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The Other “Carlito” – An Interview with Charlie Toraño
Let’s start with your father [Carlos] and the family’s approach to making cigars.
Charlie Toraño: The history of Toraño cigars really begins with growing tobacco. My grandfather and great-grandfather were growers in Cuba. When we left Cuba, the family continued growing tobacco in different places around the world and my father also continued in that business. Although, fortunately, we’re all enjoying this great renaissance in cigars since the early 90’s, the reality is, when I was growing up this was a struggling business. They couldn’t give away a bale of tobacco because back then, the business was all but dead.
So how did your family eventually get into the mainstream part of the business?
CT: They basically got into it as middlemen. Back in the 1980’s they created a company called Central American Tobacco that essentially acted as a middleman, putting the factory together with distributors. Simply put, if more business was generated, they could sell more tobacco leaf to the factory. So, that’s what marked the beginning of what would eventually go from growing to becoming manufacturers of cigars. By the mid-90’s we had our own factories and were producing cigars for some great companies like CAO, as well as under our own name. And even today, we continue to work with some really great companies in this business.
What’s the Toraño cigar-making philosophy?
CT: Every factory has their way of doing things, but if you came to our factory, one of the things that would strike you would be the level of different varieties of tobacco. Because of our relationship in the leaf business we have tobacco from all over the world. That includes the usual countries like Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic, as well as Indonesia, Italy, Peru, Columbia, Mexico, and Panama. Suffice it to say, we do a lot of blending. That’s our philosophy. To make our cigars different, we blend, which is why we take a lot of pride in being able to offer unique blends, both within our range and as a manufacturer. The other, and perhaps bigger part of our philosophy, is to provide value to the customer. Not the cheapest, but value; produce the best cigars at really good, affordable prices, so Toraño can be your go-to cigar for every smoker.
It’s hard to find anyone today that’s absolutely loyal to one brand, isn’t it?
CT: That’s exactly my point. Because today everybody smokes more than one brand, my goal is to have every person that smokes cigars have at least one or two Toraño cigars they enjoy in their rotation. And that’s why we create so many different blends.
What are some of the new blends you’ve created for the coming year?
CT: There are two blends we’re particularly excited about. The Virtuoso Toraño goes back many years, well before we had organized our brands under the Carlos Toraño name. At that time, we had a Carlos Toraño cigar, a Virtuoso cigar, and a Grand Nica cigar, but we weren’t marketing them in a way that identified them with the family. So ultimately, in the mid to late 90’s, we came out with the Carlos Toraño Reserva Select and the Carlos Toraño Exodus 1959.
The Exodus 1959 was the first Carlos Toraño cigar I ever smoked. I bought it because there was a lot of buzz about it at the time, and it’s still one of my favorites.
CT: It’s a very rich and balanced cigar. And for me, of all our lines (I guess a manufacturer isn’t supposed to have a favorite), when I’m home that’s really my personal favorite. Of course, I’ve smoked all of our blends and enjoy them all, but when forced to pick one, I’d go with the Exodus. More importantly, I think the Exodus is the cigar that really took the Toraño name to a whole new level in terms of recognition. It created an interest on the part of consumers who wanted to try a Toraño, and from there they began expanding into some of our other blends.
What distinguishes the Virtuoso from your other blends?
CT: The exciting thing for us about it is it’s the first cigar that we’ve ever made essentially with a home-grown wrapper – grown by the Toraño family and the Olivas family. In our factories we’re partners with Fidel Olivas and his family (not to be confused with the Gilberto or John Oliva families). Together with them, we grow tobacco in Nicaragua. Our family are not growers in general any more. We buy in such huge quantities from around the world, we could never grow enough to satisfy the demand. However, we do grow our own tobacco in Pueblo Nuevo, which is in the Condega region of Nicaragua. Beginning with the 2002 crop, it’s yielded some great sun-grown wrappers.
What’s interesting is that when we first started growing there, we weren’t looking for wrapper. We were looking for good, quality filler. But when we started sorting the tobacco and we realized we had a very special wrapper in our hands, we continued growing and sorting it for a few more years to make sure the farm could continue to produce it. So this is the wrapper we’ve selected for the Virtuoso cigars.
The Virtuoso is blended to be the fullest in body in the Toraño line. I think we’ve been very good at the medium-bodied blends. Last year, with the Casa Toraño we introduced a nice, mild cigar. But to fill out the range I thought we needed to go to the other end of the spectrum. I’m not saying its the strongest cigar in the industry, but it’s certainly one of the strongest of the Toraño line within our flavor profiles.
