Today we continue on with our last installment of the Benji Menendez series. Once again, if you are just joining in, Parts I & II can be found here and here respectively. In part three of our interview series we get to learn from the Master about tobacco, and what he sees as the next step for General Cigar in the upcoming years.
Cigar Brief (CB): You are a man who has spent much of his life in tobacco. Can you distill down for my readership some of your wisdom on this wonderful leaf?
Benji Menendez: When you’re learning about tobacco, they say tobacco speaks a language; which is true. Tobacco has a language of its own. But you have to know the language. Japanese, it’s just a beautiful language. I don’t speak Japanese. I know maybe two words, arigatou and sayonara, and that’s it. I don’t know anything else. Tobacco has a language, but you have to learn that language. And the only way you learn that language is by being with it.
We were seeing all this tobacco this morning, and you are seeing a condensation of the things we do; because flavor of any agricultural product comes from the soil. The soil is what makes it different.
A lot of people talk about Cuban seed. Yeah, what does the Cuban seed do? Well, the Cuban seed will give you the shape, the structure, the thickness. But the flavor, it comes from the ground. And that’s why you have a Connecticut seed grown in Connecticut, or a Connecticut seed growing in Ecuador; and you’re gonna look at the leaves and they’re gonna be identical. But the taste is gonna be different. Or you see the same leaves being grown in Honduras and you’re gonna have the same leaf, same look, same color; but the flavor’s gonna be different.
And this is what tobacco is. It’s different. So when you see that tobacco there and you say, “Okay, piloto cubano.” Hey, we have different areas in Dominican Republic.
In Dominican Republic, different areas where the tobacco’s gonna be different. So we have to go in there and a lot of times blend the different tobaccos. It’s not just all the tobaccos from this area, all the tobaccos from this farm; no. You have to bring tobaccos in, and that’s how you develop the flavor of the cigar.
CB: Speaking of tobacco development, what do you see in the future for General Cigar? What unique challenges do you see a company of this size facing?
Benji: Right now in premium cigars, there’s only two companies; large companies – Altadis and us. The world is changing so much that I think eventually, there’ll be a lot more smaller ones. And I think that the companies, the large companies, have to be very careful. I don’t know if that’s the right word. But very aware of the marketplace.
The biggest fear of an elephant is not a tiger or another elephant, because fear of an elephant may be the ants, or may be the mice. That’s a bigger fear of an elephant. So we have to be aware that there are ants and there are mice out there, that if we don’t take care of it, they’re gonna take care of us. So this is where I see the future going.
This company, thank God, is very aware of the quality of the product and of the people; very aware. And I think it’s gonna be a long time in being. But when you see companies in this world – like Pan American, I remember Pan American. It was an unbelievable company. Where is Pan American today? It’s gone.
I remember companies like TWG, Bayuk; huge companies. Where are they today? They are gone. But does that mean that that market disappear? No. It is just a different way of looking at the market and acting on the market. Maybe that company has disappeared; but that company was taken over by somebody else who will grow in the market.
And competition is a very healthy thing. I love competition, because it keeps us on our toes. I talk about General Cigar because I cannot talk about any other company. And I’m not aware. I’m not on the inside. I was inside of Altadis for a while, but I mean that was ten years ago. I cannot talk about Altadis today, because the world has changed; like it has changed with us.
Ten years ago, the Cullmans were the owners of General Cigar. Today, it’s Scandinavian Tobacco Group. In the meantime, we have Swedish match. So things change. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the look and the quality of a product. And as long as we can look at this product, at the quality, and be aware of what the competitors are doing, I think we can have a long life. I think so. But that world changes; it does, it does.
We just want to thank Benji once again for his time in doing this interview series with us. His knowledge, warmth, and passion are truly infectious and he is without a doubt one of the greatest legends in the tobacco industry. We would also like to thank General Cigar for making this interview possible and having us down to their Dominicana operation to see Benji and the rest in action. It was a true honor and a great lifetime experience to see the Master at work with the rest of the General team.