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.
Q: What was your next cigar?
A: We made a maduro, the same factory as the Hybrid, with San Andres Mexican maduro. That's a very hard wrapper to get. The wrapper is fantastic. That wrapper with Nicaraguan filler is a home run, a match made in heaven, but it's really tough to get large yields of that.
Q: What inspired you to make cigars? I know you worked for Tabacalera Perdomo for a short time before making your own cigars.
A: I was basically a guy who enjoyed cigars. Then I said, 'Holy shit—we're actually selling this thing. We're out of it. Now what?'
Q: Did you find yourself in situations where you would make a cigar, then find yourself out of it?
A: Only in the maduro. The good thing was the relationship between ASP and that factory was very tight. So they had access to tobacco that many factories would love to have. But ASP stopped growing in Mexico. That really made things more difficult.
Q: That ended the maduro?
A: That pretty much ended that. But then I met a guy with a small factory, Pepin [Garcia]. I smoked his cigars—I thought they were great. I was impressed. And we got to talking about the possibility of making a brand. But I was always looking around saying, "Jeez, how many cigars can we make?"
Q: So you were concerned with the size of the factory?
A: That, tobacco availability—he was extremely small at the time and I didn't know if he was going to survive. I was talking to different people, different factories, nothing was really hitting me, and then when I saw the construction on Pepin's cigars, and the flavor, I said, "Wow. This is really unique." There was nothing like it at the time. There were cigars out of Nicaragua that were full bodied, but they lacked refinement.
Q: What did you tell Pepin that you wanted? Describe the process.
A: I came to him and I was looking for something that was rich. I didn't know what he could do. I knew his style. Before coming to Miami he worked in Nicaragua, and he got to play with Nicaraguan tobacco and really learn how to work it. I wanted something that was Cubanesque.
Q: Did you know that you wanted a cigar with Nicaraguan tobacco?
A: Yes. That's where the flavor was.
Q: 2003 was your first year—how many cigars did you make?
A: Maybe 50,000.
Q: How many are you making now?
A: Close to a million cigars. It's not a lot.
Padilla says he makes his cigars to his own taste. Q: Were you happy with that first year's production?
A: Yeah, it was just myself. I would go out there, try to sell to a cigar store, come back, pack it myself, go out and do it again.
Q: What's your philosophy with cigars?
A: I want to be synonymous with traditional cigars. I see people around me making bigger ring gauge cigars. I've never come out with a bigger ring gauge, because I don't think the blend is interesting in a bigger ring gauge. If I were to take that blend you're smoking, the 1932 Corona Gorda, and try to make it bigger, it wouldn't taste the same. And it feels awkward in your mouth. I don't recall ever in the history of cigars, things being that big. The toughest size to make is a lancero. I offer that in every brand I make. I think the blend really rocks in those sizes—it's really harmonious, it blends really well. You can really feel the ligero a little more.
Q: Speaking of sizes, let's talk about the Padilla 1932 La Perla, which is a really small cigar.
A: I haven't smoked one in a while. [He gets up, takes the short walk to his inventory room and comes back with a box of 50.] It's 4 1/2 by 40. This is the perfect example of how a little cigar can have a lot of flavor. It's a punchy little cigar—I really love it. I didn't think it was going to do so hot commercially, [but] this size has been meteoric. [He lights the cigar.] That's going against the current right now. I know the bigger European companies are trying to get guys to smoke cigarillos, but to me it's not really the same thing—this is actually a cigar.
Q: You made the Padilla brand in tribute to your father. Let's talk about what the numbers mean.
A: '32 is when my father was born. I wanted a cigar to commemorate his birth date. 1948 is when he published his first book of poetry. 1968 he published Fuero del Juego.
Q: Can you describe your brands, and how they differ in strength?
A: To me, none of them are extremely full-bodied cigars. I think they're just rich. Maybe if you haven't been smoking for a while it's not the cigar for you, but if you want to experiment with something richer in flavor and complexity, these cigars are a good way to start. I'd say the 1932 is probably one of the fuller ones.
Q: I'm smoking the '32 now—I'd say it's a medium-plus body.
A: Five to seven years ago people would probably have considered that a full body. I think the Miami and the '32 are, strengthwise, what a Cuban is.
Q: And the '48?
A: For me it's a milder smoke. I smoke it earlier in the day.
Q: How many cigars do you smoke a day? I think you've smoked three so far during the time we've been together.
A: On average? Probably six to maybe sometimes 10. I lose track.
Q: When do you like your first cigar?
A: About 8:30 [a.m.]. I smoke before I even eat anything sometimes. It's been a while since I've felt [dizzy] from a cigar. And I don't like it when people say "that cigar kicked my ass." If you want your ass kicked, go hang out with Mike Tyson. [He laughs] You really want to get into it, really enjoy the flavors. And a lot of people confuse strength with flavor.
Q: For a small company you have cigars made in a variety of places. The Hybrids are made in the Dominican Republic, the Miamis are obviously made in Miami, the Habanos and some of the 1932s are made in Nicaragua. What about the '68?
A: The '68 is made in Honduras, but it uses no Honduran tobacco. The factory is called Tabacalera Aguilar. It's a father-and-son team, very similar to Pepin; they have a small production. I made the Padilla Habano in Nicaragua [at Oliva Cigar Co.] because I wanted something in a more accessible price range. What the Olivas do is they make a very good medium-bodied cigar. Very solid.
Q: Do you ever worry about having the production spread out like that? You have them all—Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua and Miami.
A: I think for me it allows me to keep that boutique thing. Yes, they're made in different factories, but they're all within a certain standard. I like to challenge myself and work with different people and see what I learn from these people.
Q: The Padilla brand has only been around since 2004—how do you feel looking back? You've come a long way in a short time.
A: I'm glad that people are accepting the cigars. I'm glad that in such a short time we've shown that these cigars can fit in. Yes, it's a business, but the collective philosophy is: make a living doing something you can enjoy. That's what I set out to do. I don't want to make a cigar I can't live with. Hopefully boutiques keep going. Because I think that's the little engine that keeps things interesting.
Bigger companies have to please the biggest audience. My goal is to look for a certain audience, and I limit myself not only in the sizes that I make but in the profiles that I make. That can be not only a weakness but a strength. I love the fact that my cigars are triple-capped. I love the construction. I love to see other people now starting on that trend. I like to smoke other people's cigars. I enjoy smoking cigars—new Cubans, old Cubans, non-Cubans. There's a lot of good stuff out there. We've gone through the mild thing, I think we hit the peak of the full-bodied thing, now it's more about flavor and consistency.
Photos by Amy Eckert