An Interview with Ernesto Padilla
A conversation with Ernesto Padilla, owner of Miami's Padilla Cigar Co.
The Padilla cigar brand is still months away from the fourth anniversary of its market launch, but already the boutique cigars have won repeated accolades. Miami's Ernesto Padilla (pronounced Pah-dee-yah) created the cigar at the end of 2003 to honor his late father, embattled Cuban poet Heberto Padilla, whose repression and torture under Castro, dubbed The Padilla Affair, was a turning point for many in the literary world of the early 1970s. Padilla cigars have earned consistently high scores in Cigar Aficionado magazine and have made three straight appearances in our annual Top 25 ranking of the best cigars of the year. In December, Cigar Aficionado senior editor David Savona met with the 35-year-old Ernesto Padilla to discuss the origins of the brand and memories of his cigar-smoking father.
David Savona: What got you into cigars?
Ernesto Padilla: I was born in Havana, left when I was six years old. My father is from Pinar del Río, the most famous tobacco-growing region there, and his family grew tobacco. They owned the land and contracted for people to work it. They would sell the tobacco in Havana, to brokers or to cigar factories. They came from Spain, from the Canary Islands, like the majority of the people in our industry. My father smoked cigars, and I always saw him smoking cigars. Wherever he went it was like a cloud of smoke. I was dying to try one. I grabbed one of his Cohibas—this was in the 1980s—and I smoked it, and I turned green and I really didn't get it.
Q: How old were you?
A: I was probably about 14.
Q: Did you get caught?
A: No, surprisingly I didn't get caught, but later on, when I got out of high school, I started smoking some with him. Cigars were a big part of his life, so that's why the Padilla brand has so much to do with him. The brand is about a guy who really loves cigars.
Q: Your father was a poet. Let's talk about that.
A: He actually became a poet because of where he happened to be born. Cubans of Spanish descent would recite poems back and forth on the plantations. At the end of the day, the workers would gather and recite poetry.
Q: So the poetry was a poem they knew, or would they make it up as they went along?
A: At times they would make it up. They would have face-offs. It's still done in Pinar del Río.
Q: Your father's writing got him in trouble with the government.
A: In 1959, my dad was living in Manhattan, a professor of languages at Berlitz, and then he traveled throughout Europe and met intellectuals like Albert Camus, Sartre, people who were interested in seeing if the [communist] experiment was going to work in Cuba. Fidel's thing was to say "take the easy road. We'll let you write—just don't touch politics." Fidel was using writers to create propaganda. But my father started seeing the repression, the sadness. Socialism provides an equal amount of sadness for everyone—it provides shelter, but at what cost? He was a liberal thinker, but he also understood the dangers of what his country was facing. Like Shakespeare said, the pen is mightier than the sword. He spoke out, in poetic form. My dad wrote this book called Fuero del Juego [Out of the Game], and he was briefly imprisoned. And he was under house arrest from 1972 to 1980.
Q: I saw The New York Times articles—he was also tortured?
A: Yeah, I talked to him about that.
Q: That must have been a very tough conversation.
A: He spoke about what it was like to one day have the police come to your door, and take you and your wife prisoner. To be in a cell and hear the tape of your wife being interrogated. They inject you, they try to intimidate you. There was torture, your basic beating up, but for the most part he was fortunate—he didn't spend a long time in jail. They made a mistake. They wanted him to retract what he had said. Well, you don't give a writer the ability to do that because he's going to use the words [against you]. This was in 1971, and it was videotaped. It was called The Padilla Affair. He spoke out in such a way, he made a parody of it. And they were so into their ideology, they didn't see it. It was a message from a guy who almost had a gun to his head. Soldiers are easy to take out. But how do you take someone out who isn't trying to shoot you? When you come unarmed, what threat are you?
Q: How did you get out of Cuba?
A: I came directly to the States; I had special permission. My father had to stay behind. I remember coming to Miami, and meeting my grandparents. They had left in the '60s.
Q: How old were you?
A: I was six. I landed here, I remember someone gave me my first chocolate bar...
Q: You had your first chocolate bar in America?
Q: What are your memories of Cuba? It was only six years...
A: We'd go to the country every once in a while, see the horse, tobacco in the barns. I just remember being a kid, being excited to get my Russian toys. What I remember the most is the excitement of leaving. I didn't know I wasn't going to see this country [again] for the rest of my life.
Q: What was it like living without your dad?
A: It was not even a year. My mom was petitioning, talking to different people, senators, prime ministers. Then when he came, Sen. [Ted] Kennedy was there, news crews were there.
Q: And your father always had a cigar?
A: That thing never seemed to leave his mouth. [He lights up a second cigar, a Padilla Miami.]
Q: Let's talk about creating the Padilla cigar brands. When did you get started?
A: Late 2003. There was this factory in the Dominican Republic. They had some interesting things, and we made this cigar, called the Padilla Hybrid, using a hybrid seed that the Perezes [owners of ASP Enterprises] had come up with. The factory was making cigars for Europe. They had really, really good tobacco for what they were doing. But I always pushed them to try to make fuller blends. And they said, "Americans don't want fuller." I said, "OK, statistically, you're right, the majority smokes milder cigars. But I'm not really interested in that guy. 'Cause I'm not that guy. That style cigar is out there."
Q: So you have the Hybrid, but—
A: It wasn't exactly what I wanted. It was a cigar that, in my opinion, someone who wanted to smoke a good medium-bodied cigar would enjoy, but I wanted the next progression. I really wanted to come up with something that was fuller than the Dominican. I thought it was a great starting cigar.
Q: It got some good ratings. Do you still have it?
A: I do. I ended up giving it to a catalog, and they do very well with it. I still get requests for it, but my main goal is to make something very similar to the first cigar I smoked—full flavored.
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