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Rocky II

Rocky Patel built his Indian Tabac cigar with endless trips to American tobacconists and Honduran cigar factories. Now he launches a self-named brand.
David Savona
From the Print Edition:
Cigar of the Year, Jan/Feb 2005

It's eight o'clock on a pleasant fall evening in Scottsdale, Arizona. Rocky Patel is standing in a crisp suit and tie inside Ambassador Fine Cigars, which just moved into this new spot in a strip mall on the outskirts of the moneyed Paradise Valley. Patel is smoking one of his newest cigars, and he's here to sell his wares the way he has done for nearly a decade, cigar by cigar, putting them into the hands of consumers.

He'll be in Arizona for a week and this is his third show. It's a subdued affair: Game 4 of the World Series is on the television in the club in the back, and most of the people in the shop have gathered there to watch the Boston Red Sox exorcise their curse by sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals. The early crowd has dissipated, and maybe a dozen customers are in the store. Owner Vartan Seferian spots a club member in need of a smoke and hands him Patel's latest. The man takes a puff, lifts his eyebrows in appreciation of the taste, and later seeks out Patel to shake his hand. "Great cigar," he says. "Thank you."

This is the patented Patel shoe-leather express, his arduous but successful way of getting out the word on his cigars. Patel has one more event the next day, followed by a dinner, then a pair of appearances the following day before he leaves. The week before he had been in Chicago, and next week it's Atlanta, doing the same thing. Then comes a trip to Honduras, where his cigars are made. He will look at tobacco, check production and do something new: lead a group of consumers on a personal tour of his operations. "It's a very thorough, fast-moving trip," he says. "They see our passion and how dedicated and thorough we are... they see the labor and hard work that goes into the tobacco, they see how labor-intensive it is, and they get to smoke the final product—and they're amazed. There are so many things that fall into place and anything can go wrong on the way."

Home and headquarters for the energetic 43-year-old is in Naples, Florida, but it's a base he rarely sees. His road shows began in 1998, and they never seem to end: in both 2001 and 2002 he logged more than 300 days on the road. "I've been to 600 cities once in 750 days," he says. "Sometimes you get tired of the packing and unpacking, the ironing, and constantly moving around. It's tough, but it's the best thing you can do to get your word out. It's almost like I create a friendship with a fellow smoker."

His travel schedule isn't going to get any lighter: in 2003 he put aside the Indian Tabac brand name he worked so hard to build to create another—Rocky Patel Vintage Series. It was risky, but a huge success.

The cigars are quite different from his Indian Tabacs. The box-pressed Vintage brand is made in Danlí, Honduras, at the former factory of U.S. Cigar Sales Inc., which was a subsidiary of UST that was transferred in 2004 to Swedish Match AB, the majority owner of General Cigar Holdings Inc. With the deal for U.S. Cigar Sales, the maker of Astral, Helix and other brands, came excess manufacturing capacity and large inventories of tobacco, some of it grown on its own farms in the Talanga Valley of Honduras.

When the cigar boom was in full steam in the mid-'90s, U.S. Cigar Sales had thought its Astral brand would become one of America's largest, so it grew and stockpiled tobacco toward that goal. When that failed to occur, its inventory sat. And aged. Patel found old bales of Honduran-grown broadleaf and Ecuadoran Sumatra and used the old tobacco to create the two versions of his vintage line. Patel found the old tobacco performed much better than the tobacco he was using before.

"We discovered that once you age and cure the tobacco long enough, it solves a lot of problems with the cigars," he says. "The cigar burned perfect. You had that nice white ash with the hot red center."

Patel also cut back on production. Cigar rollers in Central America are notoriously fast, some capable of making 400 or even 500 in a day. That seldom leaves room for superior craftsmanship.

"We slowed down the number of cigars they could make," he says, saying the new daily limit is 250. The tobaccos in the vintage cigars are laid out in accordion fashion, the filler leaves folded into a pattern vaguely resembling an "S" when looked at from the side. Before, they were booked, simply put on top of one another. Booking is faster but creates a cigar prone to draw problems if packed too tightly with tobacco. To combat draw problems resulting from booking, cigarmakers limit the tobacco in each cigar. But Patel wanted his new cigars packed fuller.

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