Interview with Charlie Toraño: With a long legacy in the cigar industry, Toraño is now celebrating 20 years as an exclusive brand
By Jon Shakill
For three generations, the Toraño family business was the growing of leaf tobacco. It all started in the tobacco fields of Cuba in 1916, where Charlie’s great-grandfather and grandfather started on the path to owning 17 tobacco farms on the island nation. After the revolution, the family moved the operation to the Dominican Republic, and then eventually to Nicaragua by Carlos Toraño, Charlie’s father.
From 1916 through about 1990, the Toraño business was focused on working in the fields and factories, producing private label cigars for many different manufacturers. It wasn’t until the 1980s that the Toraños started slowly entering the cigar manufacturing business for their own brand, letting their own distribution side grow organically.
In the 1990s the family started a full-blown Toraño cigar brand of their own. Toraño as a distribution company officially started in 1994 — just now celebrating its 20 year anniversary. It was in 2008 that they switched the focus to be exclusively on producing Toraño cigars, and growing their own brand name.
Taking almost a century of experience of growing tobacco and understanding blends, the Toraño family brings a unique perspective to making cigars. They are known for producing some of the most complex cigar blends, often utilizing tobaccos from five or more countries for a single cigar. It comes from their background and level of comfort in dealing with so many different varieties of tobacco.
In fact, Toraño can be credited as one of the first Central American manufactures to branch out from the classic puros of the past. According to Charlie, “We were one of the first factories to start experimentation with Brazilian Arapiraca wrapper tobacco. No one was using it at the time that we first got ahold of it, and now almost everyone uses it.”
We took the opportunity to sit down with the President of Toraño Cigars, Charlie Toraño, for the following interview. Celebrating 20 years in business as a manufacturer and distributor, we take an inside look into the legacy and future of this wellknown cigar family.
The Family Business
Jon Shakill: What are your responsibilities as the President of Toraño Cigars?
Charlie Toraño: The answer today is different than it was a few years ago. A few years ago my primary responsibilities centered around managing our cigar factories, doing a lot of travel to Honduras and Nicaragua, and managing large operations down there. Not only for our cigars, but for the private labels we were producing. As we fast forward to today, there have been some changes since then. Today, my focus is to grow the Toraño brand from a distribution and brand awareness standpoint, both in the U.S. and around the world.
Jon Shakill: How big is your family business today? How many employees are working for you?
Charlie Toraño: Well in terms of the size, there is the distribution side of the business which has about 15-18 of us working depending on the time of the year. That includes people working inside and outside the office, like our regional salesmen.
Jon Shakill: Who else from your generation of the Toraño family works on the business?
Charlie Toraño: My sister, Carolina Toraño-Levine is the CFO of the company. She is not well-known throughout the industry necessarily, but she is very well-known within our company as she controls all the money. My second cousin Jack Toraño works closely with me — he is actually the first cousin of my father Carlos Toraño. Jack is involved on the marketing side of our company. My other cousin Carlos Llaca-Toraño has been working with the company for over a decade now. My father retired just a couple of years ago, but was the patriarch of the company until then. Now the torch has been passed to me.
Jon Shakill: Did you grow up as a child helping the family business and knowing that you would take over the company, or did you envision a different career path?
Charlie Toraño: I actually never thought that I would end up in the cigar business. Growing up, I always wanted to become a lawyer, and follow more in the footsteps of my grandfather on my mother’s side, who was a lawyer in Cuba. There just wasn’t any money in the cigar business when I was growing up, and everyone knew that. So I went to law school and became a lawyer, and worked as a commercial litigator for four and a half years.
In the early 1990s the cigar business went through a renaissance. But up until then, no one knew what the business was going to look like from a demand side. So it wasn’t until the ‘90s, when I started to see the business changing, that I started to take a more serious interest. I noticed that my father was getting busier and that things were starting to happen in the business, so I approached my dad and asked if I could join him. It was June 1, 1996 that I threw my hat in the ring, and left the law firm to join the family cigar business.
Jon Shakill: Where do you think the cigar industry is headed from now and into the near future?
