Home Bangalore Cover Story Smoke signals

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    With a unique tasting event by cigar mogul Rocky Patel kicking off tomorrow, here is what you need to know.  Jackie Pinto

    From a growing number of cigar lounges equipped with efficient humidors and a wide selection of smokes to invitation-only clubs for serious cigar aficionados to bond over fine spirits and gourmet food, we discover how the art of the leaf is gathering momentum in the country.

    Lighting up
    If you plan on puffing away a few thousand bucks, you need to get the essentials right. Rocky Patel has some tips:
    ♦ Cutting a cigar correctly is an art and you have a better tasting smoke if you cut it right — about an eighth of an inch off the head.
    ♦ Always use a butane lighter or a cedar or wooden match-stick. Never a petrol lighter, a candle or a wax match.
    ♦ A good cigar should draw well, have a solid roll and good bunching in the foot.
    ♦ Don’t stub it out, let it go.

    RPRoyalespreadCPFINFINRocky Patel, an iconic figure in global cigar circles and head of an 85 million USD cigar empire arrives in Bangalore tomorrow. Accompanying him will be his glamorous quality control manager and cigar-rolling expert, Maricza Alvarenga. The duo will kick start an elite cigar tasting event at The Ritz Carlton, before moving onto Mumbai and Delhi. His visit is something of a coup organised by cigar importer Hemanth Sureddi of Cigar Conexion, a Spain-based firm which distributes hand and machine-made cigars from around the world.

    The leaf trail
    Patel is famously known as the lawyer who quit a lucrative practice representing Hollywood A-listers to manufacture his own high-end smokes under the label, Rocky Patel Premium Cigars, Inc. But in a climate of strict smoking regulations and harsh taxation, how does the cigar industry hold its ground? Cigar importers like Delhi-based Chetan Seth, Hemant Sureddi and Abhilash Ramani and his partner Joyappa Subbaiah of Cigar India, feel that cigar appreciation is a growing cult, especially among aspirational thirty-somethings who increasingly see them as essential luxury lifestyle accessories.

    “Lighting up a Cuban, Habana or a Rocky Patel requires a level of finesse associated with sipping a 21-year old single malt or sporting a `28 lakh Swiss Hublot watch.

    Rocky Patel files
    I believe cigars are an art form with different characters and taste profiles. I used to smoke eight a day but now average three.
    ♦ I stay fit by playing basketball, water skiing, weight lifting and yoga
    ♦ I plan to diversify into lifestyle products like fine single malts and wines
    ♦ I also plan to get married and honeymoon in Tahiti, South Africa, Kashmir and Santorini in one go

    And cigar smoking is much less harmful as the smoke is never inhaled and there are no chemical additives,” says Sureddi. Ramani, whose customers know their Cohibas from their Habanas, says that cigar buffs have an innate appreciation for the good life and thanks to the growing number of mall kiosks, online stores and home delivery services, the choices are plenty. “Delhi’s Select City Mall sells about 3,00,000 cigars per month, with Bombay, Bangalore, Hyderabad and Calcutta also carrying a decent range of cigars,” says Ramani who founded The Cigar Club – a meet-up group for serious cigar buffs to gather and discuss the relative merits of Armenteros over a Rocky Patel 15th Anniversary—handrolled premium cigars that retail between Rs1,000 to Rs3,500.

    Whisky Ambassador Sandeep Arora feels that fine malts and cigars naturally complement each other and he will be holding a series of cigar appreciation evenings in Delhi to educate whisky lovers on the nuances of a good cigar. But for the uninitiated, a meeting with Rocky Patel will shed real light on what makes a cigar a big deal.

    Puff daddy
    Unapologetic about his penchant for great food, wines, spirits and aged tobacco, Rocky (Rakesh) Patel, a Doon School-educated Delhiite, headed off at age 14 to the USA. He later became a hugely successful attorney to Hollywood stars like Mel Gibson and Arnold Schwarzenegger, who introduced him to “the art of cigars”. “Cigar smoking was de rigueur among celebrities in the mid-90s. We all joined a private cigar lounge in Beverly Hills – The Grand Havana Room, which is still one of my favourite cigar bars,” he begins, describing how his cigar story began “when a 24-year old kid” approached him to invest in a Honduras-based cigar manufacturer called Indian Tabac Cigar Company. Patel quit his law practice for the cigar business. “Everyone thought I was nuts, since I was not South American to begin with, and knew nothing about the trade. My buddy Arnold Schwarzenegger however, recognising my passion,encouraged me to go for it,” he recalls.

