The Gurkha Way
Portraits by Jeffery Salter
Having marshaled a luxury cigar brand, Kaizad Hansotia strives to ensure Gurkha is perceived as more than just a pretty package
"I was young and drunk off my ass at a beach in Goa [India]," says Kaizad Hansotia. Some 26 years later, the head of Gurkha is in his headquarters in an industrial park in Florida, recalling his unlikely entry into the cigar business. "There was a guy selling cigars out of a little hut, and they were branded Gurkha. I was intrigued." Three bottles of rum later, he had bought all the shop's wares as gifts for the customers of his duty-free business and then acquired the entire brand for a mere $149.
Today, Hansotia has established Gurkha as among the most lavishly packaged and expensive cigars in the business. At more than $1,000, he's sold single sticks for a price that outstrips his original investment by some seven times.
Halfway across the globe in this suburb north of Miami, Hansotia has not forsaken the roots of his brand. A statuette of the elephant-headed Hindu god Ganesh sits in a dark corridor. It's difficult to tell whether or not Ganesh is a true relic or a reproduction, but it doesn't matter. A single beam of light gives its burnished brass details a transcendent quality either way. Around the corner, candles flicker on either side of another deity. Between the gods of war, gods of temperance and supreme gods, there are more sculptures in this series of quiet rooms than there are people. And the living souls who are here walk around like monks on a vow of silence. At the end of the corridor is an office full of more relics. This is not some mountainside temple in the Himalayas or after-hours at a museum. It's the headquarters and distribution center for the Gurkha Cigar Group.
Easy to overlook, the building is discretely located in an industrial park on the western edge of Tamarac, a flat South Florida suburb known for—well, nothing. Besides the Everglades on the other side of the expressway, Gurkha just might be the most compelling attraction in town, though no one would ever know it from the outside.
"I'm not Hindu," says Hansotia with half a smile. "But I love the icons and the art." He isn't Christian either, nor Muslim or atheist. He's actually Zoroastrian. One of the oldest monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism predates Christianity by about 1,500 years.
Hansotia reclines in a leather chair puffing on a Gurkha Cellar Reserve 15 and ashes it into a bronze skull. According to Hansotia, the mold was made from the skull of a Taliban leader and fashioned into an ashtray. A few of these bronze skulls were cast and one ended up in Hansotia's office. Every relic in his office has a story, some benign, some macabre.
"My wife bought me that," he says. It's a canvas of a god-like face that materializes out of a gloomy backdrop in an all-knowing, all-seeing kind of way. But it isn't all statues and icons. Hansotia has an affinity for the modern U.S. military's special forces, not to mention weaponry in general. Swords and knives are strewn about the offices, some of museum quality, some very convincing replicas. And there's also a secret chamber loaded with sniper rifles. One might think that Hansotia sees himself as some sort of reincarnated warlord, but that's far from the case.
Hansotia made his mark in the industry by packaging cigars in highly decorative—and, at times, absurdly expensive—boxes. Although perhaps the term absurd is relative in this case. Back in 2006, when Hansotia put 100 Gurkha Black Dragon cigars in a humidor made of intricately carved camel bone, it seemed perfectly reasonable to charge $115,000 per box. That averages to $1,150 per cigar. He made five boxes and sold them all. One was purchased in the United States, the rest internationally. The trick is knowing how to connect these high-priced packages to the right buyer. Once you can do that, the six-figure price doesn't seem absurd at all. As for who these buyers were, Hansotia won't say.
Despite his ability to find a market for a $1,000 cigar, Hansotia claims, as he puts it, no pedigree in the cigar business. He is not a product of tobacco lineage and refuses to recite any of the exaggerated clichés that often come with it. Rather, Hansotia entered the business via the watch and duty-free industry. His father was responsible for distributing watches throughout the world's duty-free channels and Hansotia decided that his family's duty-free business would be a perfect market for fancy cigars. As the Gurkha cigar lore goes, it all started on a beach.
Having recounted the anecdote of the company's inception, Hansotia lets out a small laugh at the memory. He's large and affable with a seemingly jolly disposition, but the world-weary 47-year-old is not given to regular outbursts of laughter. Perhaps the urge to stifle his own laugh stems from his upbringing in a London boarding school. He was born in India and educated in the U.K. after his parents relocated to Hong Kong. The family business brought him to South Florida where he finished out his teenage years.
It didn't take long for his vision to become more ambitious. Simple tokens of appreciation for preferred clients may have been a cute idea when under the influence of rum, but once he established a consistent factory for his cigars, Hansotia leveraged the connections of his family business and brought his product to duty-free. Unlike other well-established cigar brands found in the world's duty-free outlets, Gurkha's advantage was its unusually ornate packaging and unusually high price tag, which tends to attract high spenders.
"When I came into the business, I noticed that there was nothing in the super high end," Hansotia explains. "Davidoff was the only expensive cigar. I also noticed that everything looked the same. Everything was either in a dress box or in a cedar cabinet. I wanted something that really stood out."
