Rodrigo Amaral is a freelance journalist based in the UK.
The Padrón family has taken the humble cigar from its spiritual home of Cuba into Central America. As he talks to the founder's son, Rodrigo Amaral discovers there is more to the cigar industry than tobacco and leaves …
Small, poor and politically unstable Nicaragua is hardly the place you would look to find top-quality luxury goods. But the Central American country was the location chosen by a family of entrepreneurs to prove that you don't need to go to Cuba to find some of the finest cigars in the world.
The presence of Nicaragua on the radars of the most sophisticated cigar aficionados is due to a great extent to the Padrón family, makers of the eponymous brand that figures at the top of the rankings devised by those in the know. Padrón has produced quality cigars in the country for 40 years, despite facing a number of revolutions, bomb attacks, fires and other calamities during that time.
But the Nicaraguan climate and soil have been instrumental in defining Padrón cigars' distinct qualities. Its many fans highlight the well-balanced mix of flavours that, in the words of company's founder, José Orlando Padrón, must provide two-and-a-half hours of sheer pleasure to the smoker. The implication is that stronger brands, which try to emphasise one particular characteristic, are likely to be enjoyable for a bit, but become a nuisance during the whole smoking experience.
Jorge Padrón, the son of the founder and current president of the company, says that his cigars aim to be the exact opposite – they blend complexity with smoothness. "We want them to be flavourful but not bitter, and be consistent without becoming one-dimensional," he says. Padrón cigars use handpicked tobacco cultivated in Nicaragua by the family itself, and water is the only other ingredient added to the leaves during the maturation process, which can last up to five years.
"The main thing in the cigar business is the processing of the tobacco," Jorge explains. That is why the family, albeit being based in Miami, keeps a tight control over the proceedings in Nicaragua. The first interview scheduled with Families in Business, for instance, had to be cancelled because Jorge, his father and some employees were held up on one of their farms after a tractor broke down as the group was experimenting seeding techniques. You certainly don't see many presidents and chairmen of luxury companies getting their hands dirty like that.
"Our emphasis is on quality, not quantity," Jorge points out. "We make cigars that we smoke for ourselves, and the rest we sell," he jokes. For instance, only one person is allowed to roll the cigar created last year to celebrate José Orlando's 80th birthday – the limited-edition cigar in the 1926 series is, according to Jorge, very difficult to roll, so the most skillful employee is selected to roll it. That is a kind of mentality that doesn't look likely to work in mass production.
The Nicaraguan factory, which employs around 350 people, makes 5.5 million cigars a year in many different shapes and sizes. The shape and size of a cigar influences its taste and flavour, with similar blends providing different smoking experiences according to how the cigar is rolled. Thicker cigars – or, following the expert vocabulary, those with a larger ring gauge – are likely to contain a larger variety of different tobacco leaves, which may result in a more complex flavour.
The company has three categories of products: the Padrón line, which has been produced since the company's beginnings and comes in 14 different sizes; the 1964 Anniversary series, which was launched in 1994 to celebrate 30 years in the business and uses tobacco aged for four years; and the 1926 series, which was launched to celebrate José Orlando's 75th birthday and comes in six different sizes.
"This line is made with tobacco aged for five years and includes the fullest-bodied cigars we make," Jorge remarks. Critics seem to agree, as in 2004, one of the varieties of the 1926 series was voted best cigar of the year by Cigar Aficionado magazine, a bible for cigar smokers. The jury was impressed by its "silky" natural wrapper and the "intensely complex flavour". It also highlighted its "heavy chocolate notes framed by earthy spices, with a luxuriant, long finish".
A particular challenge for a company like Padrón is to fight counterfeiting – a few years ago, shipments of fake Padróns were found in New York, California and other places. Now all cigars come in boxes with bar codes that attest the product's authenticity, and seals of guarantee have also been introduced. "We are not a very big company, but we have many loyal customers who are concerned about our brand," says Jorge. "On many occasions they have warned us about counterfeits."
From Cuba to Nicaragua via Miami
The family side of the business goes far beyond the surnames of the three top managers (Orlando Padrón, Jorge's eldest brother, is the vice-president). "My sister Elizabeth is in the business, as well as my mother, Florinda," Jorge says. "Rodolfo, my cousin, works with us, and my nephew, Marcus. Then there is my sister, Lisete, who works part-time …" The list goes on.
"My family has been involved for a long time in every aspect of the business," he stresses. His grandfather migrated from the Canary Islands to Cuba in the late 19th century, settling himself in the Pinar del Río region, which is celebrated for the quality of its cigars. He grew tobacco there, passing on the knowledge to his descendants.
But José Orlando decided to leave Cuba in 1961, fleeing to Miami in order to escape from the communist government imposed by Fidel Castro. With only a few dollars in his pocket, he spent around three years doing odd jobs to sustain himself before saving enough money to start producing cigars.
In 1964 he began a small-scale production with tobacco sourced from several different countries. With only one employee, whose task was to roll the cigars, José Orlando would make rounds in Little Havana to sell the products and get expert feedback from the Cuban community. "He knew Cubans in Miami would miss their country, but he didn't want them to miss their cigars," Jorge says.
It took some years for the business to gain steam, but in 1970 José Orlando decided to produce his own tobacco, planting Cuban seeds in Nicaragua. The experience proved successful, and many cigar-makers still use at least some Nicaraguan tobacco to give a particular character to their own products.
But it was a painful process. In Nicaragua, Padrón faced a second left-wing revolution, this time spearheaded by the Sandinistas who in 1978 kicked dictator Anastasio Somoza out of the government and, in the process, set fire to Padrón's factory. As if that was not enough, the company found itself targeted by bomb attacks from hardline right-wing Cuban groups in Miami after Fidel Castro was photographed smoking one of its cigars.
José Orlando ended up coming to terms with the Sandinist government in Nicaragua, but a few years later an American embargo convinced him it was time to move production to Honduras. In 1990, with the end of the embargo, he went back to Nicaragua, but kept the operation in Honduras running just in case. A couple of years ago, however, with Nicaragua seemingly having adopted more stable habits, Padrón left Honduras for good.
Today, Jorge commutes continuously between Miami, the company's commercial headquarters, and the farms and plants located in Nicaragua. He is usually accompanied by his father, a sprightly 81-year-old who makes no mention of retiring. "He remains deeply involved in the business. He travels back and forth from Miami to Estelí all the time, and still smokes a lot of cigars every day."
Having produced cigars nearly all his life, José Orlando has become a poster boy for the tobacco industry. But this industry is bound to suffer from an increasingly vociferous global anti-smoking movement. Does Padrón have any reason to be worried about this trend?
"Obviously we are concerned about it," Jorge concedes. "But this is the business we've been doing for all our lives, and we are not going to change."