Anniversaries are worth waiting for
Having finally got His Hands on the Montecristo aniversario 80, simon chase Muses on the brand’s History
In my April 2015 column, I reported the imminent arrival of a mighty cigar from montecristo, the 155 mm by 55 ring gauge Aniversario 80. It had been showcased at the 2015 Festival del Habano and was expected as the focal point of the birthday celebrations for Cuba’s most popular brand that had been founded 80 years before, in 1935.
However, at the time of writing this column, sufficient quantities of these celebratory cigars to stage a launch have not yet been shipped to the world’s Habanos distributors, although there is every chance that they will have been by the time you read these words.
Anniversaries are always a problem because they tie you to a date. Those of us who are married know it’s all too easy to forget them completely, but in the world of Cuban cigars, what almost amounts to a tradition has built up of letting the dates slip by a little. I remember when, in november 1992, Cohiba’s línea 1492 cigars were announced to mark the 500th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s discovery of tobacco. There were a few Siglos in Havana, but a whole year passed before they were available in the world at large. likewise, Cohiba’s 30th Anniversary was not celebrated until 1997, 31 years after its birth.
The causes of delays when you are making a brand new, premium cigar can be many. In the simplest terms, you must have the tobacco, the perfect blend of leaves and the boxes to put the cigars into. In the case of the montecristo Aniversario 80, most of the cigars were made in good time last year and there was a confident smile on the master blender’s face, but the boxes fell foul of the Cuban-american trade embargo. Those of you who believe that the embargo is a thing of the past have another thing coming. Virtually nothing has changed since Barak Obama’s shock announcement in December 2014, and there are now moves in the republican-dominated US Congress to make the embargo even tighter.
So, as 2016 ticks away, we are still awaiting these special cigars in their boxes, which
were finally manufactured outside Cuba.
Looking back, as I tend to do in these columns, I can find some historical justification for this situation.
Montecristo was the brainchild of two Spaniards who had settled in Cuba— Alonso Menendez and José Manuel (Pépé) García. The former came from a family of leaf brokers and the latter had been a senior manager at Partagas. Together, they embarked on a new venture when they bought a company called Particulares S.A., which made cigars under its own name as well as the Lord Byron brand, which enjoyed noteworthy success in the UK.
The first ever mention of Montecristo in print appeared in the August 1935 issue of the Cuban cigar industry magazine, Habano. Alonso Menendez gave his new baby the briefest possible mention in a piece about restructuring Particulares S.A. The article went on to say that his partner, Pépé García, would shortly be visiting England to explain what was going on.
Pépé’s real goal in London was to find an importer for Montecristo in the UK, which in those days was the largest single market for Havanas. Legend has it that he visited all the major British companies, but none of them showed the slightest interest in his fledgling brand. Then he arrived at John Hunter, Morris & Elkan Ltd, one of the forebears of Hunters & Frankau, the present day Habanos Distributor in the UK. It was here that the 35-year-old managing director, a former First World War pilot called Jack Benham, saw the potential for a more modern style of Havana brand and asked to be its distributor.
Sadly, Benham, who is credited with helping to design Montecristo’s distinctive livery, was killed in action two years after
re-joining the RAF in 1939 and never saw his confidence in the brand rewarded as it climbed to become Havana’s most popular cigar.
Pépé was still in the UK in December 1935 when he was interviewed by Tobacco Magazine. They asked what he thought English cigar smokers. A diplomat to his fingertips, he replied: “They are the best judges of cigars in the world. If there’s anything wrong with a shipment, the first complaint comes from England; anything extra special, the first praise is from an Englishman.”
Shortly after Pépé returned to Cuba, Hunters received a letter from Alonso Menendez offering them a 15-year contract, after a two-year trial period “in regard to the exclusive reservation for the English market of our brand “Montecristo”. It was dated 10 February, 1936.
I find it quite remarkable that this relationship with Montecristo between the manufacturer in Cuba and its British distributor has continued unbroken ever since, through thick and thin, despite the effects of a World War and a Revolution.
The United States was the other market where Menendez and Garcia wanted to sell Montecristo, but the brand was already owned there by a tobacco family called Cullman. If the name is familiar, think of the late Edgar M. Cullman Sr., erstwhile president of the General Cigar Company and the man who, more than any other, made Macanudo what it is today. I once heard Edgar tell the story of how, in the mid-1930s, his father, Joseph Cullman Jr. sold the Montecristo
trademark in the USA to Benjamin Menendez, Alonso’s father, for $1.
“It was a little naive on my father’s part,” commented Edgar, “when you consider the worth of the mark today.” But the two families were firm friends and that was how business was done back then.
Which market received the first shipment of Montecristo is not clear, but the first cigars started to arrive in Britain in March 1936, which means that 2016 is the more appropriate year to celebrate the 80th anniversary than 2015 was.
With this in mind, Hunters & Frankau managed to obtain enough Montecristo Aniversario 80s to serve at its annual Summer Cigar Party, which took place this year in the Garden Lounge at London’s Corinthia Hotel on 14 June. One-hundred-and-fifty guests, me included, were able to smoke the cigar at long last.
There is no doubt that the Aniversario 80 is a large cigar. To be honest, these days, I tend to quail at some of the heavy-girth cigars I see. A 55 ring gauge is about as far as I am prepared to go. Couple that with over 15 centimetres, or six inches, of solid tobacco and the cigar has to be really interesting if I am to finish it. The big question for me about this cigar was whether it would live up to its medium-to-full-flavoured billing and, more importantly, if it would display the classic tangy Montecristo taste with hints of orange peel.
Perhaps because of the girth, the correct richness of flavour was evident almost from the start. I had to be more patient for the tanginess, but by the time I reached the second third, there it was. And it increased all the way through until I abandoned not much more than an inch in an ashtray.
If this Englishman lives up to Pépé García’s diplomatic description all those years ago, and assuming that he meant what he said in the first place, then I would say the Aniversario 80 is “extra special” and has been well worth waiting for.