So the cigar itself went from rags to riches. What was once a nondescript stogie sold on a beach was now a glittering prize accessible only to international air travelers. The cigar donned an ornate band full of gold scrollwork, but what really stood out was the main image. It was an idealized portrait of a mustachioed Gurkha—the legendary Nepalese soldiers known for ferocity. Produced in the Dominican Republic, Gurkha cigars made their duty-free debut in 1990. The first run of 50,000 cigars sold out very quickly. That year, Hansotia sold 200,000 Gurkhas all through duty-free outlet stores.
"During the reign of the British Empire, the military established officer's clubs throughout foreign territory for its British commanders," Hansotia explains. "The idea of the officer's club was to provide a grand atmosphere abroad to keep the traditions of the Empire alive in foreign countries. I wanted to make an opulent cigar that would have fit right into one of those officer's clubs."
At its debut, Gurkha came in three sizes—Churchill, toro and torpedo—and they retailed in duty-free shops for $14 to $17 per cigar. While most cigars on duty-free shelves were only sold by the box, Gurkhas were available by the individual stick.
"People needed to smoke something different. A $17 cigar in 1990 was almost unheard of."
The Gurkhas were infused with Cognac by a process that Hansotia claims he not only invented, but uses to this day. He also had a non-infused line that sold for a bit cheaper.
Gurkha cigars remained a duty-free exclusive for five or six years until Hansotia met Nestor Miranda of Miami Cigar & Co.
"Nestor was interested in carrying our product," Hansotia says. "I thought it was a good idea. He distributed our regular brands to retail cigar stores but the infused product was left to duty-free. We just didn't have enough of the infused product for both. He introduced me to a lot of people and a lot of retailers. I am grateful to him for that."
For about a year, Gurkha cigars existed simultaneously in duty-free and cigar retail outlets until Hansotia made the complete transition to traditional retail tobacconists.
"The change was painful," he recalls. "We had five distributors for duty-free. All I had to do was provide these distributors cigars until they reordered. They were the ones bringing the cigars to the shops. Once I switched to retail, I had to travel across the United States and meet each and every retailer. It was very hard work."
But Hansotia missed the mythic cigar boom of the 1990s. Gurkhas entered retail after the boom had already smoldered and stores were stuck with excess inventory they couldn't move.
Hansotia rises restlessly and walks past a pile of bayonets that look as though they've been through the Crusades. He continues down the dark, quiet halls, passes a few statues and walks into an elevator. It's tea time.
The elevator door opens to the second floor of his office building. This is Hansotia's lair and it has a distinctly more colonial feel than the offices downstairs. The Florida sun struggles to penetrate the large wooden slats covering the window, and the room is even darker than the first floor. By decorating in dark woods and leather furniture, he may have perfectly reproduced one of those Officer's Clubs he was referring to. A steaming cup of tea awaits him on a table near more leather chairs.
"I can't tell you the kind of people that use this place," Hansotia says before taking a sip. "Government officials come to town. Celebrities sometimes. They ask to use the space to conduct meetings. It's totally private."
The art on the walls and on the shelves is an amalgamation of gifts, auctions and Hansotia's world travels. But one of his major turning points in the world of cigars was meeting the Toraño family.
"I started working with the Toraños in 1998," he says. "That's when they started making my cigars. The father, Carlos, was an expert on leaves. Plus, the family had pedigree in the industry. We were trying to create small-batch cigars. I didn't care about prices, I just wanted A-Grade wrapper and I wanted unusual tobacco. Lots of factories can roll a good cigar. Very few know how to buy tobacco properly and process it correctly."
The first cigar brand made by the Toraños was the Gurkha Master Select. It featured an Ecuadoran Habano wrapper and the cigars came wrapped in a canvas strap. Master Selects didn't cost $1,000 each, but they still were not cheap cigars.
"When they came out, the Master Select retailed for $8 to $12 per stick," says Hansotia. "In the late '90s, $8 was still expensive for a premium cigar. We had an old box of Cuban Bolivars from 1957. Charlie Toraño was instrumental in getting those Master Selects to taste similar to the Bolivars."
In the scope of Gurkha's portfolio, a $12 cigar was Hansotia's version of a working-man's stogie. Compare that with the price of a Gurkha His Majesty's Reserve. It was created a few years prior and a single cigar retailed for $250 per stick, or $5,000 for a box of 20.
"Our duty-free guys wanted something even more high end than what we were making for them. They wanted something elite and unusual, so we came up with His Majesty's Reserve."
The HMR, as it's more casually known, is infused with Louis XIII Cognac. As word got around of this inaccessibly expensive duty-free cigar, a few retailers approached Hansotia and wanted to carry it.
"We still make about 20 to 30 boxes a year," says Hansotia. "It's a secret infusion and people don't ask too many questions about it. They buy it because they like it." The cigars don't come cheap. "One of my biggest HMR customers is in Russia," he says. A box of His Majesty's Reserve costs $25,000 now.
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