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The Next Big Thing in Cigars, Pepin

A star roller from Cuba, now in Miami, José "Pepin" Garcia is making some of the world's finest cigars.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Tom Selleck, Nov/Dec 2007

(continued from page 3)

Pete Johnson was 22 years old when he traded in his bass guitar for a job at Gus's Smoke Shop in Sherman Oaks, California. "I took a Sunday job, because I wanted to leave the music industry." His long-term goal was to move back to his home state of Maine and open a cigar store, but the plan soon changed.

Johnson had a real knack for the business, and was soon buying hard-to-find cigars such as Padróns and Puros Indios for the cigar shop's clientele. That gig led to work at the Big Easy in Los Angeles, then a job with the Grand Havana Room in Beverly Hills, as director of retail operations.

Johnson met Pepin Garcia in April 2003, and although Johnson speaks little Spanish and Garcia little English, they communicated well enough for Johnson to describe what he wanted: a cigar similar to the Cuban cigars he enjoyed smoking. "Something that had more structure, more oomph," says Johnson, now 36. "I said I want a Cuban cigar. Make me what you know best." The first blend, says Johnson, was a little mild, but Garcia nailed it on the second try. "I was convinced the second samples he sent me were Cuban cigars," says Johnson. "I pretty much sat there in awe all day."

Tatuajes made their debut at the 2003 Retail Tobacco Dealers of America trade show and have been one of the industry's hottest brands ever since, despite a high price tag that reflects the cost of Miami labor. "When I first started my brand, people said I was crazy, because they were expensive," says Johnson. They also had a name few could pronounce and fewer could understand: Tatuaje [Tah-too-AHH-hey] is Spanish for tattoo, and one look at the inked sleeves on Johnson's arms explains the reference.

In the Garcias, Johnson has found kindred spirits who share his appreciation for fine tobacco and his taste for flavorful cigars. "They listen to their clients," Johnson says of the Garcia clan. "Pepin blends to my palate. If I can't smoke them, I can't sell them."

The Mischievous Client: Padilla

Ernesto Padilla not only owns cigar brands made by Pepin Garcia, but he's also an unabashed cigar fan. And he's not afraid to grab a few here and there when he visits the factory. Standing near a pile of smokes near a roller's station, the goateed 35-year-old jokingly imitates the motion of slipping a few double coronas into a nonexistent breast pocket.

Janny Garcia smiles wearily. "Every time he visits, a cigar here, a cigar there," she says. In a place with such limited production, it's easy to see that Padilla's thirst for Garcia's cigars could be costly.

Unfazed, Padilla flashes a devilish grin, puffing away happily. "I have a technique," he says about his cigar filching, a gratis smoke clamped in his jaws. "I say 'Fidel died!' and everyone runs to the TV."

Padilla got his start in the cigar industry in 2002, working for Tabacalera Perdomo in the marketing department.

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