When I first arrived in India, in 1996, you could barely buy a can of Pringles crisps – buying cigars was, well, a pipe dream (pardon the pun). Today, the most expensive cigar brand in the world is an Indian brand.  One of the largest, most popular cigar brands in the world is an Indian brand.  A domestic Indian company is the largest cigar brand in India, and India manufactures one of the cheapest hand-rolled cigars in the world.  In two decades, this kind of growth can only be labelled spectacular.

Let’s start with the most expensive cigar in the world.  Could you have imagined that a single box of Indian-branded cigars would sell for $125,000 (Rs 7.6 lakh)? There’s more – that box was re-sold three years later for $658,000 (Rs 40 lakh). The cigar brand in question is called Gurkha, and the owner of Gurkha cigars is an Indian-born NRI called Kaizad Hansotia.  He bought the Gurkha brand, (including the entire stock of the company that owned the brand) during a vacation to Goa in 1988 – for $143 (Rs 8,700). Hansotia started out as a luxury watch maker, and used to give away cigars to his customers.   They liked his cigars so much that they started asking him if they could buy more; the rest, as they say, is history.

Gurkha’s flagship brand is called His Majesty’s Grand Reserve, and sells for up to $500 (Rs 30,000) a stick. Production of this fine cigar begins in Navarette, in the Dominican Republic, with five year old Connecticut shade wrappers fermented for an additional seven months – five months longer than most Cuban cigars. The filler and the binder are a Dominican blend grown from the Cuban Pilato seed. The final step in the year-long manufacturing process (the marrying of the filler and the binder with the delicate wrapper) takes place in the United States, where Hansotia has added his own unique (and justly celebrated) imprint. The wrapper is infused with Louis XIII Cognac, which costs $3,000 (Rs 1.8 lakh) per bottle.  The cigar is then placed in a glass tube, and a drop of brandy is put inside the tube and then sealed with a gold wax seal.  The cigar can then keep inside the tube for 400 years, claims Hansotia – no humidor required.

Gurkha is the most expensive cigar brand in the world
Gurkha is the most expensive cigar brand in the world

Fans of Gurkha cigars include people like Bill Clinton, Saudi Royal family members and many A-list Hollywood stars. Both Brad Pitt and Matthew McConaughey gave out Gurkha Grand Reserves at the birth of their children. Sylvester Stallone and Harrison Ford are often caught smoking Gurkhas, their favorite cigars, at Hollywood haunts. If you want to join the ranks of the rich and famous, Gurkha will make you a custom-blended cigar, specifically designed to your taste preference, with customised packaging. And only you will be able to order that specific blend of cigar, with your name on the packaging.  Now that is the ultimate in luxury.

The Gurkha Grand Reserve is by far the finest cigar that I have ever had the joy of smoking, and it is a must try for anyone who considers himself a cigar aficionado. Gurkha cigars are just about to be launched in India, so you don’t have to wait too long till you can enjoy this magnificent cigar – just be sure to apprise your banker first.

The Indian cigar story doesn’t end there. The brand Rocky Patel, at last count, has between 18 to per cent market share of the American cigar market, the largest cigar market in the world; this makes it one of the largest cigar companies in the world, in terms of market share. Rocky Patel, a Gujarati born Rakesh Patel, started out life as a lawyer in the United States. He moved to the US in his early teens, and had a legal practice in the US until the mid 1990s.  He then invested in a start-up cigar company that ultimately went wrong, so he decided to take over the company and run it himself.

(Above: Rocky Patel cigars being made at the rolling room in a Rocky Patel factory)

Today, Rocky Patel owns factories in Honduras and Nicaragua, including tobacco farms.  He is one of the few players in the market who has a fully integrated business, including raw materials, and he has modernised every element of the process of growing and making cigars. His cigars are regularly ranked as the best cigars in the world, and have been voted cigar of the year by Cigar Aficionado, the well-known cigar magazine. Patel has an equally distinguished list of A- listers who love his cigars, including Hollywood stars like John Travolta, Dennis Rodman and Rudy Giuliani, the ex-mayor of New York.  He has recently launched his brand in India, and while they are not yet widely available, if you look hard enough, you can now source them right here.

Armenteros by the house of WD & Ho Wills is the biggest player in the Indian cigar market
Armenteros by the house of WD & Ho Wills is the biggest player in the Indian cigar market

As far as the domestic cigar market is concerned, an Indian company is the largest player, with a brand called Armenteros. This medium-strength, highly flavourful cigar, launched in 2010 by the House of WD & HO Wills, has made quite a mark amongst cigar connoisseurs in a short span of time. Hand-rolled in the Dominican Republic by La Aurora, the rich and balanced flavors are a result of the tobacco of five different regions of the world, including Brazil, Peru, Nicaragua, Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. A smooth draw imparts sweet wood and earth flavors, followed by a light and spicy finish. It’s a must-try for beginners and connoisseurs alike, and these cigars are now widely available in bars and restaurants across most metro cities in India.

And what of the cheapest hand-rolled cigars in the world? This accolade goes to an Indian company called Fenn Thompson. Their cigar brand is called Omega, and comes in a bright, yellow package. The cigars are hand-made, come with a filter tip and are priced at Rs 6 per stick. At this price, you shouldn’t expect to get a fine cigar – they are often not stored very well, and come with holes in the cigars – but at Rs 6 a pop, would you really care?

The issue in India, therefore, is no longer whether you can buy good cigars, because the availability of cigars has improved markedly. There is a decent selection of cigars on sale in most large cities, to satisfy the basic needs of everyone from the hardcore Cuban cigar fans to the more adventurous, who prefer to try the Dominican, Nicaraguan and Honduran varieties.  If you want a specific brand of cigar and, for example, only smoke Don Thomas, you will still have to go abroad to buy it, or pick it up from duty free – but the point is that cigars are now widely available.  The real issue is not where you can buy a cigar, but where you smoke it.

Cigarette smokers can go for a night out, and even if the bar or restaurant they are in does not have a designated smoking area, they can stand outside the bar for a 5 to 7-minute smoke, and then go back inside and rejoin the party.  That is not so easy with a cigar.  It is not so sociable, or even comfortable, to go and stand outside a bar for one or two hours, smoking a cigar. Even if you were prepared to do this, you can’t take your drink with you, and it isn’t as much fun smoking a cigar without your favourite single malt accompanying it, is it?

(Above: ITC’s Cigar republic store at the Maurya, Delhi)

To fill this void, a number of cigar lounges are starting to come up in five star hotels across the country.  The ITC chain has started introducing cigar lounges in its properties, including the ITC Shonar Bangla in Kolkata, the Grand Chola in Chennai and the Maurya in Delhi.  The Oberoi has also opened a cigar lounge in its property in Gurgaon.   Many more of these, however, are still required.  In particular, you really have nowhere to go in Mumbai if you want to enjoy a cigar outside of your home.

There are also a number of exclusive members-only cigar clubs starting up in metros in India. I established the Bombay Cigar Club, with two of my cigar-smoking friends, in 2006.  We meet once a month in different locations and have 150-200 friends who join us for the event.  There is also a small group called the Bombay Cigar Aficionados, who meet to enjoy their favourite cigars and single malts.  I wouldn’t be surprised if there are similar clubs starting in other metros.

India still has a good way to go before it reaches the level of developed countries, in terms of availability of cigars and places to go to and smoke them, but it has definitely made impressive progress in the last two decades.  Assuming that the anti-smoking law does not strangle the market (which is always possible), with brands like Rocky Patel and Gurkha now in the domestic market, India is on track to being a fun place to be for the hardcore cigar smoker.