Master Of Tobacco

Master Of Tobacco
Photo/Jeffery Salter
For more than half of his life, José Orlando Padrón has made cigars that bear his name. He founded Padrón Cigars in 1964.
Nearing 90, José Orlando Padrón reflects on a life spent around tobacco and a career that’s yielded more Cigars of the Year than any other brand

José Orlando Padrón sits down in his conference room in Miami, a half-smoked cigar bearing his name clutched in his right hand, photos from his youth spread before him. On June 10, he will turn 90. For more than half of his life—nearly 52 years as you read this article—he has been making Padrón cigars. The earliest Padróns were inexpensive smokes puffed in Miami cafeterias by Cuban expats much like himself; today they are prized across the United States and around the globe. His Nicaraguan-made cigars take high score after high score from this magazine, including having garnered the Cigar of the Year award a record three times.

He's a man of meticulous records, with a mind that recalls special days from decades ago with ease and a booming laugh that lights up a room. He unfolds a piece of paper, which he shows to a visitor with a smile, pointing to the bottom figure: 180 million. It's the number of cigars he has sold in his lifetime, a remarkable achievement given that his has never been one of the bigger cigar companies in the world. His work has been instrumental in creating demand for cigars made in Nicaragua, which today runs neck-and-neck with the Dominican Republic as the world's leading producer of premium cigars.

In February, executive editor David Savona sat down with Padrón over rich cigars and strong Cuban coffee for a conversation about what he has learned in his lifetime, how he wants to be remembered and how things have changed in a half-century of making cigars. His son Jorge translated. There were more than a few surprises.

Savona: What does Nicaragua mean to you?
Padrón: It's the second Cuba. But it also represents all of my success.

Q: You originally made cigars with different tobacco. Talk about how you began using tobaccos from Nicaragua.
A: In 1968, that's the first year I started using Nicaraguan tobacco in my cigars. And look at the jump [shows the paper, documenting his sales]. I went from 479,000 cigars to more than 800,000 cigars a year.

Q: Is it safe to say that Nicaraguan tobacco changed Padrón Cigars?
A: Yes. It helped, and it changed the start of our company.

Q: What kind of tobacco were you using before Nicaragua?
A: Connecticut broadleaf, Brazil, Puerto Rico and Jamaica.

Q: How did you come to find Nicaraguan tobacco?
A: Roberto Martinez worked with Anastasio Somoza [the leader of Nicaragua, who went on to create the Joya de Nicaragua brand in 1968]. The guy says I have this tobacco from Nicaragua. He called me.

Q: When was this?
A: March or, April, more or less, in 1967. Out of the blue. I met with him in Biscayne Boulevard. He had the tobacco samples in his luggage. He put the samples on the top of the bed. I made a cigar. After having the first two drags of the tobacco, I felt like I was back in Cuba.

Q: What did you think later, when you visited Nicaragua and saw the fields?
A: I thought the land, the soil was very similar to that of Cuba. I told Somoza I thought it was the second coming of Cuba.

Q: At the time, you were making cigars here in Miami. When you received this tobacco from Nicaragua, what did you do to your blend?
A: I changed it completely. I gave a lot of people the new cigar to taste, and they said it was perfect.

Q: How much were your cigars at this time?
A: (Laughs) Thirty cents apiece. There were three people who benefited from this—the Padrón smokers in Miami, Padrón and Nicaragua. Up until the time when we started selling to retail stores, most of our cigars were sold to the local community. Cafeterias, walk-in business. It was all done in-house. In 1981, I sold almost 6 million cigars here in Miami.

Q: When did you start using Nicaraguan wrappers?
A: In 1970, when I opened the cigar factory in Nicaragua, I started using Nicaraguan wrappers. In 1972, I bought my first two farms in Nicaragua.

Q: How many farms do you have now?
A: Right now we have four that we own.

Q: You started your business in 1964. If the Cuban embargo had been dropped right away, say in 1970, what would you have done with your business?
A: I would have never abandoned Nicaragua. It's basically the same way I think now.

Q: What if the embargo had been lifted even sooner, before you opened a factory in Nicaragua?
A: I would have gone back to Cuba. Remember you're talking to a Cuban. It's like asking you if you want to go home.

Q: If the embargo is dropped tomorrow—what happens?
A: That remains to be seen, but we would obviously want to have the opportunity to have tobacco from Cuba or make cigars in Cuba. But we would never abandon Nicaragua. I'm not a big fan of having partners. My partners are my family. So a lot remains to be seen as to how business can be conducted in Cuba.

