TOSCANO Cigars Interview with Anton Bennati from Volume 13 Issue 2
Cigar Press – How did the Toscano cigar come to be?
Anton Giulio Coppa Bennati – The Toscano cigar is a coincidence. Some farmers left tobacco out of the factory buildings, and there was a strong downpour. The day after they found this tobacco full of water and they thought it was unusable. They were going to give it to the poor people. But the poor people were very happy because the smell and taste of that tobacco was very rich. It was naturally fermented through the rain water. They realized the tobacco that went through this fermentation was very tasteful and full of flavor. This downpour was in 1815. After three years from that they decided to do real production in the factory. That downpour was in Florence, where Toscano was really born. Then they moved to Lucca. We like to say that the downpour is our treasure.
CP – What was your first product?
Anton – The first product was Toscano Originale. We still have that cigar. We sell it in the United States and it’s our first baby. So back then, a lot of people started smoking those cigars.
CP – So a lot of people may not know this when they see one or pick one up, but which side do you light it from?
Anton – Actually you can smoke from both sides, they are the same. You can also cut it in half and have 2 cigars. It’s not made like a Cuban or Nicaraguan cigar.
CP – Originally it was only women that rolled the cigars. Is that still the case?
Anton – Yes there are still women today. There were all ladies who rolled the cigars back then, twelve thousand of them. They were actually pioneers for women’s rights from the beginning. They were the first to get a kindergarten inside the factory, which was a revolutionary idea back then, there was no one anywhere with a kindergarten in the factory. They said, we are all ladies, a lot of young ladies with babies and they had to keep them around. So they opened a kindergarten in the factory. They also had the same salary as all of the men in the factory. Imagine two hundred years ago for women in society and position, the rights and things like that. At that time, it was incredible to get equal pay. They became a symbol in Tuscany and Lucca. It became a status symbol for people who worked in Lucca, to work for Toscano cigars.
CP – So the company continued to grow and thrive.
Anton – Every year they were gaining more power and status. We expanded production, we were increasing numbers a lot. We also started to use machines, but a lot of the Toscano cigars are still completely hand made here at the factory. The machine made cigars still have about five or six people around, so machine made with human quality control. As soon as the cigars are done, there are people checking and getting rid of cigars that don’t meet standards.
CP – How long do you let the cigars rest, or age after they are made?
Anton – They sleep, the Classico and 1492 sleep for one year to even out the humidity. When the cigar is rolled it looks very wet and glossy, they need time.
CP – Can you tell us about the Stilnovo?
Anton – They come in this three pack, coffin box type of packaging. Then there are five of those units in a box.
CP – What makes it unique?
Anton – Most of our cigars are wrapper and filler. This is wrapper, binder and completely long filler. We’ve never done a cigar with a binder, just fillers and wrappers. It turns out that because the leaf is so thick and fire cured you can easily cut it in half and smoke that way. That tobacco is aged for four year before it’s rolled. It’s our longest aged cigar. So five years total, 4 years aging the tobacco before it’s rolled then one year after it’s rolled. It’s really smooth.
CP – How long do you train one of the hand rollers at the factory?
Anton – Eighteen months of training. There isn’t an exam, but if they don’t show that they can do it 100% they are out.
CP – How many cigars are they rolling per day?
Anton – 20,000 cigars per day. So about 500 cigars each. We have women because they are more sensitive to the touch to make the cigars correctly. Men don’t seem to do it perfectly. I want to bring them to the events, the shows, because they are really good.
CP – When did Toscano decide to get into aromatic type of cigars?
Anton – That was thirty years ago more or less. Anise was the first aroma. So Toscano decided to replicate that flavor. They started with anise, and moved into a lot of other aromas. The aromatic cigars opened a lot of doors. People start with aromatics and then upgrade. However I am still there because I love aromatic. Usually they seem to switch and go up our lines, starting usually with Classico Originale and 1492 then stronger flavored from there. I prefer the aromas but that is a personal choice. When we arrange events, where there are some cigarette smokers there, they smell the aroma and more than not try one of the aromatics, it’s an easy switch for them. I’m a bit crazy. When I was supposed to come to Toscano, I wanted to smoke their cigars, so I started with Antigo. I told a good friend I was starting with Antigo. My friend told me I was crazy, from cigarettes straight to Antigo is crazy. Antigo is a very strong cigar. My first impression was that the cigars were very strong, but I didn’t start with the aromatics. It’s a path.
CP – So Anton, how did you start at the company?
Anton – Toscano was bought by British American Tobacco and Cigarettes, which is where I came from. Where I came from, cigars were a niche, a business unit. I joke now with my colleagues that were Toscano at that time. Guys from Lucca said us guys were snobbish from British Tobacco and Cigarettes. They said we were big business, cigarettes and thought that they were the little niche. But in the end, Toscano is growing year by year and cigarettes are going down year by year. Now because it was not the core of the business, British American decided to sell Toscano in 2006 to an Italian group. They are very strong in energy and other markets, infrastructure, sugar, a lot of different things. They made a lot of improvements and the growth is non stop. Now we are in sixty five countries around the world and in a lot of airports through duty free.
CP – You also own Avanti cigars now.
Anton – Yes, it is our property now. Avanti is a different position. The product is similar to Toscano, but there are different processes. Toscano is more for the higher end market of these types of cigars. Similar process, different quality of tobacco. There aren’t too many people that cross over from the brands.
CP – How strong is the brand here in Italy?
Anton – In Italy we are 95-96% market share. It’s tough when you have 96% share it’s not easy to grow more.
CP – How much of your Kentucky seed/tobacco is coming from the United States?
Anton – We have two or three percent. We had no farm at the time. In Kentucky and the Tennessee area we have some tobacco farmers that we stay in touch with. We say the Toscano 1492 is a gift to the Americas, because it is all American. The wrapper, filler are all American Kentucky tobaccos. In Italy we call it the Americano. It’s quite successful in Italy and the duty free shops. We say it’s a fat cigar because the middle of the cigar is fat.
CP – Where do you get your tobacco?
Anton – We have a great connection with the farmers and buy the best tobacco in Italy. Most of this type of tobacco is sold to us. We also buy some from the United States and we are also growing directly in the United States as well. We have the knowhow. We are trying to explain how to grow this type of Kentucky seed tobacco the United States Kentucky is obviously Kentucky tobacco, but we’re talking about a hundred years ago when it wasn’t really considered. In Italy we made a fortune with the Kentucky type of tobacco. We have the knowhow and expertise. Now in the Tennessee farm we are trying to do the same and duplicate the model. It is time now to go there to the American farm because it’s ready, the tobacco is ready. We wanted to invest in the United States. The cigar market is huge. We are headed in the right direction.