How this Patel set Florida on fire
He left Mumbai when it was referred to as, "the city that sleeps," and found flaming success in America's Sunshine State. Shortly after his 50th birthday, Rocky Patel, maker of some of the world's finest and most sought-after cigars, talks to The GUIDE about his terrific ride, so far
It didn’t take much to figure that these men weren’t from Mumbai. The foreign strain was as obvious to the street vendor who had tried to sell them miniature dholaks for Rs 1,600 as it was to us, enjoying their discussion from the next table in a restaurant.
Somewhere amid complaints about the unavailability of their wives’ favourite Louis Vuitton-stamped Cloudy Bay Sauvignon Blanc at some restaurants to the heat and the traffic, a different query was raised: “Have you tried the RP 50?” The question struck a chord. “The queue at Harrods was ridiculous!” one said, regretting his decision to walk away. “It’s a limited edition,” his friend yelled.
The sagely one remarked, “Doesn’t anyone we know, know Rocky Patel’s family here. He’s from Mumbai. If he has relatives here, we can get those cigars.” The exchange was enough to whet our curiosity. We were eager to know about this Gujarati boy from Mumbai who has Harrods shoppers queuing up for his Limited Edition cigars, and whose company manufactures and distributes over 20 million premium cigars, globally.
Excerpts from an email interview:
You were 14 when your family moved from Mumbai to Wisconsin. Where did you live in the city? How, when and why did you emigrate and was the move intimidating/exciting?
We lived on Peddar Road. My family moved to USA in 1974. The move was prompted by the socialist regime of the then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi. Prior to moving to the USA, I attended Green Lawns High School, and Dehradun Boarding School, later. The move to the USA was exciting and slightly intimidating - I knew I would have to give up cricket.
You began as a an entertainment lawyer; did you imagine being on the other side of that equation? Was being a celebrity a dream?
Living in Beverly Hills, California, I was surrounded by the entertainment industry. Through my friends, I started with movie financing. This led to movie production deals. As a member of The Grand Havana Room, a private cigar club in LA, I smoked cigars with several celebrities who frequented the club including Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Demi Moore but I had never dreamt of being a celebrity. I wanted to be a famous sports athlete.
You’ve told interviewers that it was tough for a newcomer to break into the cigar industry; was it harder being an Indian?
It was very difficult as most people in the cigar business are of Latin/Cuban descent with businesses handed down through generations. Also, most Indians in the USA were engineers or doctors - in traditional skilled fields. It was rare for an Indian to do something outside the box, especially in the luxury lifestyle field.
You stress the difference between cigarette smoking and cigar smoking. Isn’t cigar smoking more damaging?
Absolutely not! Cigar smoking is different from the habit of smoking cigarettes. The making of a cigar is an art form, perfected over generations and enjoying a cigar is akin to enjoying a glass of fine wine or single-malt scotch. It’s not habit forming. The process of making a cigar takes four to five years: from the time a seedling is planted in the ground. Three hundred different hands handle the tobacco in the preparation stage; no chemicals or additives are added to natural tobacco, which is cured and fermented to bleed out most of the nicotine. Cigarette manufacturing does not comprise curing or fermentation. The tobacco used is cheap, chemicals and additives are added to the tobacco and these are rolled with paper by machines and inhaled.
In an interview where you spoke about the initial problems faced by your Indian Tabac Company, you said: “We were letting other people make the cigars, and what happened was that when raw materials got low, they’d make substitutions.” In wine, people expect the flavour to change from bottle to bottle. But cigar smokers crave consistency. How differently does your company operate now?
It starts with farms, and our company is vertically integrated to the point where we grow a lot of our own tobacco and control the curing and fermentation process, which takes four-five years. The tobacco is aged for eight to 12 years, allowing for the harvesting of some of the world’s finest tobacco from some of the best regions, globally. Our company has also adopted strict quality control standards. We are the world’s only company to draw-test our cigars. Before the wrapper is put on the cigar, a machine with a suction cup pulls on the open end of the cigar and measures the amount of air flowing through the cigar. If it is too loose or too tight, the cigar is destroyed. We have the most detailed and thorough fermentation process to rid the tobacco of the rich fertiliser it absorbs in the farm. We also employ very strict standards in how the cigars are bunched and rolled and in grading the wrapper, binder, filler and color. We urge consumers to visit our factory to appreciate the art of making a premium hand-rolled cigar.
A report mentioned that when you started off you didn’t know much about cigars; how did you learn?
I spent almost eight years in Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, working in the farms, curing facilities and factories, learning the art of making quality cigars. The most crucial thing I learnt was how to blend cigars with unique flavours for these to deliver great taste and character while being incredibly balanced. I make all the blends and trust my palate from my years of experience. A passion for cooking all types of foods, including exquisite and complicated Indian food further enhances this sense.
What were your first cigar experiences like?
The first cigars I smoked were the 1980-Macanudo, Cohiba, Joya de Monterrey and a few others. I was a complete novice and it took many years to develop my palate. I started making cigars as a hobby and passed these out to friends and celebrities. This led to a couple of cigar dinners with Schwarzenegger at his restaurant in Santa Monica. Our hip and nouveau packaging was revolutionary and soon, our cigars became sought after in Los Angeles. I was on to something and needed to learn more about the art of making quality cigars. Hence, I spent time in Latin America, learning and adopting techniques to be able to manufacture the highest quality product.
Have you sampled the beedi and what was that experience like?
I smoked a beedi in my late 20’s. I found it rough, harsh and raw. It lacked character and flavour.
This year, your company released Rocky Patel 2012 Decade Edicion Limitada, a sought-after limited edition. How is this cigar different?
At times, we find a unique batch of tobacco, which is used for limited series that can’t be replicated. This was one of those times. It has a rare broadleaf Pennsylvania wrapper, is grown by farmers of the Amish community, and has a rich caramel taste with hints of spice and blackberry.
How was Burn, your cigar lounge, conceptualised?
Typically, cigar lounges employ dark wood and boring leather furniture. The décor is evocative of a library with old men sipping scotch and smoking. I wanted to transport consumers to a place where they could light up a RP cigar and feel like they are in a different part of the world, in Cuba or Morocco, Asia or Europe. Hence, we introduced subtle modern accents in the décor.
Do you plan enter Indian markets?
I plan to launch in India in 2013. I am looking for the right distributors to partner with to make a big national splash. It is very important to me that we reserve the integrity and quality of the brand.
Rocky Patel's Favourites
> RP Decade (rated 95 points in Cigar Aficionado)
> 15th Anniversary (rich, complex and well-balanced, was voted one of world’s top cigars)
> RP 50
Did you know?
Since the 1962 embargo, Cuban tobacco is off limits to US citizens even when purchased outside the US. The only way for an American to legally enjoy this product is to smoke a cigar made with tobacco that left Cuba before the embargo. These would be well aged, rare and expensive cigars.