. In my mind, the magazines have heightened the enjoyment of cigars because there’s a lot more for cigar smokers to talk about.
Consistency and construction keeps getting better due to increased quality control measures. With so much competition, everybody is trying to produce the best cigars possible. I know from personal experience that General Cigar has always been a leader in ensuring consistency of taste and product quality and I’m glad to see that our cigars have set a high standard of quality for the entire industry.
4 What are one or two of your favorite moments from your remarkable career?
Moving out to California to develop the Flamenco cigar brand (ironically manufactured by Benji Menendez) for Faber, Coe and Gregg opened a new world for cigars. It was a great opportunity for me to build the business and create demand for cigars out West.
Joining Villazon was also another highlight of my career because that was a very entrepreneurial position. I really had a hand in building that business and that was very rewarding to me.
Above all, one of the best moments of my career was when I went to work for the Cullmans, after General Cigar bought Villazon. I’d gone from being in Villazon which was a smaller company to a larger, more structured and very polished company overnight. My role changed and I took on new, expanded responsibilities. I was given a leadership role in developing our relationships with the retail community. In that position, I made a lot of headway and also made a lot of friends.
Overall, being a part of General Cigar from the Cullman years to now with Dan Carr leading the company, has brought some particularly great moments to my career. It’s partially why I’m ready to retire: I am confident that the company is heading in the right direction. Even after the Cullmans sold the business, I have been proud to see that the product quality and the great people who make our cigars are all still intact. We’re also making better cigars and bringing more innovation to the category day after day. Even after I’m retired, I’m going to keep my eye on the industry because I know General Cigar is going to continue to do great things and lead the industry.
5 Is there any moment you look back at in your career that you wish you could have done differently?
No, I can’t think of anything that I would change. I have loved working in this business and I am walking away with wonderful memories.
6 Where do you think the cigar industry is headed next?
I think the premium business is going to continue to rise because I believe we are making better cigars than ever. Product quality today is unbelievable. And even though the economy isn’t great, there is a demand for affordable luxury goods. The cigar business is an indulgence that people of all income levels can enjoy and I feel that that will help to sustain the industry.
7 How has your company’s approach changed, if at all, since the rise of the smoking bans and tobacco tax increases?
We have always been involved in protecting the industry, but we have stepped up our efforts in response to increased taxation and legislation. We have our own dedicated team of lobbyists that help to protect the industry. And we work with industry organizations like the IPCPR and CRA to ensure the longevity of the premium cigar category.
8 What is your opinion on the Cuban embargo and its impact on your company’s branding, if lifted?
From my point of view for having worked on some of these brands for most of my career, General Cigar is the rightful owner in the United States of many brands with a Cuban heritage such as Partagas, Punch and Hoyo de Monterrey.
I don’t feel General Cigar is fearful of the embargo being lifted because we look forward to the renewed interest it will bring to the category. Personally, I fully expect there to be another cigar boom once the Cuban embargo lifts. Hell, if this happens anytime soon, I’m going to call Dan Carr to ask for my old job back.
9 (Bonus Round) If you were facing an executioner’s squad and had an opportunity to smoke one last cigar, what would it be?
My favorite cigar is Excalibur No 3, so if I have to go out, I want to go out smoking that cigar.