Q: What if you could get Cuban tobacco right now? Would you want to make a blend, some Cuban tobacco, some Nicaraguan?
A: That is the interesting part of the situation. If we're able to get Cuban tobacco, you could make an all-Cuban Padrón, a Padrón all Nicaraguan like we have now, and another that's a combination of the two. If we were given an opportunity to go back to the farms, we would go back.

Q: How many farms did you have in Cuba?
A: My family had one farm, in the area of Piloto. And my wife's family had 13, in Las Obas.

Q: How has your philosophy of cigarmaking changed over the years, if it's changed at all?
A: From the day I started this company, my main goal was to satisfy the immigrants who were leaving Cuba. I thought they would miss their homeland, but not their cigar. These consumers who were smoking cigars their entire lives, I wanted them to smoke cigars they would enjoy. That hasn't changed. When I started the company, I did it with the idea of making people happy. Artists live from the applause. I live from the smoke—from smokers smoking my cigars. My customers care about me. They kiss me, they hug me, and that makes me happy. I hope and expect that my children will continue to do the same.

Q: You started off trying to give Cubans the taste they could no longer get. Did you ever think that so many other people—not just Cubans—would love and embrace your product?
A: No. I never imagined it. Everybody used to tell me the U.S. consumer didn't smoke stronger cigars, which was actually true in those days. In the early days, all of the people who bought cigars here were diehard Cuban smokers. None of them used cigar cutters. None of them. They used their teeth. One day I had an American customer here who asked for a cigar cutter. There was a Cuban next to him—I said ask him for a cigar cutter. The guy took out his dentures and showed them to him. (Laughs heartily.)

Q: What about you, do you ever use a cigar cutter?
A: No! Never.

Q: Always your teeth?
A: Always.

Q: That's a lot of cigars you've cut with those teeth.
A: In Cuba, I used to smoke H. Upmann No. 4 [a corona]. And I would look for the cigars that had the beetle holes in them.

Q: Wait, beetle holes? Why?
A: The beetle never eats tobacco that is bitter, or acidic. I would bite off the end, take the tobacco and with a pencil stick it in to the [beetle] hole.

Q: Really? I've never heard this story. You're blowing me away here. How often would you find a box with a beetle hole?
A: We're talking about Cuba in the 1940s. In Cuba, in some of the stores, you would find cigars that had that.

Q: Do you remember how much a box of those would cost back then?
A: Twenty five cents for a cigar. That was all the way up to the '50s. In Cuba, I always had a guayabera on, and I always had cigars in my pocket. When I would see people, I would give them a cigar. It was the norm. My grandmother in Cuba had all the tools of a cigar roller, and she would make cigars for all the family members. My grandfather would get up every day at five in the morning and sit and look at the tobacco and then roll a cigar in his hands. They were strong cigars.

Q: Made with tobacco all from that farm?
A: Different farmers would exchange tobacco with other farmers.

Q: How much was tobacco back in those early days?
A: It was inexpensive. In 1936 the price for 100 pounds of leaf tobacco was about $5. Prices started going up around 1942.

Q: Because of World War II?
A: Yes. The price went from $5 per 100 pounds to $45 for 100 pounds. There are two ways to harvest tobacco: Priming [harvesting leaf by leaf] or stalk priming [taking the entire plant at once, stalk and all]. The price for the one that was primed, which is the same way we do it now, was $45. Tobacco harvested with the whole stalk was less expensive, about $30 for 100 pounds.

Q: They did stalk cutting in Cuba?
A: Yes.

Q: Did you do it at your farm?
A: A part of the farm. Everything else was primed.

Q: Was that to give it a different taste?
A: The tobacco on the stalk was stronger.

Q: What's the best piece of advice you have ever received?
A: I have to think about that. I've received a lot of advice over the years, especially from my father and grandfather. One was not getting involved in politics, which proved to be a good decision, because after the war in Nicaragua I didn't have any problems.

Q: What's the most important piece of advice you've given Jorge?
A: To be humble. And to do the right thing.

Q: Years and years from now, many years in the future—how do you want to be remembered?
A: As someone who has helped others. What I've had I've shared with other people, with my family.

Q: What's the best cigar you've ever made?
A: We've always tried to make our cigars as great as possible. And for every type of consumer.
For those who can't spend $20 on a cigar they can still buy a Padrón for $6 and get a cigar they will enjoy. I've never forgotten where I came from. We still make a lot of cigars at price points that are accessible to most.

Q: What are you going to do on June 10—your 90th birthday?
A: At this point, I have no plans. I'm going to get up early, I'm going to come into the office, and I'm going to wait for my grandkids, my employees, my wife and my children to bring me a cake. And I'm sure I'll smoke a few cigars.