Goodbye, Mr. Padrón

Goodbye, Mr. Padrón
Photo/Jeffery Salter
Executive editor David Savona, left, interviewing José Orlando Padrón, center, alongside his son Jorge, right.

This weekend I flew to Miami to pay my respects to a cigar industry legend, José Orlando Padrón.  He died on December 5, was honored with a celebration of life on December 8 and was buried on December 9.

I had known Mr. Padrón—I always called him Mr. Padrón—for about 20 years. I interviewed him many times, shared his table for dinners and lunches, and was lucky enough to have spent serious time with him in Nicaragua, where he had made cigars since 1970. The man was synonymous with Nicaraguan tobacco, and he turned that leaf into some of the best cigars I’ve ever smoked.

My first trip to Nicaragua was in 1999. While today there are a few decent hotels in Estelí, the city where most Nicaraguan cigars are rolled, back then the choices were slim and the hotel amenities spartan. I stayed with Mr. Padrón and his son Jorge. At the time they had a small apartment with a few guest rooms, located right above their cigar factory.

On that first trip, I saw the man work; saw the genius in action. The first morning in Nicaragua we got an early start, about 6:30—early for me, standard operating procedure for the Padróns. We each lit up big cigars, and the three of us set out before breakfast to check out the factory. First stop? The tobacco.

Mr. Padrón walked over to a pilón, a large pile of fermenting tobacco. If you’ve never seen one, imagine a large rectangle of wrinkled leaves, maybe chest high and 10 to 12 feet wide. That pile contains thousands of tobacco leaves, stacked expertly on top of one another. The pressure and moisture cause fermentation, the oh-so-important process that turns raw tobacco into tobacco that’s ready for aging. The pile reaches a certain temperature in the center, is broken down and reassembled, again and again. Do it right and you have the ingredients for making beautiful cigars. Screw it up and you’ve ruined your crop.

Mr. Padrón didn’t screw it up. He walked over to that first pile and took a tobacco leaf from the center of the pilón. He ripped it in half, put one half over his burning cigar and handed the other to his son. They puffed, testing the flavor of that young tobacco. A few puffs, and they dropped the leaves. Moved on to another pilón. Reach, rip, puff, test. Again and again.

I was taking notes. Mr. Padrón looked at me at one point while he was holding a leaf, motioned to me for my cigar, and let me join in on a test. I puffed, tasting delicious Padrón Nicaraguan tobacco, but tobacco that wasn’t quite there. I could taste some flaws, some of that youth that still needed to be worked out. I saw the magic happening, saw some of the secrets to Padrón’s success.

I really got to know Mr. Padrón on that trip, and several others that followed. We spent time in his cigar factory, in his tobacco fields and in his warehouses. I listened to him tell stories about his youth in Cuba, about his early days selling cigars for about a quarter apiece in Miami, about his long and remarkable life. Each story was patiently interpreted by Jorge. Sometimes we would talk out on his porch, other times at his desk, still others while in the living room. Each workday ended much like it began, with a cigar, only there would usually be a glass of Pinch Scotch to go along with the smoke, a reward for another long day of work.

The cigar world lost one of its masters on December 5. Mr. Padrón was a man of remarkable talent who lived the American dream in all of its glory. He took an idea, combined it with hard work and created a company that has lasted for 53 years so far, a company to be admired. I miss him already, but he has earned his rest. Godspeed, Mr. Padrón, and rest in peace.