An Interview with Jose Padrón

Chairman, Piloto Cigars Inc.

(continued from page 5)

CA: How do you compare the taste and flavor of your cigar to a Cuban cigar?

Padrón: The Cuban cigar is still different. We have tried to re-create the flavor from the early days, but it still isn't the same. We have come close to it but not quite. I would like to say that all of Cuba isn't good for tobacco growing. There are some parts that are just perfect for growing but then there are areas that are useless, just like in Nicaragua. For example, in Nicaragua there are recently opened-up areas that are not good. We have farms in certain areas, and I have tried tobacco from every farm in Nicaragua--all of them. I have arrived at the conclusion that there are just some farms that can't be blended together. It has taken me five years to get the right tobacco in the ground and it still hasn't become the cigar that I'm capable of producing in Nicaragua. The goal has always been to provide a substitute cigar for the Cubans living in Miami. But which is the better cigar? It's not that one is better than the other--they are different. Now there is no doubt that a Cuban cigar smoker can have one of our cigars and he will be satisfied; that is an important word because there are many cigars that don't satisfy. You smoke one of our cigars, and you notice that it has flavor.

CA: Is all the tobacco used for the regular Padrón cigar grown in Nicaragua?

Padrón: Yes, all of it, and all of it is Havana seed. That's one of the problems that we are having. When you see a picture, you'll notice how different one plant of Habano is to just any ordinary plant: you'll notice the veins. Never does one vein coincide with another in the Habano tobacco.

CA: Before the revolution of the Sandinistas, they say that the tobacco from Nicaragua was the best outside of Cuba. But during the revolution and the Sandanista government, the quality of the tobacco and the cigars suffered. Are we getting to where the tobacco is returning to its original state?

Padrón: That's a tough one. You must control quality, from in the fields to the point that the cigar reaches the mouth of the smoker. But there can be problems all along the way. For instance, our warehouses are absolutely full this year with over 3,000 quintales [bales weighing about 200 pounds each] of tobacco, and we don't have anywhere to put more; if we tried it wouldn't be kept in proper conditions. Or as another example, in Nicaragua you can't use a seed from Indonesia or Cameroon, but the tobacco from a Connecticut seed went very well there for a while. I don't know what has happened now, because it's been very hard to get any Connecticut-seed wrapper out of Nicaragua since the war.

So, we've had problems with the seeds, with fertilizer, and that doesn't even mention the blue mold outbreaks that we've been having since 1978. For my own part, I did a little better with the seed varieties this year. I believe this year's crop is going to give my tobacco the flavor it had before the revolution. With the combination of the climate, seed and the fertilization in Nicaragua, I think that it could be a lot like Cuba. Cuban tobacco has an easier curing process than in Nicaragua. The curing of the Havana-seed tobacco, for example, in Pinar del Río or Partido, is simpler to do than in any other country, and as I always say, "The most important part of any cigar is in the curing process." It needs to have its time. When you smoke a cigar that is raw, you'll notice it because you'll see that it is sour or it will just bother your mouth, and that is what I have taken the most care of in my production.

CA: They say you are a hands-on cigar and tobacco man.

Padrón: I am involved in everything, every aspect, all things. For instance, a bundle of tobacco arrives and the first thing I do is unwrap a leaf to see how it is going to burn, to test if it is ready, raw or not. That is something that I won't ever stop doing. There are so many stages in the process. For example, how long are you going to give a leaf before you pick it? If you pick it too soon it's no good and if you pick it too late it's the same problem. If you knew how many times one person had to touch a well-cured leaf--it is like 200 to 300 times. From the planters to the pickers, the ones that take the young leaves off the plant. It seems almost endless.

CA: Your family has been involved with the tobacco business for a long time. We can say that for the past seven or eight years things have been much better. Are you satisfied with the level that the family has reached?

Padrón: I think, yes. In [my family's] minds they have to be thinking that this is a tradition. They have to follow it with a seriousness in the same way that it was shown to me. There is an anecdote: When my grandfather was in Cuba, the deals were made without contracts. My grandfather had a deal for tens of thousands of pounds of tobacco. He would tell the buyer the price and then another buyer would come along offering him 10 pesos more, which was the same as the U.S. dollars. He would tell the second buyer that he had already given his word. He would call his sons and tell them the story about how he had turned him down and one of his sons said to him, "But Dad, you are losing 30,000 pesos with that deal." He would tell him that his word and his name were worth more than 30,000 pesos. I want my family to keep thinking in the same way: In this business you have to be serious. Because the one that is not serious won't make it.

The most important thing in making cigars is that when you go to take a cigar, you have the confidence that each is the same. I have the pride in saying that I have spent 30 years giving people a good cigar. I have a cross to bear: I have many older men that I have to sacrifice myself for because they are the ones that helped me when I was starting out. You have to remember who was the one that gave you a hand when you were in the most need, because when you are on top everyone is there. That is what I am leaving behind, thank God, what I am teaching them, hopefully. They all work. No one has gotten involved in drugs. I can say that my wife, my daughter, my other son and my nephew work, and if there were any more they would be working, too. That they meet their responsibilities, not to fall in the trap of not doing what they are supposed to. You have to have a seriousness in this business. We could have gone public so many times, but no, it has to remain in the family. That name has to be protected.

CA: And George, how do you feel?

George Padrón: I feel very satisfied when we started selling to the stores, when we went to the national market. Although we had an established brand, it still wasn't established in the eyes of the American consumers. I give thanks to God every day that I have had the opportunity to see all the stages that this company has gone through in the last 10 years.

Padrón: A brand and factory of cigars is like a child. It is born, it crawls, it takes small steps, it walks and finally it runs. Whoever tries to take one step without having completed the ones before it breaks his nose. That is why you have to take your time. When I started my factory, I sold the 200 cigars we made each day at night. All I wanted to do was make a good cigar, and I've done that. We have no middle man. That is also very important. It has helped us get through some tough times, like when we were targets here in Miami.

CA: What about the future?

Padrón: The patrons of Padrón cigars can be assured that we will not be letting them down, just like they haven't let us down, smoking Padrón cigars for over 30 years. We have had customers for that long; we can name them--Cubans as well as Americans. Those people have been loyal to us because we have been loyal to them. *

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