Hubert Burda Media

BURNING LOVE

Cigar entrepreneur Rocky Patel, who visits Hong Kong later this month, tells GERRIE LIM about his unusual success story, achieved in his relentless quest for the perfect draw.

BURNING LOVE

CALL IT A SLOW burn, but when Hollywood lawyer Rocky Patel changed careers to kick-start Rocky Patel Premium Cigars, he knew the odds were stacked. Quite literally so, in fact, since some unused tobacco bales he found – of old Honduran Broadleaf and Ecuadorian Sumatra, to be precise – proved crucial to his success.

Blending these two tobaccos in 2003 to create his Rocky Patel Vintage Series, he found his annual sales soaring to some US$25 million by 2006, those very cigars receiving Best of the Best accolades in the Robb Report and also 90-plus scores in Cigar Aficionado. When the latter magazine in 2008 awarded 95 points for Patel's personal favourite, the Rocky Patel Decade Torpedo, made to commemorate the company's 10th anniversary, he knew he'd finally crossed the Rubicon.

Born in New Delhi and bred in Mumbai, Patel is now based in Naples, Florida, from where he operates the first of his bespoke cigar lounges – named Burn by Rocky Patel – laden with chill-out grooves of live music and what he dubs his “architectural wow factor” that eschews the musty ambience of old-school gentlemen's clubs. Two more such lounges, in Washington DC and Las Vegas, are imminent, with a possible first in Asia later, in Macau, at an as yet unspecified date.

After giving up law in 1998 to devote himself full-time to his passion for cigars, the 52-year-old entrepreneur has travelled widely and relentlessly, professing his business mantra: “One customer at a time.” As he puts it, “People don't remember the 100 good cigars they've smoked, they remember the one bad one. We make sure that every single cigar is perfect, and every single customer is important.”

Naturally, his more polite critics view him as amusingly eccentric (the more cynical deem him just plain nuts), but the man himself is surprisingly candid in conversation, even upon learning that wine and spirits rather than cigars happen to be my own particular bailiwick. But given that his Honduran-made cigars offer a smoother draw and longer burn than many Cubans, we get along – quite appropriately – like a house on fire.

I see you're drinking Joseph Phelps. I had dinner on the Napa Valley estate recently with Bill Phelps and his son Will.
Yes, I'm drinking a Joseph Phelps Insignia 1997, one of my favourites. One thing I like with cigars is a great bottle of red wine. With cognacs and bourbons and even single malts, the alcohol volume sometimes overpowers the palate but with a red wine, it's a complement because it has the same characteristics of a cigar. From the time we put a seedling into the ground to the time we put the cigar in the box, it takes four to five years. Three hundred different hands have touched the tobacco. Very similar to winemaking.

And isn't your blending of Honduran and Nicaraguan leaves parallel to making blended as opposed to single malt whisky?
That's correct. We use tobacco from Nicaragua, Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Brazil, Panama and Connecticut. When you find the best raw materials and blend them, you can make something amazing. With tobacco from one region alone, it's very linear and it's hard to get different characteristics and flavour profiles. I like to take tobaccos from different regions so you get some spice and white pepper and nuttiness, and this allows us to have a diverse portfolio of cigars that delivers unique and distinct flavours.

So how did a Hollywood movie attorney end up being a cigar mogul?
I was doing business litigation and then I started representing a lot of the A-List actors – Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Demi Moore, Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal and Jean-Claude Van Damme. I was representing these celebrities and they were smoking cigars on the sets, so I started smoking with them. We all joined a private cigar lounge in Beverly Hills that opened up – the Grand Havana Room – and we'd go there after work to relax. There was a culture for this in 1996, because Cigar Aficionado launched and there was a boom in the entire cigar industry.

A 24-year-old kid approached me to invest in a cigar company. He said he was making cigars out of Honduras and had this brand called Indian Tabac, based on a licence from the Indian motorcycle company.
So I invested for fun and we made cigars, but soon I realised that this guy was doing nothing but hanging out in Honduras and Nicaragua, claiming he had the licence but he never really owned it. And so I got
sued by Indian Motorcycle and had to pay a quarter million dollars to settle the trademark lawsuit.

So what happened then?
So I ended up with this cigar company in my lap, not knowing much about cigars, and I decided to go to Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic, to ask a lot of dumb questions and to work in the farms, in the curing and the fermenting. Everyone said, “You're never going to make it. You're not Cuban, you're not Latin. This is a business handed down through generations!” And when they said I'm never going to make it, that got my antlers up. I moved to Florida and just went for it.

I heard some people in Honduras ripped you off, and you had some interesting adventures.
That's true. We trusted a lot of people who took advantage of us. For the first five or six years, I depended on other people to make cigars for us, and we'd make a great blend and as soon as the cigars leave the factory, they'd change the wrapper or change the binder or change the consistency of the cigar. The first shipment would be fine but the second shipment would taste completely different.

There were six or seven years when I thought I was never going to make it. I'd sit in a corner and almost want to cry when I got the boxes, wondering how we were going to sell them. We went through a lot of trials and tribulations, and there was a lot of persistence involved.

Finally, I decided to get serious about it, to put my own name on the brand rather than use Indian Tabac. My business partner Brad Warrington and I started this in a garage in Venice, California and we moved to Naples, Florida because it's closer to the factories in Central America – and also there's no tobacco tax in Florida.

I sense you must be obsessive-compulsive or at least quite driven.
You nailed it exactly right. I am a perfectionist and I am very, very driven. I don't know the meaning of the word “no” and the word “cannot”. They do not exist in my vocabulary. I am relentless and am absolutely bent on making the best product in the world. Whatever I seek to do, I try to be the best at it and to work harder than anybody to achieve success.

I got that from my grandfather. He was very similar, in terms of drive and passion. He started with nothing and became a major industrialist and businessman, and I always aspired to be like him. I have never been for mediocrity and I always believe every day is a learning experience. Otherwise, life would be boring.

You are originally from India but you're an American now, right?
Yes, I grew up in Mumbai and spent summers in Africa and moved to the United States when I was 14. I am an American now, but I wouldn't say I have an American work ethic as much as I have a fear of failure that drives me. I'm single and married to my business. It would be difficult for me to have a marriage, looking back at the last 15 years, living on the road, working with consumers and retailers. I've been to every single cigar shop in the United States and Germany and Switzerland, building relationships.

So is Rocky your real name?
No, my real name is Rakesh. I started getting the name in high school when the movie Rocky came out and everybody started calling me Rocky, which was sort of short for Rakesh. I was a boxer in boarding school in India, so maybe that's how it stuck.

Perhaps they foresaw you'd be a future champion?
I guess so. Little did they know!