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For 9:00 am on a Saturday, the crowd was surprisingly energetic as executive editor Gordon Mott took the stage to begin the seminar festivities at the Mirage Hotel and Casino. But that's always the case with the Big Smoke Las Vegas. Hours before the doors even opened a line had formed outside the large room, which was full of tables and chairs set for the smoker-audience members who were lucky enough to secure tickets for this year's sold-out seminars.
What was different this year was the Boston Red Sox hat proudly adorning Mott's head, as he played to the Red Sox fans in the crowd after the team's recent World Series win. A few audible boos filled the hall, one of the loudest emanating from Yankees fan and senior editor David Savona.
With the kidding aside, the crowd had a big morning in front of them; each attendee had been handed a Humidipak bag upon entrance that contained five cigars, three of which were the top-scoring legal cigars for 2012 (the No. 2 cigar of the year, not in the bag, was a Cuban.) With the crowd pumped up and, in many cases, already lighting the first cigar of the day, it was time for Mott to introduce the first smoke break speaker and maker of the number four cigar of 2012: Jorge Padrón.
Padrón took the stage and began his remarks by thanking the customers seated in front of him for decades of brand loyalty, and followed with a show of thanks to editor and publisher Marvin Shanken and the Cigar Aficionado team for giving cigarmakers a platform to share their products with the world. "If it weren't for what you did for this industry," he began, "we certainly wouldn't be where we are today, so thank you."
"My father started this company 49 years ago in Miami," said Padrón, who shared the story of how José Orlando Padrón built a company from scratch on the promise of quality.
That quality has paid off. As Padrón stated, the company has never been out of the top five since the beginning of the Top 25 ratings, and they've won the Cigar of the Year distinction three times. This year's smoke was the Padrón Family Reserve 85 Years in natural wrapper, a Nicaraguan puro measuring 5 1/4 inches by 50 ring gauge that received 94 points.
"In our first year we were able to sell 40,000 cigars. And we sold them for $5 for a bundle of 25," said Padrón, eliciting laughs from the crowd "My, how times have changed."
Padrón went on humbly, discussing his relationship with his father as a younger man. As a recent graduate, just joining the family business, he suggested that his father change his blend to accommodate demand rather than stick with the current tobacco and accept limits on the supply. The advice went on deaf ears.
"He looked at me and he just said, ‘Listen, in the 20-plus years I've been manufacturing cigars with this blend, I've built a loyal customer base. If I change my blend now I'd lose all that I've built leading up to this point. So I'd rather decrease my production, maintain the quality that I have and maintain the customers I've got.' And of course you know," Padrón joked, "in our situation, the leadership structure was very clear."
After a break for the seminar on Second Acts in the cigar business, the attendees were greeted with their second smoke break, this time hosted by Altadis U.S.A. Inc., the makers of the No. 3 Cigar of the Year: Romeo by Romeo y Julieta Piramide. The company produced a video for their 94-point cigar, featuring members of the masters' panel who created the award-winning blend in 2012.
Altadis general manager Javier Estades took the stage to applause and, after a short video, he addressed the crowd, thanking Cigar Aficionado for the honor and thanking the audience for enjoying the product of their hard work.
Estades spoke of the road to creating a cigar that would eventually garner the third spot in the Top 25 for 2012. "When I took this position some two and a half years ago," he explained, "I made this plan: whatever we bring to market has to be 100 percent adapted to the taste of U.S. consumers, not only because this is the biggest market for non-Cuban cigars by far, but also because it is the most competitive one."
Estades named all the strengths in the Altadis stable: iconic brands, extensive resources, experience and opportunity—"We have all these things, so the only ones to blame [for not making a great cigar] are ourselves."
The final smoke break of the day was greatly anticipated and made by the Garcia Family: the Flor de las Antillas Toro. As Janny, Jaime and Don "Pepin" Garcia approached the stage with company representative José Ortega, the applause took on a fresh energy and the audience quickly broke into a standing ovation for the group. It's a rare occurrence at a Big Smoke. Later that afternoon, Janny Garcia was still in shock on the floor of the Big Smoke Evening. "I saw and I wanted to cry," she said.
But back in the seminar hall it was Ortega who was first to take the stage, thanking the attendees and Cigar Aficionado profusely for the honor bestowed on the Garcia family, and a cigar operation that began ten years ago in a little shop in Florida on Calle Ocho in Miami
Don Pepin and Jaime, assisted by Ortega with translation, answered questions about their cigars for the seminar attendees. The family was asked about their blending process, how they create a cigar and where a blend will come from. More than anything, the attention and care about the process to was obvious. But their attention to the interplay of flavors drove the conversation.
In the end it was an attendee from Texas who asked, simply, what beverage the Garcias would pair their award-winning cigar with. It was Jaime who chimed in, discussing the flavor interplays and various spirits choices that he appreciated. But capping it with an all-encompassing and simple recommendation, "Drink what you like, brother."
Jaime could very well have given the Big Smoke seminar attendees much the same advice about the day's activites. Some participants chose to smoke along with each of the day's presenters, while others kept their prized giveaway cigars to enjoy at a later time. The point, as ever, is to enjoy it—however you like.