A Matter of Family Honor
Text: Reinhold C. Widmayer / Photos: Manny Iriarte, Padron
In 1964, with $ 600 in his pocket, José Orlando Padrón founded a small cigar manufacturer in Miami to supply himself and fellow Cuban exiles. Today, one of the most important cigar brands on the planet bears his name.
“A business is like a baby,” declares José Orlando Padrón in response to my question regarding possible expansion plans. A small Robusto No. 35 from his 1926 Series serves as a wagging index finger: “First it crawls, then it tries to stand up, then takes small steps until it can finally walk. But if you try to walk too soon, you fall on your face.” The company’s founder has 82 years of life experience and the verve of a 50-year-old and has always oriented himself on basic truths. He would never prematurely force a decision. “You must know one thing,” he advises me. “For every million cigars that you want to produce, you need 400 to 500 quintales of tobacco [one quintal = 100 pounds = 45.4 kg]. So if you want to produce 10, 20, or even 30 million cigars, you not only need a huge quantity of tobacco, but more importantly, you need storage space, torcedores, boxes, equipment for packaging and for shipping, transportation and much more. When you grow on the one side, the other side must grow along, right? Keep in mind that you need to let your tobacco mature as well as set some aside for a few dry years. You do the math to see where that’s going…” I’m lost by the first couple of projections, not used to the rapid back-and-forth between systems of units. But bottom line, what Padrón is saying makes sense: who grows too fast, grows unevenly and disproportionally.
“Our most recent harvest yielded around 5,500 quintales,” Jorge Padrón easily answers my next question. At age 40, he’s director of business operations for the family company. “At most, we produce five to five-and-a-half million cigars. Our capacity simply ends there, at least for now. The remainder, our safety cushion, might also be used in a new product. We have at least six years’ worth of tobacco in storage—the more, the better.” That’s also the reason why, for at least ten years, a Padrón cigar has been considered one of the most desirable but also one of the rarest brands on the international market. Output is not determined by the market but by a conflagration of natural limitations that are inherent to a family business. For one, a cigar that didn’t meet the family’s exacting eye would never leave the warehouse. As the brochures say, “When Padrón is on the label, quality is a matter of family honor!”
Two remarkable traits of Padrón Cigars immediately distinguish them from the rest. First of all, the tobacco is entirely sun grown, even the wrapper leaves. Secondly, each tobacco is perfectly cured before processing begins. For the regular series that means two-and-a-half years of ripening, for the 1964 Series four, and for the 1926 Serie five years—sparing the consumer the worry of cigars sold too young. José Orlando Padrón emphasizes a final and most important factor: “We’re where we are today because we do not play around with our blends. We don’t change them. Our blends stay as they are, year after year after year.” And Jorge adds: “Despite the vast amounts of tobacco in our store, we are not beyond curbing cigar production until we obtain a specific tobacco at a specific quality level. It can be trying at times, but when you work with Nature, you have to follow her clock.” The family maintains over 20 full warehouses in Estelí, Nicaragua. The Padrón factory’s total area is around 100,000 square feet (9300 square meters).
In the Face of War and Embargoes
Padrón cigars are all puros exclusively produced from Nicaraguan tobacco. Even the cigar boxes, beautifully created in-house, are fashioned from Nicaraguan wood. It’s part of the family’s value system that they control every aspect of the manufacturing process—from seeds to shipping. For that reason, all key positions in the business are held by family members, alone nearly a dozen employees. The general manager of operations in Estelí, Gabriel Fernandez, is naturally also part of the clan; he is Jorge Padrón’s cousin.
Naturally, the Padróns own tobacco plantations in Jalapa, in the country’s north. However, independent tobacco farmers who grow exclusively for and with Padrón own the overwhelming majority of fields in the Jalapa, Condeg and Estelí regions. The factory in Danli, Honduras, where José Orlando Padrón was forced to evacuate at the onset of the Nicaraguan revolution in the late 1970s, was only given up two years ago. From 1978 to 1985, both factories were in operation, but the political climate in Nicaragua was much too unstable for Padrón to put all of his eggs into that basket. Says Jorge Padrón: “When US President Ronald Reagan imposed the economic embargo over Nicaragua in 1985, that was the end of Estelí. With the USA blocking all imports from Nicaragua, many of our employees came over with us to Danli. When the embargoes were lifted in 1990, the whole team returned to Nicaragua.”
