“I could sit here and talk for hours about how many difficulties have arisen to make life very uncomfortable in my 50 years of cigar making” says Manuel “Manolo” Quesada, as he speaks to me over the phone from his apartment in Madrid, Spain.
Having just finished a cigar on his balcony, he quickly informs me that despite the many hardships he’s endured, “at no point did I consider not being a cigar maker anymore”.
In the early 1960s following the Castro takeover in Cuba, a 13-year-old Manuel Quesada and his family were forced to leave behind their tobacco leaf brokerage business and established new brokerage operations in nearby Dominican Republic.
At this juncture, the Quesadas began growing tobacco as well.
After receiving an education on agriculture in the United States, Manolo would serve in the U.S. Army in Vietnam before returning to the Dominican Republic.
In June of 1974, the family decided to task Manolo with starting a premium cigar company entirely on his own in the city of Santiago. “When I was tasked to start a cigar factory, I started with just $100, a table, a chair, a telephone, and 3 cigar makers – that’s it” states Manolo. “I was alone doing everything, from casing and fermenting tobaccos, to accounting and payroll, to teaching the cigar makers and so on. I was basically a one-man operation, and survival took me away from my family for long periods of time”.
Soon there were up to 35 cigar rollers, and the Quesada company (formally called Manufactura de Tabacos, S.A. or MATASA for short) found success in manufacturing a variety of cigars which included Cubita, as well as the non-Cuban version of Fonseca and Romeo e Julieta.
According to Manolo, the cigar boom of the 1990s resulted in “a level of competition that was a hazardous situation at best”. He further states that “the boom created a scarcity for raw tobacco and other materials like cellophane, cigar bands, cigar boxes and other essential things. Prices for raw materials soared, and it made it extremely difficult to maintain the levels of operations and the levels of quality that we came to expect”.
In an effort to maintain the quality standards and international reputation of Dominican cigars on a global scale, Manolo played a key role in founding the Pro Cigar Association in 1992.
Daughter Raquel Quesada (left) at a Pro cigar event with President Henrik Kelner, Nirka Reyes (Saga Cigars) and Abe Flores (PDR Cigars)
Thankfully, after the cigar bust of late 1990s, MATASA was one of the ones still standing thanks to Manolo’s principles.
Years later in 2002, unimaginable sudden tragedy struck when Manolo’s brother Alvaro, his nephew Alvarito, and factory General Manager Julio Fajardo perished in a plane crash. This left Manolo alone once again to run the company as the family and company grieved the horrific loss.
In 2008, Manolo and Quesada hit paydirt with a #1 Cigar of the Year in the Casa Magna Colorado Robusto, a cigar that was created in association with Nestor Placencia and the Placencia Segovia factory in Nicaragua.
Manolo cites the growing presence of next-generation family members such as his daughters Raquel and Patricia as well as nephews and nieces (he refers these figures as “the young ones”) as being responsible for pushing him to new heights: “They brought on a demand for action that got me into new dimensions of cigar making. We started experimenting more, they carried out the establishment of our box making factory. They helped me achieve levels of quality, enthusiasm and understanding that I wouldn’t have if they hadn’t they joined me in the process of making cigars”.
2008 #1 Cigar of the Year, Casa Magna Colorado Robusto
Though it wasn’t an easy climb to get where he stands today, Manuel “Manolo” Quesada is among the Dominican Republic’s most revered cigar makers and was a Cigar Aficionado Hall of Fame inductee in 2012. This year he will celebrate his 50th milestone with a special Quesada 50th Anniversary release.