Charlie Toraño: If we could take the threat of federal and state government action out of the equation, I would say to you that the cigar business is in a really good place. I think those who smoke cigars are passionate about it, and will do it for a long time. There are also new people that are starting to appreciate the art and the experience of smoking handmade cigars. So I would feel very comfortable with the future. There are also a lot of new and different types of blends that are being tried, and the industry is experimenting in an exciting way. So I like what I see in the industry and the enthusiasm that I see when we go out and meet our customers.
But now I have to put into the equation the government regulations and the anti-tobacco movement, and the direction that this is going. When I joined this business in 1996, we paid a maximum excise tax of 3 cents for every cigar that we brought in. Today we are paying 41 cents per cigar, and I don’t know what it’s going to be next year. If I have 100,000 cigars in inventory in my warehouse — which is a relatively small amount that any cigar distributor could have — in 1996 that would cost me $3,000 in taxes. Today, I have to pay the federal government $41,000 to sit those same cigars in my warehouse.
We see around the world, if you look at Canada or the U.K., it’s only the very rich that can smoke cigars. An Exodus cigar that I can sell in the U.S. for $6 or $7, costs $19 or $20 in Canada. Trust me — the Canadian market is a lot smaller for cigars because the taxes have crushed it. So when I look ahead now, I don’t know what this market looks like 10 years from now. We have the FDA looming, which still hasn’t even issued their first cigar regulations. And we have taxes looming.
This is the business that we know and that we love and we are all-in with it, but we have to look at these things objectively. In all honesty, the government situation right now makes it tough to know what the future holds for our industry. But from the consumer standpoint and the manufacturer standpoint, and also for the growers, it is still a dynamic industry. I don’t care what anyone’s politics are, but from the perspective of our industry, objectively speaking, the government is causing us a lot of problems right now.
Premium handmade cigars are less than half of 1% of the overall tobacco market, but unfortunately we get lumped in with the other 99.5%. And that 99.5% really controls all the lobbying and politics and dollars and cents. So we get caught up in that wave unfortunately.
Jon Shakill: Where does most of the tobacco for the Toraño blends come from in terms of countries?
Charlie Toraño: All of our cigars are made in Nicaragua. So Nicaragua is one of the primary sources of tobacco that we use. However, we have many different blends. Coming from a background and family that spent so long as tobacco growers, we came to know just about everyone who grows tobacco in all the countries where it’s grown for cigars. Because of that, we have a very wide variety of tobaccos in our factory. If you came to our factory, you would see a bigger variety of tobacco than just about any factory in Central America. We are comfortable working with many different types of tobaccos, and we also have strong relationships with different tobacco growers.
If we were having this discussion 10 years ago, I would say to you proudly that we were one of the few manufacturer-distributors who blended tobacco. At that time, if a cigar was made in Nicaragua, it was likely made from all Nicaraguan tobacco. We were one of the first companies to use a lot of different blends from different countries, but now everyone is doing it.
One of the Toraño blends is the Exodus 1959 for example, which is a five country blend. This cigar has really helped put the company on the map as a distributor. It has tobacco from Costa Rica, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Honduras and Nicaragua. When we first did that, everyone was telling us that it can’t be done. Now those same people who were telling us it can’t be done are doing the same thing today.
I would argue that the Toraño factory was definitely the factory in Central America — in Honduras and Nicaragua — that helped to pioneer, or certainly helped to introduce the idea of blending different tobaccos from different countries. I know this for several reasons, but an example is when we would have suppliers from different countries come to our factory, they would tell us that we have so many more varieties of tobacco than everyone else.
Jon Shakill: What is it that you’re really looking for when you create a new cigar blend? Do you start off with a particular flavor and strength profile in mind, and then determine the countries?
Charlie Toraño: We all have different palates, and it’s part of the beauty as well as the challenge of making cigars today. A lot of the guys today don’t just have one cigar that they smoke, they like different brands and different flavors. So for us, we just want to be a part of that rotation. We try to appeal to different palates and create cigars with interesting flavor profiles. With each new blend, we try to create something that is completely different than any other Toraño cigar that we’re making. So we like to experiment a lot with different tobaccos, from different crops and different farms, to try to get a different taste.