The Padrón family has been closely linked to tobacco since José Orlando’s grandfather Damaso Padrón emigrated from the Canary Islands to Piloto in Pinar del Rio, Cuba in the late 19th century. There, in the most famous tobacco-growing region in the world, he began to cultivate tobacco with his sons. “As a young boy, I had to weed the fields after school,” recalls José Orlando of his childhood. “I learned everything from the bottom up. There was really a lot of work to do. My wife’s family was also in tobacco and had 13 farms in Las Ovas to maintain.”
In Miami, José Orlando begin to actually roll cigars, but the key to the perfect smoke always lay in the agricultural aspect of the manufacturing process. His comprehensive knowledge of tobacco is the reason why his cigars, despite their full body, taste extraordinarily harmonious and balanced: “Balance is the secret of every cigar. It’s the balance between taste and strength that achieves superior quality.” The blends that make up the House of Padrón’s three cigar lines are, as mentioned, the basis for the steady continuity of their respective characteristics. It’s a tradition that won’t be shaken, a firm rule in the family business. Furthermore, the Padróns are exceedingly cautious when it comes to new products. While other producers might try to stay in the picture by releasing new series, compositions and novelties every year, Padrón puts its trust in reliability: Never change a winning team! “For is it’s of the utmost importance that our loyal customers get the product they enjoyed last year again this year. To ensure that, we make no compromises,” explains Jorge. “There are still customers—exile Cubans—coming to our Little Havana shop who have known my father since 1964. These people choose Padrón because they’ve appreciated the cigar for over 44 years. And we want it to stay that way. Releasing something new every season is a wonderful thing for the fashion industry, but we’re in the cigar business. What people expect from us is tradition.”
Price and Availability
In the US, the name Padrón is part of every cigar lover’s vocabulary, but in Europe it’s considered more of an insider tip. There are several reasons for this. One is the limited availability; another is the variance in price, due in part to tariffs and high tobacco and sales taxes in some countries. For example, a 25-piece box of the Diplomatico 1964 Anniversary Series Maduro will set you back $310 plus sales tax in the US; in Australia the same box costs around $558, while in Europe the prices may climb even higher. “We have no influence over that,” say both father and son, visibly surprised, when I bring it up. “We last adjusted our prices over two years ago, and then only for few formats. The price for the 1926 Serie has stayed the same for the past five years.” The regular Padrón series is an excellent value (see the Info Box “Padrón Cigars at a Glance.”) And a few formats from the 1964 Series and 1926 Serie are downright reasonable when compared with other ultra-premium cigars “I always liken our cigars to auto brands,” laughs José Orlando. “We produce Rolls Royce, Mercedes, and Toyota. The latter stands for everyday use, reliability, and a good price – just like our Padrón Series.”
At the most recent IPCPR – the largest tobacco expo in the world – cigar merchants from around the world lined up to score a customer account with the Padróns. You can now find the brand in select specialty stores in Great Britain, France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and Austria; lately, they’ve become available in Spain and Estonia. But passionados in other parts of the world no longer want to miss out on these Nicaraguan puros, and there are distribution plans for Russia, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam, Australia, Mexico and Taiwan. “We are absolutely aware that we are unable to serve all markets adequately,” admits Jorge. “We have a very limited capacity, and I would never lay our reputation on the line in favor of quick and easy success. My father and our whole family have worked hard for 44 years to earn the trust of our loyal customers. And believe me, it takes a lot of good cigars to achieve that, but with just one unsatisfactory product you can undo everything.” It’s simply a matter of honor.
Padrón Cigars, 1575 SW First Street, Miami, Florida