    Today, Patel (also a gourmet cook who can do wonders with just olive oil, garlic, herbs and left overs in the fridge), can pinpoint not only a particular tobacco’s country of origin, but also tell you which of the eight sections of a tobacco plant the leaf has been harvested from, by tasting it. “I live, breathe and eat cigars,” he declares. Patel bought the Indian Tabac Cigar Company in 1996 and began producing nutty, medium-bodied smokes that were initially fraught with quality issues. “We let other people make our cigars, and they would compromise on quality. I changed that,” he shares. Patel hit the road, spending almost 340 days a year, overseeing manufacturing in Honduras, and visiting thousands of retailers — a schedule he still maintains. Indian Tabac was renamed Rocky Patel Premium Cigars, quality improved and production skyrocketed. Recently, Patel launched Burn, an opulent cigar lounge in Florida and plans to take it across America, to Hong Kong, Shanghai and India. “Cigar lounges should not be stuffy and boring, but decadent and fun places where women can feel comfortable and everyone can enjoy great food, drinks and music,” he signs off.

    High rollers

    11BN61Firmly rooted in the family tobacco business, well-travelled leaf connoisseur, Cigar Conexion man, Hemanth Sureddi, sources hand and machine-made cigars from the Dominican Republic, Honduras, Nicaragua, USA and Indonesia, and takes delight in spreading the good word about cigar appreciation. “Cigars are safer than cigarettes because one does not inhale the smoke,” he begins, before describing how care is taken to store them in mint condition at their ‘environmentally controlled state-of-the-art warehouse in Bangalore’. “From the time a seedling goes into the ground to the time the cigar is put in the box, it takes five years and the touch of hundreds of different hands — so it must be savoured and treated with respect,” he enthuses.

    Cigar baron Chetan Seth and his daughter Ameeta, exclusive agents for Cuban Habanas often sponsor Sharik Currimboy’s 500 strong Delhi Cigar Club events. “Viraj Velinker hosts the Mumbai Cigar Club every month at his beach front bungalow at Juhu for his 300 members and we do exclusive cigar and malt whisky dinners in Delhi, outside 5-star hotels, most recently one with the Global Brand Ambassador of Glenfiddich and the Ambassador of Spain.My favourite lounge is at The Oberoi in Gurgaon. It is very well appointed because Bicky Oberoi is a big cigar buff,” he tells us.

    Lounge stopovers
    The Cheroot – Malt & Cigar Lounge at ITC Grand Chola, Chennai, has a wide selection of malts and cognacs like Royal Salute 38 YO and Girvan Single Grain 1965 to complement their ITC Armentoros Cigars. Look out for their Absinthe Wall that pays tribute to the Green Fairy and choose your glass from their extensive glass museum.

    On the shelves
    ♦ Cigar Conexion stocks five brands of premium handrolled cigars (Rs750 to Rs2,000), plus a complete range of cigar accessories like cutters, lighters and humidors. Expect an accessory line from Lamborghini soon. Details: 8151012345
    ♦ With over 400 varieties, Cigars India is one of the biggest suppliers of cigars cutters, butane lighters and humidors to keep your handrolled beauties intact. They also offer friendly advice for newbies. Details: Cigarsindia.in, 41217723

    The Oberoi, Gurgaon’s indoor cigar lounge overlooks a stunning reflection pool flanked by a ‘Green wall’, with over 3,000 potted plants. Regulars can store their cigars in personal lockers in their extensive humidor. Marquees at the Zuri, Kumarakom has a fine selection of Habanas from the Vuelta Aabajo and Patrido region of Cuba to go with their cognacs, ports, wines and single malts.

    Ladies special
    The lovely Maricza Alvarenz hails from the Honduras. Her parents grow tobacco, and she has been rolling cigars for 20 years. Tomorrow, she will cut a teardrop from a broad tobacco leaf, glue it, wrap it and twist it, forming the small fan that’s the signature of high-end cigar rollers, all the while engaging guests in lively conversation .

    m jackie@newindianexpress.com Pics: Nagesh Polali

    Statutory Warning: Smoking is injurious to health

     

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