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An Interview with Jose Padrón

Chairman, Piloto Cigars Inc.

(continued from page 19)

Today, Padrón, 72, continues to make some of the finest cigars in the world as chairman of his family company, Piloto Cigars Inc. The Padrón brand has become a buzzword for connoisseurs of full-bodied smokes. While the family struggled for a number of years trying to solidify its base in Miami and then in Estelí, Nicaragua--enduring anti-Castro bombings in Miami and the Sandanista revolution in Nicaragua--the Padróns have become key figures in the resurrection of the Nicaraguan cigar industry. While most of the family's land in Nicaragua is back in production today, it still hopes to regain title to its best farms, which were taken over during the Sandinista revolution in the early 1980s.

Jose Padrón's perspective comes from the position of a man in charge of his family's destiny. His production has increased during the incredible boom in cigars during the past five years, but it's not running out of control. Padrón's policy of not rushing tobacco into production has kept growth in the brand moderate and steady. For the Padróns, quality, not quantity, is foremost.

In an interview with Marvin R. Shanken, editor and publisher of Cigar Aficionado, Jose Padrón and his son, George, company president, discuss the family's long cigar history, from their beginnings in Cuba to the company's status today.

CIGAR AFICIONADO: When did your family start in the cigar business?

Padrón: My grandfather, Damaso Padrón, emigrated from the Canary Islands to Cuba at a very young age. It was in the mid-1800s, around 1850 or 1860. In the old days in Cuba, most of the tobacco growers [had emigrated] from the Canary Islands. They were called Isleños [the Islanders]. When they arrived they were very poor and it took much hard work to eke out a living.

CA: What did your grandfather do in the Canary Islands before moving to Cuba?

Padrón: He was very young when he came from the Canary Islands. But there was already a tradition in Cuba that Isleños worked in the tobacco farms. The Spaniards worked in the warehouses. So the Padróns started in the tobacco fields. We are talking about a time when tobacco in Cuba was sold at $7 per 100 pounds.

CA: Did your grandfather start as a field worker?

Padrón: No, the family bought a small farm with some money that they had brought with them.

CA: Where was the farm?

Padrón: Las Obas; it was one of the first farms in the Pinar del Río. But the family was very poor. There was very little money then.

CA: Did they grow wrapper or filler tobacco?

Padrón: They grew both wrapper and filler. It all depended on the quality that was being produced; much like today, really.

CA: The family started with a small farm. What happened after that?

Padrón: His sons continued the same traditions as my grandfather, and they kept buying farms. The second one was in Consolacion del Sur, also in the Pinar del Río, and then they bought another one in Piloto, which is the name we've used for our company today.

CA: So your father was a tobacco grower; did he also make cigars? Or did he just sell tobacco to cigarmakers?

Padrón: During the era of my grandfather and my father, we only handled the pre-manufacturing phase: tobacco growing, fermenting, sorting and deveining.

CA: In other words, they finished the tobacco and then shipped it somewhere else for the actual rolling.

Padrón: Yes, but we have always believed that those phases of the production process are the most important steps in making great cigars.

CA: What was your father's name?

Padrón: Francisco Padrón Blanco.

CA: Do you know that one of the top men at Habanos, the Cuban cigar monopoly, is named Francisco Padrón?

Padrón: I spoke with him in Cuba. He is also the son of an Isleño. All the Padróns of Cuba are descendants of Isleños.

CA: How old were you when you got into the tobacco farming business?

Padrón: At the age of seven, my first job was cleaning the seed beds. I went to school in the morning and then I'd come homeand clean the seed beds.

CA: What role did your family play in the tobacco world in Cuba?

Padrón: When you are involved with tobacco, it does get into your blood. Having the history of the family, my father was one of the founders of the Association of the Tobacco Growers of Cuba in 1942. After that, another association was formed that was called Caja de Estabilizacion. The group planned and controlled the amount of tobacco in production and what could be used for cigars. During the war, the demand for Cuban cigars went up, a lot like what we went through in the last five years. As a result farmers were using tobacco that would not have been used under normal conditions. The Caja imposed rules like, if the farmer had grown 10 acres the year before, he couldn't grow more than 10 the next year. They also controlled the types of tobacco that could be used. They basically controlled the quality. Before that, the system had become a mess, and everybody started to manufacture. But the new group established a system of ensuring quality.

CA: Were you living in Pinar del Río then?

Padrón: Yes, I was a child but I remember all that was goingon at the time.

CA: Did you ever stop growing tobacco in Cuba during that period before the revolution?

Padrón: No. Throughout the 1940s and '50s, we kept growing tobacco and supervising the quality of the tobacco that was being grown.

CA: What was your life like in the late '50s before Castro came in, and then what changed that caused you to leave?

Padrón: Around 1952 our family was buying tobacco in the entire area of Pinar del Río. We had a contract with the H. Upmann factory for picking, curing, sorting and deveining the tobacco. They made Montecristos, among other brands.

CA: What happened after that?

Padrón: After the revolution and Fidel, there was a problem with the tobacco industry: they took it. In 1959, during the revolution, our farm totaled about 250 acres. That land got nationalized. One part was taken to raise geese.

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