Jon Shakill: Tell us about some of your new blends, and do you have any others planned for the near future?
Charlie Toraño: This past year we launched two brand-new blends. One of them is an addition to our popular Exodus line, which is called the Exodus Finite. We called it that because the production is finite, with only 3,000 boxes of 25 cigars. Although we are well-known for our blends like I mentioned, this is one cigar that is a puro made from all Nicaraguan tobacco. Nicaragua produces some of the best tobacco in the world, and it’s great because of the three different growing regions, and the variations between the farms within those regions. So you can get a lot of different flavors of tobacco. We came out with three sizes of the cigar, and this is the first time we came out with a limited edition cigar in a 6 x 60 size. The reception has been great and we are selling it internationally.
As you know, we started to slowly get into the cigar manufacturing business in the ‘80s and then more heavily in the ‘90s. In the ‘80s, my father first came out with a brand called Vueltabajo, which was named after one of the Cuban growing regions. From those days, my father started to keep a blend book where he would record the blends that he was working on for himself, but also that he was putting together for all the different varieties of cigars that we were blending for private labels.
In that book there were a lot of blends that we came out with, and a lot that we never did. So two years ago we launched a brand called Vault. The name comes from the vault where we store the blend book. While we are still creating new blends all the time, we decided that we don’t need to recreate the wheel for all of them. So we have gone back to that blend book and started tinkering with some of the blends that are already there. A couple years ago we came out with the Vault A-008, with the “00” representing the year the blend was configured. We recently came out with the Vault D-042 which was configured in 2004, and are launching yet another blend from the Vault soon.
Learning more about Charlie
Jon Shakill: Do you ever smoke any brands other than Toraño?
Charlie Toraño: To be honest Toraño is my favorite brand, which shouldn’t come as a surprise! But listen, I do smoke other brands of cigars sometimes if the situation arises. I smoked a Davidoff recently because one of their reps gave me one to try. I also smoked a Tatuaje at my friend’s birthday party not long ago. Sometimes I will smoke an Alec Bradley, a Padron, a Gurkha — which are a lot of my friends and competitors — because I need to know what people like and what other people are doing. I don’t have a favorite other than Toraño, but I have to say that as an industry, my colleagues are producing fantastic cigars.
Jon Shakill: What is your favorite drink or spirit to have with a cigar?
Charlie Toraño: Definitely a rum and Diet Coke — the Cuba Libre. I’m a big fan of rum. A nice Zacapa rum with any of the Exodus line is a hell of a pairing.
Jon Shakill: What do you like to do for fun in your free time?
Charlie Toraño: My wife says I have too many hobbies. I love to play golf, I love to boat and fish, I love to play guitar. Those are my first passions outside of just having a cigar with good buddies, and maybe playing a little poker. It doesn’t get any better than that as far as hobbies.
Jon Shakill: What is your most memorable experience from being in the cigar industry for so long?
Charlie Toraño: Those questions are always hard to answer, but as you were mentioning it, something came to mind. It’s not even an interesting story, per say, because I have a lot of them. But I have an early memory from when I joined the business in June 1996, and I was starting to take more trips down to Central America.
I just remember one particular night very early on when I was sitting with my father and Nestor Plascencia — who is one of the giants in the cigar business, and a good family friend. It was just the three of us sitting there, during the boom days. We were sitting up-top on a second story patio and it was a beautiful night.
Just hearing my father and Nestor talk about their war stories, share their wisdom about tobacco and different insights on the industry, was so great. It was one of those early days of enjoying a cigar with my father and Nestor that really comes to mind as my entrance into the industry. It’s what best embodies having a cigar — it’s about sharing a moment. It just happened that it was with two giants of the cigar business, one of whom was my father.
Jon Shakill: Charlie thank you for your time today it was an interesting discussion.
Charlie Toraño: Thank you for your time as well Jon, nice speaking with you.