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.

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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.
He branched out in 2004, making a Padilla cigar in the Dominican Republic, incorporating a pen into his logo in honor of his late father, Heberto. (The elder Padilla was a highly honored Cuban poet.) Ernesto then began working with Garcia, who made his Padilla Miami 8&11 brand, named for the junction of street and avenue where El Rey de los Habanos is located. His latest venture is the Padilla Signature 1932, which commemorates the year of his father's birth.
The Mega Client: Ashton
The Garcias make cigars for many customers, but their lives changed when Robert and Sathya Levin (left and right in photo), the father-son team behind the Ashton brand, smoked their cigars in 2005.
"The first time I smoked one [of Pepin's cigars] it was a Don Pepin blue label," says Sathya Levin, 27. "I was just blown away. I gave it to my dad, and he agreed it was outstanding."
The Levins owned a brand they were looking to produce called San Cristobal. Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia., the maker of all Ashtons, was their first choice, but Fuente "just couldn't carve out the production to make a whole new brand," says Sathya. The Ashton team had visited about a half dozen other factories looking for a producer before walking into El Rey de los Habanos about two years ago. "Our first meeting with Pepin," says Levin, "we knew he was the guy."
San Cristobal was developed by the Garcias, the Levins and Ashton vice president of sales Manny Ferrero. On a trip to Nicaragua, the straight-talking Ferrero asked the Garcias if they had enough leaf to make cigars consistently in the quantities Ashton required—300,000 for the first 12 months on the market—and potentially exceed that level in subsequent years. Shown piles of rich Nicaraguan leaf, he reveled in the quality and quantity. San Cristobals made their market debut at the RTDA this summer, and the first shipments went out at the end of August.
The Garcias are humbled by the interest from Ashton, the first huge company to have a cigar made by the Garcias. The feeling is mutual between client and contract manufacturer. "These people are very, very impressive," says Sathya. "At this point they've exceeded all our expectations."
Photos by Amy Eckert
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