Charlie Toraño has been involved directly in making cigars for about a dozen years, Toraño’s family has been in the cigar leaf business since 1916, when his great-grandfather Santiago Toraño emigrated from Spain to Cuba.
“Almost from the moment he arrived in Cuba, the only work the Toraño family really did involved tobacco—growing it and distributing it,” says Charlie Toraño, 40, who practiced commercial law before joining the family’s tobacco business in 1995. “My great-grandfather began buying from the local farmers and finding clients in different cigar factories.”
By the time Fidel Castro changed all that four decades later, the Toraño family operated 17 tobacco farms and exported tobacco to manufacturers in the United States. Taking part in the exodus that followed Castro’s takeover of the island nation, Charlie’s grandfather—Carlos A. Toraño Sr.—helped introduce Pilato Cubano tobacco in the Dominican Republic and educated local farmers on its growing, production, and fermentation. The business passed down to his son Carlos Jr. when Carlos Sr. died.
Today, Toraño Cigars makes cigars in factories in Danlí, Honduras, and Estelí and Ocotál, Nicaragua. With the exception of the full-bodied Carlos Toraño Noventa, Carlos Toraño cigars, including the 1916 Cameroon, Exodus 1959, Exodus 1959 Silver Edition, and Casa Toraño, typically are mild- to medium-bodied smokes.
Toraño Cigars currently is building a state-of-the-art showcase factory in Estelí, which should be completed later this year.
In May, the company became the exclusive distributor of Dunhill cigars. Also, a new cigar, the Exodus Platinum, debuted this summer in a five-pack along with two new sizes each of the Carlos Toraño Exodus 1959 and Exodus 1959 Silver Edition. A maduro version of the mild Casa Toraño also came to market this summer.
Veteran SMOKE writer Bob Ashley spoke with Charlie Toraño.
SMOKE: You are building a new factory in Nicaragua at a time of uncertainty with the recent re-election of socialist Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega as president.
TORAÑO: Yes. We are continuing to invest in Nicaragua because we are invested in Nicaragua. From a pure economic standpoint it might make sense to consolidate our factories elsewhere.
The truth is that we were hedging our bets by keeping factories in both Honduras and Nicaragua. Nicaragua, particularly, has an unstable history.
Are we happy that, of all people, Daniel Ortega is the one standing at the door right now? Nobody is happy about that in our industry. But there are a lot of factors that hedge against whatever reasonable fear we might have with Ortega in office.
One is that Nicaragua has a democratic system in place as imperfect as it might be. There is a free press and 65% of the people did not vote for Daniel Ortega. Nicaragua is a place that bled a lot during the Sandinista revolution. The country is absolutely dead tired of brothers fighting against brothers.
We don’t believe there will be any move to the extreme left in terms of nationalizing the industry, we don’t believe there would be enough, if any, political support for such a move.
SMOKE: Toraño Cigars got into manufacturing at just about the time that the bloom faded from the mid-1990s cigar resurgence.
TORAÑO: The family was not in the cigar business because of the boom. My father and his generation were in the tobacco business, not because they could become millionaires. They were there because they loved cigars. They were there in tobacco before the boom and after the boom.
We just kept our head down and made good quality cigars. And then there was some good fortune for us that after the fad went away, some very serious cigars smokers stayed with it. It became part of what men do and enjoy as a hobby. And the quality got better because we were focusing less on demand and more on the quality of our tobacco.
SMOKE: Tell me a little about the new Exodus Platinum cigar that debuts this summer.
TORAÑO: It’s a very strong, powerhouse blend from a strength and flavor profile. The other Exodus cigars are more medium-bodied and very rounded and refined elegant smokes. The Platinum is supercharged. It’s got great balanced flavors.
We don’t have high production of it yet. Introducing it in a five-pack is a way for us to introduce the blend to the consuming public. We hope the public likes it and we hope to expand its production in the future. It’s almost like having the public taste a prototype cigar before a conventional roll out.
SMOKE: Who smokes Toraño cigars these days?
