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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

(continued from page 1)

Q: What was your first really groundbreaking quality cigar, that showed that you were taking a step away from your origins in the cigar business? What was your graduation cigar?
A: I think the graduation cigar had to be the [Indian Tabac] Super Fuerte. It was one of the first rich, fuller-bodied cigars on the market. When we came out with that cigar there weren't too many cigars with that boldness, that richness, that character, all mixed in together. That was our groundbreaking cigar.
Q: When was that released?
A: 1997. We got some great reviews on that cigar. And that was at a time when we still didn't have control of our manufacturing, so that cigar was not as consistent as we would have desired it to be. That cigar really took off, then it started tapering off because of inconsistency. That's when we decided we needed to have control of our manufacturing process, or that was going to happen with every brand that we make regardless of how good the brand is.

Q: I remember smoking some of the early ones, and they were great. But you couldn't make it on a consistent basis?
A: We weren't getting the same wrapper, maybe it didn't have the same age, or one of the binders would get changed without our knowing about it. We realized we needed to have a large amount of tobacco, the same tobacco, of whatever brand we make. Now we take that tobacco and we ferment it ourselves, and sometimes we stop production on a particular line until a tobacco is completely fermented, so the cigar stays consistent. For example, we had to stop [production] on Decade for two months because the wrapper needed fermentation.

Q: When did you stop production?
A: We stopped production on that in January. We started again [in late March].

Q: So you learned that even though it's expensive to have a cigar off the market, you don't want someone to get a cigar that doesn't live up to the expectations.
A: The market is so sophisticated. The cigar smoker that buys our cigar is so educated. It's better to make sure the cigar stays consistent. We've really fought hard to keep that quality. It's easy to make a couple hundred thousand cigars or 50,000 cigars, but when you start making two, three million cigars in a particular blend, you have to have a lot of raw material to make that. For example, in every single line we have, we have three different categories. We have firsts, factory selects and seconds. The firsts have a very strict standard of color. If the cigar is a little darker or lighter, then the cigar becomes a factory select. The seconds have a few extra blemishes, a few extra veins. We almost have 40 percent factory selects and seconds, both in our Vintage and in our regular lines, such as Decade. Q: That sounds like an expensive process.
A: It is, but that's really been the key to our success. When people get our cigars, they expect a certain standard.

Q: If you had one way to describe all your cigars, what would it be?
A: I think our cigars definitely deliver a ton of flavor, but at the same time they're clean, elegant and balanced on the palate. I think the key to success in making these types of blends is you have to have a big inventory of tobaccos from all over. Right now, for example, we have filler from Nicaragua in Estelí, Condega, Jalapa; in Honduras, Jamastran; Ecuador Sumatra; Ecuador Connecticut; Panama; Brazil, so we have diverse amounts of good tobacco, and the relationship we have with the Plasencias allows us to get a lot of tobacco, because not only does [Nestor Plasencia] grow a lot of tobacco, but he also contracts with farmers in some of those other countries. So, because of these resources, we're able to make a larger quantity and make diverse blends.

Q: But it's more than just your cigars—people also respond to you. I saw it last year at the Las Vegas Big Smoke when you were up there with [Cigar Aficionado senior features editor] Jack Bettridge. People like you.
A: Well, I think we're very sincere in what we do. They see the heartfelt effort that we've gone through to build our brand. There's a reason we take 2,000 people a year down to the [El Paraíso] factory, 'cause I can talk about all the things that we do till I'm blue in the face, but when they're down there at the factory and farms and see what we do, that's impressive, and they actually see the proof in the pudding when they smoke the cigars. I've managed to build a lot of relationships, also visiting the cigar stores throughout the country. And we're not only a cigar company, but we also do have fun and enjoy life. We enjoy great Scotches, great wines. We like to have a good time, we like to laugh. We're like the common man's cigarmaker, and we treat everyone like a friend whether it's the CEO of a company or a blue-collar worker. Whether it's cooking at the house, playing golf or playing cards with them, we really interact, all of us—myself, my brother Nish, [my cousin] Nimish—everybody that's associated with this company is really in touch with the end consumer. We've built a bond that goes beyond cigars.

Q: I would guess that you meet more cigar smokers than the typical owner of a cigar company.
A: Definitely, 'cause we're out and about. We spend a lot of time and effort. We're very diverse, and we get out and really socialize with our consumers.

Q: Were you always an outgoing and friendly person?
A: Yeah, I grew up in a big family. Not immediate family, but tons of cousins, lots of friends. I hate being alone. Let's say I come back from a trip, three weeks on the road, the first thing I do when I get to my house is throw my suitcases down, take a shower, and I'm out to the cigar bar. Cigars build a friendship.

Q: What do cigar smokers say to you when they meet you?
A: It's interesting. I just look at myself as a regular person who is trying to make a great cigar. There's nothing else I'd rather do. It's amazing to me how they're kind of awed by it. I think they want to learn how you got there, somebody from the outside who was an attorney. So they have a lot of questions. And then they meet you and realize you're a regular Joe and they like you even more.

Q: We've talked about this before, but you were an attorney, and didn't really smoke cigars until a girlfriend introduced you to them. How do you go from that to owning your own cigar company?
A: We were doing a lot of things in the movie business, and in the movie business on the set you hurry up and wait, so I started smoking cigars. I joined the Grand Havana Room [in Beverly Hills, California] because it was close to my office. And that's where someone approached me to make cigars in Honduras. It was an investment.

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