Some people know it already, but it’s a great story, so tell us about the history of the Gurkha brand again.
(Laughs) I was young, and enjoying a holiday in Goa in 1988, when this local guy came up to me and wanted to sell me cigars. I tried one and it was really good, so I told him I’d buy his company, lock stock and barrel, along with all the stock he had. I gave him $143, which absolutely made his day, and I told him to pack up all the cigars he had and send them to me in Miami. I started giving them to people as gifts, and everyone loved them and kept saying they wanted more; a pal even said he wanted to stock them in his duty free store, although he said I had to change the packaging, which he said was shit. I had help from friends – one of them was a tobacco expert, who taught me about the best kinds of tobacco, where to get it and so on. So now that I had all this tobacco, I had to do something with it, so I went to the Dominican Republic and found a factory, to which I sub-contracted the work of making the cigars. Six months later, when the duty free guys saw our packaging, their jaws dropped. The guys in the regular stores said that it looked great, but nobody would pay $14 for a cigar. I told them I’d take them back if they didn’t sell – within five days, everything sold out, and they asked for more boxes. That’s how it all began, really. Now, we have over 85 different lines of cigars, and we also manufacture for a dozen different companies.
What are your plans for Gurkha in India?
We’ve already done a soft launch here, just to make people aware that a proper launch is on its way – that will be some time next year. There’s always been a demand for Gurkha cigars here, with the very wealthy buying their stock abroad, but we get calls all the time, asking why we’re not in India. The simple answer is that we just don’t have enough product right now – we have to take away product from other countries, to bring to India. We’re growing at 10 to 15 per cent a year in the American market alone, and that’s the world’s biggest cigar market, so we have to move surplus from that market to the international market, where we’re growing at between 50 and a 100 per cent a year.
Cigar smoking is thought of primarily as an older, wealthy person’s pastime. How do you plan to change that perception?
It’s already happening. In America, before the cigar boom happened in the 1980s, the people who smoked cigars were the very wealthy or the Korean War veteran, who wanted a cigar in his mouth. Since then, there’s been a change in lifestyle, in intelligence and in knowledge, specially with the young generation. With the internet, and with the amount they travel, they know about, and want, the finer things in life. It’s like with single malts in India – ever since they first came in, there’s been a great shift away from blended whisky, because more people know about malts now, and they want the best. The same thing will happen with cigars, and India and China will be at the front of that shift.
Why does everyone go on and on about Cuban cigars?
I’ll tell you why – because they don’t know any better. When the Americans banned trade with Cuba, obviously the first thing everyone wanted was stuff from Cuba, especially Cuban cigars. Similarly, Russian had an embargo against America for a while, back in the day, and all anyone wanted to drink then was Russian vodka, so basically there was the thrill of consuming something that was illegal – it’s human nature. Now, when none of these embargoes exist, people have realised that there’s much, much better stuff out there – it’s a question of greater exposure. With very few exceptions, Cuban cigars aren’t really of good quality – they don’t have proper fertilizers, they don’t know how to rotate the tobacco crops.
What advice would you give to someone who’s interested in cigars but has never smoked one?
Start with a mild cigar, like the Gurkha Grand Reserve Cognac cigar. Two months later, try the Cellar Reserve. When you introduce someone to Indian food, if you start them off with something spicy that burns their mouth off, they’ll never go back to it. Similarly, first-timers need to start with mild cigars – don’t compete with a friend who’s smoking a strong cigar. The only reason people smoke strong cigars is because their taste buds are dead, it’s that simple. It also depends on the time of day – during the day, you have a mild to medium cigar, in the evening, after a nice meal, you can try a stronger one.