TORAÑO: It’s the professional guy who is looking for a good quality cigar at a good price—not the cheapest price—but a good price with good quality. Most people when they are introduced to our brand—we have so many taste profiles—will find at least one Carlos Toraño that they really enjoy, hopefully more, given the variety that we offer.
My father’s philosophy always was to make a cigar that everyone could afford and enjoy.
SMOKE: You were born in Miami, but you, like many others, retain an affinity for your Cuban heritage.
TORAÑO: Anybody who has ever been to Miami or has any connection with Miami knows that it is almost a mini Cuba. I can’t think of a day when Cuba was not a topic of conversation, either from a family standpoint or in the community and even now from a tobacco standpoint.
Cuba has always been part of my life—the culture, the food, the history, the people.
Yet, the closest I’ve ever been to Cuba is 25,000 or 30,000 feet as I fly to our cigar factories in Central America as opposed to Cuba, where our factories should have been had Castro not happened.
SMOKE: You’ve not been to Cuba?
TORAÑO: I have never been, but I have a very strong desire to go.
SMOKE: Under what circumstances?
TORAÑO: I want to go back, but not when the guy at the door is the same guy who threw my family out and who continues to commit crimes against Cuban citizens. I will go back when the system changes.
It might not be a perfect system, whatever it changes into. But if perfection is my standard, I’m never going to get there. At a minimum I want there to be a political opening and I don’t want those two thugs (Fidel and Raul Castro) symbolically greeting me at the door.
SMOKE: What do you think will happen in regard to the cigar situation when circumstances in Cuba change?
TORAÑO: When Cuba opens up, from a tobacco standpoint, there are going to be a lot of claims against the government by a lot of industries. It’s extremely complicated. Specific to tobacco, most—not all, but most—people sold the rights to their brands to big companies here in the states. Some of those companies have direct ties to the company that is effectively controlling distribution of Cuban cigars worldwide. For those who haven’t sold their brands, some form of agreement will be made to ensure those brands come into the U.S. market. It’s going to be complex, but there a good portion of it that already is resolved.
SMOKE: Do you think you will ever manufacture cigars in Cuba?
TORAÑO: I hope that when things change in Cuba, it happens in a way where we can go and invest in our own cigar factories and grow tobacco in Cuba—that it’s not this one-sided flow of our market being flooded with Cuban cigars while we all sit by and watch it happen. That, to me, would be unfair.
SMOKE: Are Cuban cigars worthy of the acclaim?
TORAÑO: I don’t think Cuban cigars will in any way have the market in the United States that they do in the rest of the world. One reason Cuban cigars have dominated outside of the United States has to do with distribution monopolies. For example, for years the only cigars you could get in Spain were Cuban cigars.
Cuba makes good cigars. With an 80% market-share outside the United States, they can’t all be junk. I just don’t think they are better than the cigars that we make or that other companies make. Today, I would put any great Nicaraguan or Dominican or Honduran cigar up against any Cuban cigar in a true blind taste test.
Once Cuban cigars come to the United States, yes, people will have some Cuban cigars in their humidors. But they also are going to have their Dominicans, Hondurans, and Nicaraguans.
SMOKE: Is there a myth about Cuban cigars? Do Americans want Cuban cigars because they can’t have them?
TORAÑO: That’s a strong, strong factor. If I had to argue the other side, though, I would have to point out a couple of things. Cuba is where cigars were born. We have a cigar brand, Exodus 1959, that tries to educate people to the fact that cigar manufacturers in other countries—Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua—have their roots in the exodus of cigar families from Cuba that began in 1959. Without that heritage I’m not sure you would have such a growing, dynamic industry in those other countries.
SMOKE: How do you think Americans will accept Cuban cigars in general?
TORAÑO: In the U.S. market, Americans have become sophisticated enough to appreciate good cigars wherever they may come from. It is going to be tough on other manufacturers in the beginning because retailers will be spending a lot of their money paying very high prices for Cuban cigars that American consumers will be asking for. In the short term, there will be some disruption in the market, but in the long run, the industry will be fine.