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Written by Kevin Godbee

Thursday, 01 January 2009

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It is a testament to the tragedy of modern Nicaragua that the world is better acquainted with the names of its rebel groups and dictators than its world-class coffee, rum, and tobacco products. But with time and a little luck that will soon change, and the name Nicaragua will conjure, among other happier aspects of this remarkable country, its award-winning aromas and tastes: the organic coffee grown on the misty mountaintops of Selva Negra farms; the golden rums barrel-aged by Flor de Cana; and, of course, the sun-grown Habano tobacco harvested annually in Esteli by one of the best-respected names in the cigar business, Jose Orlando Padron.

Padron was well on his way to becoming a world-famous cigar maker when he was introduced to Nicaraguan tobacco. The year was 1969, and his young Miami-based company was thriving. Since starting Padron Cigars in 1964 with a single roller under his supervision, Padron had been buying tobacco from multiple sources in the Caribbean and North America to produce blends that approximated the taste of cigars in his native Cuba.

That began to change shortly after being contacted by a Nicaraguan who requested a meeting in a Miami hotel room.


Padron met the stranger, who carried with him a suitcase full of tobacco grown in Esteli, the capital city of Nicaragua's north central highlands. Padron was more than just impressed by the tobacco: He told the man that it represented "the Second Coming of Cuba" and placed his first order. Soon he had negotiated a land deal with a business partner of Nicaragua's dictator, Anastasio Somoza, who was keen to develop the country's tobacco industry. With Padron's investment, Nicaragua's tobacco profile spiked overnight.

Just down the hall from the factory's business office, freshly rolled cigars are taken out of brightly colored ribbons, grouped by color tone, and racked in long rows. This is how they are shipped to the Padron distribution center in Little Havana, Miami, where the cigars are boxed and sent out for sale to more than 1,000 distribution points worldwide. Twenty-four dark skinned Padrons await their final sibling to complete the set.

Still, it took some time for Padron's competitors in Miami to break free from their buying habits and recognize the value of Nicaraguan leaves. "When I brought the first shipments of Nicaraguan tobacco to Miami, it stirred things up," says Padron in his smoke-roasted Cuban Spanish. "Cigar makers were very set in their ways at the time."

With his Nicaraguan Cuban-seed tobacco, Padron has climbed to the top of the cigar world. This year, Padron was for the first time named the best-selling premium cigar in the country by Cigar Insider, a trade journal published by Cigar Aficionado. In claiming the top spot, Padron ended a long run by the Fuentes, another multi-generational Cuban-emigre family business based in Florida. The number one status is testament to the smoothness and consistency that have defined the character of Padron cigars for more than four decades.

A drying barn in the middle of the Padron tobacco fields. Here freshly picked green tobacco leaves are strung up to dry and brown. If the temperature is not right, the process will be helped along with piles of hot coals scattered on the dirt floor. The leaves are strung together with red thread and hung on sticks.

Perhaps the most acclaimed Padron cigar is the Padron Serie1926 No. 9, named 2007 Best Cigar of the Year by Cigar Aficionado. In awarding the title, the magazine described the 1926 as having "perfect balance ... [and] a finish so long it seems to never leave the palate." At $18, the 1926 isn't an everyday smoke for every budget, but the Padrons also make the more modestly priced Padron 1964 Anniversary Series, another excellent (and award-winning) medium to full-bodied smoke with a long finish and typically complex tastes, aromas, and accents.

Jose Padron testing the progress of this year's crop with a lit cigar. His son Jorge is at right. Jose Orlando Padron, among this year's tobacco crop. When the leaves brown, they will be shipped down the road to the factory, where they will be fermented, bunched, and rolled. Padron has smoked between five and 10 cigars every day since he was a teenager.

It has at times been a steep and rocky road to the pinnacle for Padron. Four decades and a series of Biblical trials after starting his company - including civil wars, hurricanes, bombings of his Miami factory by Cuban militants, and trade-embargoes - Padron today grows all of his Cuban-seed tobacco in a more or less politically stable Nicaragua, with 20 warehouses throughout the country. The company's rolling factory is located in downtown Esteli, where the cigars are produced before shipping to Miami for packaging and distribution. The Esteli farm is just a short drive from the factory down a dusty road vibrant with scenes common throughout Central America: chickens and dogs roaming free, barefoot boys playing sandlot soccer and baseball, shack-front shops featuring hanging banana bunches and jars of penny candy.

Twenty-five just-rolled dark-skinned Padron "Family Reserve" cigars, the strongest cigar in the Padron collection and produced in limited numbers in honor of Jose Padron's recent 80th Birthday. "These can knock out an inexperienced cigar smoker," says Jorge Padron. "They are very strong." Sorting by color.

Once inside the gates of the vast farm, a sea of lush green runs up in every direction against a backdrop of mountains and primal forest, punctured by the bell towers of nearby cathedrals. Much of the surrounding area is made up of nature preserves.

At the center of the fields is the giant barn where harvests are strung up to dry and brown. In Esteli, Jose Padron and his son Jorge check on this year's crop. To test the leaves' progress, Jose Padron placed the burning end of his 1926 Series Padron cigar to the raw leaf. To test another leaf, he rolled it into a crude cylinder and lit it.

Workers in the factory's rolling room are separated by sex, with women rolling in the front rows, and the men (mostly bunching) in back. Many of these rollers have other family members who also work at the factory. Rolling leaves are first wetted with glue and then wrapped tightly around the bunched leaves after they have been pressurized. The tools of the rolling trade have not changed much over the centuries. Rollers at the Padron factory averages 200 cigars per day. "This is not something everyone can do," says Jose Padron. "Some people can master the skill, others can't."

The Esteli factory is staffed by local men and women, many of whom are second and third-generation employees from families who have been with the company for decades. The busiest space on the premises is the bunching and rolling room, where each roller hand-rolls around 200 cigars a day. The other major space is reserved for separating wrapping leaves by color and quality. Entering the separating room Jose Padron went up to a table and joined a worker in her labors. As Jose Padron probed and each leaf with the expert care and intensity of a diamond merchant, it was hard to imagine him doing anything else.

Male bunchers are allowed to smoke the product while they work. Bunched leaves being pressurized before rolling.
An all-female workforce separates rolling leaves by quality and color. Leaves with rips or tears are discarded or sold. In the front corner of the rolling room, the glue for the day is prepared in a single plastic bucket.
Too pretty for symbols of machismo? Daintily wrapped robustos await racking.



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