What else can you say about the Virtuoso blend?
CT: It’s got some Panamanian tobacco, some Honduran, some Nicaraguan, and of course, the Toraño wrapper. We’re very excited about this wrapper, and so far we’ve already gotten some great reviews and feedback. We’ve always loved the named Virtuoso, which means one who has masterly skills, or represents the epitome of something good, and we feel that word aptly describes this cigar.
How personally involved are you in the blending process?
CT: I’m very involved. It’s my father, myself, and Fidel Olivas and his sons who are primarily involved in the blending process. We try to take new blends to our staff or sometimes we try to get input from outside the company, but ultimately, and particularly with the Virtuoso, the decision was made within the family. Most of the time, we do send out samples to get feedback on new blends. But in the end, you have to find the blend that you really enjoy based on your personality and that of the family. Then, hopefully people respond to it. Outside input can be very useful, but I think the most successful companies are those that create their own personality through their cigars and say, this is who we are.
Since you do buy most of your tobacco, how do you account for consistency year after year?
CT: Because we do so much blending, any one of our cigars can have up to three or four different types of filler tobacco at one time. It is because my father has been in the business so long, he’s had relationships with many of the growers for over 20 years. So, every year we sample the crop, we look to see that there are no problems with it. And if there is, you try to compensate for it by balancing out that cigar with one of the other fillers in case you’re not getting enough flavor from a leaf of a particular year.
So it’s a constant process.
CT: Yes. We consider ourselves a very strong medium-sized facility. We make well over 50,000 handmade cigars a day. I wonder if people even realize sometimes how many cigars a day we make. Of course, the brands that we make are for some of the other fine companies we work with, not just Toraño. We have a responsibility, not only to ourselves, but if you’re going to present yourself as a cigar maker for other manufacturers, that’s a big responsibility which we take very seriously. The key is not just having the tobacco, but the right suppliers and relationships, and frankly, tasting the cigars on a daily basis at the factory level. You have to keep in mind that there are people who smoke the same brands all the time. If I get a comment from someone who smokes the Signature Collection all the time, and they tell me that something was off, I listen to that person. At the factory level we do the same thing. The same people smoke the Signature, smoke the Exodus, 1916 Cameroon, and so on, so we know whether we’re doing the right thing or not.
What are the three most important things in making a great cigar?
CT: One, you have to have good raw material. Whether you’re a buyer or a grower, and most factories buy tobacco, you have to know how to judge and buy good quality tobacco. For your best premium cigars you have to insist on getting the best of the best. Secondly, the reality is you have to have good blending ability. You can’t just mix anything. You have to know what tobaccos compliment each other. How they will age, blend, etc., and finally, construction. All the great tobacco in the world means nothing unless the cigar is made properly. If the cigar is not well made, you’re going to get punished – and you should.
Have you been in the business your entire life?
CT: Let’s say I’ve been surrounded by the business my entire life. When I was growing up in the 70’s and 80’s the business was not that strong. This was before the boom and my father did not see much of a future in the business. So, I didn’t think about going into the business. There were no young smokers at that time who were keeping an interest in cigars. So, I went to Law School and practiced for four to five years, while always keeping an eye on my father’s business. Then in 1996, when the resurgence in cigars by younger people had returned, I left the Law and went into the business.
What’s the biggest change you’ve seen since you came into the business?
CT: Actually, in 1996 when I came in, my father, who has seen the good, the bad and the ugly of this business, said to me, “What you’re seeing here isn’t reality.” This was the crazy boom time when demand exceeded the supply. Just about anyone who had a cigar was selling it. It was a frenetic pace. Instead of worrying about the quality, manufacturers were worrying about the supply and getting it out the door. For me, at the time I came in, I learned what not to do. So the biggest change I’ve seen is the improvement in the quality of the tobacco. Of course, my father has had much more experience, but from what I’ve observed in my short 10 years, I think now is the best time in cigars, in terms of the innovation of new blends. We all know that because there is enough supply to meet demand, the only way you can get market share is by distinguishing yourself. If you don’t have the quality today, you will not survive. Quite the opposite of what I found when I started. Many of the cigar makers who were producing cigars to make a quick buck then, are gone now. So you’re back to many of the traditional companies, and some new and exciting companies who have come into the business in the last ten years. I think now we just have to take care of it. n