Industry legend Benji Menendez. Every industry has legends. Some unsung heroes, some famous names. A few names that will remain in everybody’s memories forever, most will fade away over time. Some that have left us, some still alive. These legends all played their part to make the cigar industry what it is today. And they deserve to be remembered, to be recognized for their achievements. That’s why Ministry of Cigars is creating a series of articles about those legendary figures in the cigar industry.
Casually meeting a legend
In 2010 I vacationed in Florida. While I was in Miami, I had to visit Little Havana, Calle Ocho. I visited El Rey de Los Habanos, the small factory of the Garcia family. I went to say hi to Sandy Cobas at El Titan de Bronze. And then went across the street to smoke a cigar at the former La Gloria Cubana factory. By then, it was converted into a cigar shop and lounge. La Gloria Cubana had released the Artesanos de Tabaqueros. That cigar is not available outside of the USA due to trademarks. So being in that lounge, it was the first opportunity for me to smoke it. The clerk said, “let me introduce you to the blender”. Rick Rodriguez sat down with me, we chatted and he invited me to come to sit with him and his friends.
His friends introduced themselves, and when one of the distinct gentlemen introduced himself as Benji Menendez I chocked. I asked “THE Benji Menendez? The living legend?”. Menendez laughed and said “you know what living legends are? Overexxegarated! Sit down and have a cigar”. Mind you, this was the time before I entered the cigar industry. Here I was, a tourist who liked cigars, smoking in private with Benji Menendez and Rick Rodriguez. But it doesn’t end there. There was a big box of unbanded cigars on the table. Rodriguez, Menendez, and the other gentlemen lit one, took a few puffs, then lit a second one and so on. I asked “what are you doing? Why aren’t you finishing the cigars?”. Menendez explained that those cigars were test blends that they were trying. And said, “go ahead, help yourself.”. Smoking test blends with a legend like Benji Menendez is a cigar memory I will cherish the rest of my life.
Menendez is a Cuban born tobacco master. Born in 1936 in a family that has tobacco running through the veins. It shows, as his brother Felix Menendez is the founder of Menendez Amerino. Menendez Amerino is a giant in the Brazilian tobacco industry with brands as Doña Flor and Alonso Menendez. Alonso Menendez is a tribute to the father of Benji and Felix. The Menendez family created the Montecristo brand, owned Por Larranaga, and was the majority owner of the H. Upmann factory. Things went south in 1960 when the communist Castro clan nationalized the tobacco industry.
Felix and Benji moved to Spain, to the Canary Islands. It’s there where they started the Montecruz brand. A brand that used Brazilian Mata Fina tobacco from the Amerino family. That tobacco had the Menendez brothers intrigued. So a decade later they moved to Brazil. They continued to work in the Amerino family. The two companies merged. The Menendez Amerino company came to life. When Benji moved to the United States, his brother Felix stayed in Brazil to run the company.
Menendez joined General Cigars, the largest producer of premium handmade cigars in the world. He worked on big brands such as Macanudo, Don Tomas, El Credito. But he’s most famous for the new world Partagas blends. But Menedez left to work for the competitor, Tabacalera de España (now part of Altadis). And returned to General Cigars a few years later. It’s there where he trained people including CAO master blender Rick Rodriguez, Michael Gianini from Ventura, and many others. And he worked in the factory. As a blender, as a quality controller, as a mentor.
In 2013, at age 77, Menendez retired. His last role was senior vice president for General Cigars. At his goodbye party, a new cigar was introduced. A cigar bearing his name. The Partagas Benji Homage 62 commemorates Menendez 62 years in the cigar industry and is a tribute to the legend that he is. Six years after his retirement, Ventura Cigars honored Menendez again with the Benji Menendez for Cuban Cigar Factory. This project is created by Michael Giannini, one of Menendez’s many protégées during his tenure at General Cigars.
It is a conversation with Giannini about industry legends that inspired us to write this series. At intertabac 2019, we sat down with Giannini. He said he wanted to create a cigar with the name of Benji Menendez to shine new light on him. At events, Gianini asked who knew about Benji Menendez. As the years go by, fewer hands are raised. He felt that some great names and influences from former days are fading into obscurity. That’s why he wants to create cigars with the names of industry veterans and legends. To remember them, and to make sure that the next generation of cigar smokers remembers them.
That sparked a light for us as well. That’s why Ministry of Cigars is publishing an article about a cigar legend every first Sunday of the month for the time being. And this article is all about Industry Legend Benji Menendez.
Photo credit top photo: Butthead’s Tobacco Emporium and check the video with Benji Menendez on their landing page.