There are many things that I have enjoyed and loved about covering the tobacco industry, but one of the truly greatest moments I have had to date is sitting down with Benji Menendez. He is a true legend in every sense of the word and has been in the tobacco business for over sixty years. In that time he has been involved in every aspect of the tobacco business and has been part of some of the biggest moments in cigar history over the last half century. Benji is as knowledgeable as they come and yet he would be the first guy to tell you that he doesn’t know it all, and that there is always something new to learn about tobacco.
When we envisioned our interview series we had set modest hopes of talking with a handful of individuals, but to our amazement we have been honored to talk to many, but Benji is truly a highlight and also one of our most challenging interviewees to date. He is challenging in that when you interview Benji, you don’t really “interview” Benji, but rather you listen to him. He is a storyteller and one that talks enthusiastically about his craft. The following interview is segmented into parts that are really naturally flowing stories and thoughts rather than a traditional Q&A, hopefully you enjoy it as much as we did listening to him!
Cigar Brief (CB): What is one of your favorite things abou working in the tobacco industry?
Benji Menendez (Benji): One of my biggest pleasures is to give these young people whatever experience I have; and it is not telling them what to do, but more like planting a seed and letting them develop the tree. I’m not gonna develop the tree for them. I might be telling them later on, “Hey, you gotta put a little bit more water on that tree, or this fertilizer is better for the tree. But it is your tree.”
And this is the thing that really pleases me so much. I sit here. I have no authority. The man in charge of operations here and in Honduras and Nicaragua is Jhonys Diaz. He’s the boss. So the only thing I can give them is my experience. The only thing I can give them is what I think in all these blends and all these things. But when I said before, “This is the place where the master series was born,” the guy who was with me all the time and doing the changes was Jhonys.
And there came a point – and this is the only time that I exercised any authority – was when we were making these blends and so on. We had decided on one blend and that was going to be it. I went back to Miami and about four or five days later, I get a call. “Hey, Benji. We have a new blend that we would like you to test.”
The only time I stopped it. I said, “Jhonys, no. We’re not gonna do any more. This company is a company that has to sell cigars, not make tests, not make all these samples, but make cigars. We have a good blend. Let’s not fool around with it. We go with this.”That’s the only time. That’s the only time that I said, “We’re going with this.” But that is not because I have any authority over Jhonys. No, no. Jhonys has authority over me. But the only authority I have is my experience, my time in the industry. That’s the only thing I have.
CB: So when you talk about Jhonys having the power and you just being there to give ideas and input, do you come up with the blends and then they test them, or do you work collaboratively to come up and test the blends?
Benji: At the beginning, it was mainly Jhonys and myself, and Jhonys relaying the info to his people. So eventually, we decided to create a team. And you saw those four guys today (Yuri Guillen, Edmundo Garcia, Rick Rodriguez, and Francisco Rodriguez), but those are not the only ones. There are other people that come to the meeting. And as I said the first time, “Gentlemen, if there are any stars or stripes, step outside, take them off and then come back here, because here, everybody is a private. The only thing I have more than you guys is white hair. That’s the only thing. I count one vote. I count only one vote. So this is how we’re gonna work.”
And it’s working. And it gives me so much pleasure to come here or go to Honduras and see the same thing. Working with these guys, a lot of them could be my children; some of them, even my grandchildren. But hey, the day they burn me, whatever experience I have, it’s gonna be burned. So if I can give them any points so that they can think about it, that’s what matters.
And I’m not gonna say my theory or my presentation is 100 percent; no. It might be 2 percent. But that 2 percent will allow you to go out and develop and say, “Well, this guy was crazy, but you know, he had a good point here. Let’s look at that point.” That’s what I want. I don’t want to tell them what to do. My time of leading and commanding anything is passed.
It is so nice to work with them openly and with everybody having the right to say whatever they think, and say it openly. There was no fear of making a mistake. We all make mistakes. I don’t care what your name is, we all make mistakes. So the thing is, if it is a mistake, we will correct the mistake.
But everybody comes in and partakes in this. And that is, to me, the greatest pleasure you could ever think of; more than running this operation, more than anything like that, it is working with them.
CB: Speaking of tobacco and blending, when you blend tobacco do you find it to be more of an art or more of a science.
Benji: To me, tobacco is such a unique thing. When you touch tobacco, when you smell tobacco, when you smoke it, when you are preparing a blend and you say, “Well, I think if I should do this, this, or this, this is –” you do it now. That did not work out. Hey, that is what we’re here for; to really show, to really participate, to really talk about things that we can do. And sometimes I hit the nail right on the head and sometimes I don’t. Sometimes I miss it. So this is great to be with these people. And this is what really turns me on.
But then we have an opportunity, like we have had this afternoon. We meet there, we’re talking, we are preparing what is going to be the future of next year. And not only of next year, but the year after that. Tobacco is something you cannot go to the store and buy. Tobacco is very peculiar in that respect.
We do things our way and a lot of times; it is a different way from everybody else. And I have been asked the question many times,” If you guys use the same tobacco. How come you have different cigars?” And that is because we – and I say my competitors, and myself – ” we all do things a little bit differently,” because tobacco is not a fixed thing that everybody has to fall in line on.
You look at tobacco and I say, “Hey, this tobacco is ready.” You might look at it and say, “What? He’s crazy. This tobacco is raw.” And you might look at it and say, “Hey, this tobacco is way past its prime.” And yet, we each are making cigars. And that’s why we have products out there, which are the same tobacco, but very different products. I can tell you this about General Cigar; I love it, I love the way we take care of and use our tobacco.
That concludes part I of our interview series with the legendary Benji Menendez. Stay tuned next week as we continue with our Benji Menendez interview series. We also want to take a moment to thank Benji and the folks at General Cigar for providing us with this opportunity to talk to one of the industry’s greatest living legends!