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An Interview with Rocky Patel

Rocky Patel, 47, has quickly become one of the best-known faces in the world of premium cigars.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Arnon Milchan, September/October 2008

Rocky Patel, 47, has quickly become one of the best-known faces in the world of premium cigars. The owner of Rocky Patel Premium Cigars Inc. spends most of his life on the road, either in the factories in Honduras and Nicaragua that make his cigars, in the tobacco fields of Central America or in the many cigar shops that sell his wares.

Recently, his 10th Anniversary smoke, the Rocky Patel Decade Torpedo, was rated a classic, scoring 95 out of 100 points in Cigar Insider and Cigar Aficionado tastings. In April, Patel sat down with senior editor David Savona to speak about the impact of that rating, the impressive growth of his company and his efforts to confront the challenges that face the American cigar industry in the form of prohibition and exorbitant taxes.

David Savona: So let's just talk about where you are and where you've come from. You're just coming off the success of the Decade. What's it like after more than 10 years in the business?
Rocky Patel: It's actually our 12th year now. It took us a while to find that perfect cigar to celebrate our 10-year anniversary, or decade, in the business. In order to commemorate our 10 years, we came up with the blend for the Decade. We probably went through about 120 different blends until I finally said we've got a cigar that's got a lot of flavor, it's got spice, richness, nuttiness, but balance. And we tried to do the same thing with more of a Nicaraguan puro in the ITC 10 Year.

Q: Wasn't the blend that became the ITC 10 originally going to be your Decade?
A: The original blend for the Decade was the ITC 10 Year. We liked that because it had a lot of character, it had a lot of body, it had a lot of spiciness. Then I came up with the blend we have now for the Decade, and decided that the Decade had that elegance and that balance, so we kind of flip-flopped. The original Decade was going to be the ITC, and the ITC was going to be the Decade.

Q: So you reassessed, looking at where the cigars were, because the ITC is pretty bold, while the Decade has a lot of finesse. Did you always intend to have two?
A: Yeah, because we had two different lines. We originally started with the Indian Tabac line, so we wanted to celebrate our 10 years with the ITC. And the Rocky Patel line is really well balanced. I think the forte of Rocky Patel cigars has been they deliver a lot of flavor, a lot of character. You can smoke them to the nub and they don't get harsh, they don't get bitter. They're just clean and well balanced.

Q: You've been doing this for 12 years. Compare the cigars you're making now to the cigars you made 12 years ago.
A: Well, it's night and day. When I got into the business I actually didn't really know that much about tobacco. It was a learning process. I had a partner at the time who was making the cigars, and we were letting other people completely make the cigars. About 1998 I took over the manufacturing process, and that's when we kind of moved into the old Swisher facility, which is the factory in El Paraíso [Honduras], and took complete control of the fermentation of the tobacco, about the blending of the tobacco, the manufacturing processes, the way the bunchers actually bunch the cigars, and started buying tobacco, curing it and making our own blends. And that transpired first at the [old] UST factory, where we launched the Vintage in 2002, and then from there progressed down to The Edge, the Sun Grown, the Decade, Olde World Reserve and everything else. It's been a learning process, a maturing process—every day is a learning process with tobacco. The more and more time you spend with it, the more you realize what you can do with cigars. You can literally have tobacco from the same farm, ferment them in different processes and have them taste totally different. There are so many variables in making a cigar; it's not only where the seed is from, [but] the country of origin, the type of fertilization, how you ferment it and then how you use that in the blends. For example, last week I was in the [El Paraíso] factory, and we had to work on some of the Olde World Reserve blends, because the tobacco that came out of the rainy season was much milder than tobacco that comes out of the summer season, so the ligeros end up being much stronger, so you have to balance out the percentages sometimes so that cigars taste consistent.

Q: You mentioned having more control, but you still don't own your own manufacturing facilities.
A: We don't. We're in the process of owning at least 50 percent of a factory, if not a higher percentage, but we have complete control. We're lucky to work with the Plasencia family where we have such a great relationship, where they allow us to have our own employees in charge of the fermentation, in charge of the construction. Certainly I make all the blends myself—we have carte blanche at the factory, which is a nice thing.

Q: Did you think you'd get to this level? You started after the cigar boom, when the market was saturated—not the best time to come into the cigar market.
A: It was very difficult, and I didn't realize it would be so difficult to acquire all the top materials. The key to our success has been to get great quality wrapper, filler and binder. We deal with some of the biggest growers in the world: Nestor Plasencia, we deal with ASP, the Oliva family—it took a long time to gain the trust and acceptance of some of these major suppliers. You build those relationships. I think it was based on [that] they saw we were dedicated. Nobody ever thought we would make it. It was a hard challenge. There were five, six, seven years where we weren't sure how far we would get. We had to prove ourselves in order to get that acceptance. When we first started we were making 150,000 cigars. Last year, we rolled a little over 16 million cigars. It's been quite a rapid amount of growth, especially from 1999 to 2000. We really had our big growth in the business since we changed our name to Rocky Patel. At that point we were still only making around 1.75 million cigars.

Q: When was the name change?
A: 2002.

Q: You made the name change for a couple of reasons. One of them was a licensing conflict?
A: We had some licensing issues with Indian Motorcycle Co. But mainly when I really felt comfortable that we had control over the manufacturing process, and we were finally able to produce the quality of the cigars that we envisioned, that's when I decided that it's time to put my name on the cigar. Certainly '95 and '96 I had no idea what a great quality cigar was. Your palate matures over time, and I would say it wasn't until '97, '98 that my palate started developing.

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