There are a number of reasons to like Dubai. Most of them centred around a shopping mall. But since it’s one of the few cities in the world where a man can sit in a bar with a glass in one hand and a cigar in the other, it holds a special place in my heart.
I am waiting for Yogesh Deshpande. Common friends have made the introduction, suggesting it will be worth my while to meet the man. I point out that meeting men in bars is usually not worth my while at all. But then I don’t seem to have much luck with women either so I find myself agreeing.
Yogesh arrives with a suggestion. That I put away the Montecristo I am about to light, and smoke one of his cigars instead. I ask what he’s carrying, readying myself for a civil refusal in case it’s a pack of King Edwards. What Yogesh pulls put is a box of Meluha cigars. He makes them. I have had enough experience with homemade wines to want to run a mile from any attempt at cottage industry smokes. But politeness prevails, and I light one up.
It is a good smoke. It is also one of the largest cigars I’ve held, with a 66 ring gauge. I ask Yogesh about the size, and he tells me that he wanted something that would stand apart from the rest. So the three sizes he makes currently are all in that large girth. Curiosity prevails. I ask him why he does what he does. He tells me the first time he saw me was at a conference where I was holding court, waving a cigar to emphasise a point. Which tempted him enough try one himself. It can’t have been a very good one, because he’s spent the years since trying to perfect what he’s willing to smoke. That’s why Meluha.
Another Indian cigar maker, I’m thinking. The first one I met was Rocky Patel, at a bar in Mumbai, some 10 years ago. Rocky was passing through town with a few boxes of his stock in a suitcase, and got a bunch of us over to try his stuff. Scepticism prevailed, thicker than the smoke. I remember Rocky telling me then that he’d given up his life as lawyer to pursue his passion. Most people in the room that evening would probably have begun by telling him to consider a return to the courtroom. But soon after that evening, Rocky Patel cigars were rated amongst the best by Cigar Aficionado. And the boy hasn’t had to look back since.
And then there’s Gurkha. A brand that traces its history back over a hundred years. Kaizad Hansotia bought the brand in the eighties, and since then has made it famous for what is billed as the most expensive cigar in the world. They probably have the largest offering of this crowd with new vitolas available almost every year, apart from the classic range that’s always on offer. They also have the widest price range, with their standard production lines ranging from $4 to $400. The most expensive, you ask? Don’t. There are sports cars that cost less. Much to my constant dismay, the times Kaizad pops in for a quiet chat, a cigar and a wee dram or two, it is more often than not his fine 15 year Cellar Reserve we smoke. He’s yet to come by with a box of the His Majesty’s Reserve, but the whole point of hope is to have it spring eternal.
The story of Indian cigars should probably begin in Trichy, where for generations rollers have been making cigars by hand in a business passed down for well over a century. Legend has it that during the Second World War, German U-boat attacks on Allied ships in the Atlantic deprived Winston Churchill of his steady supply of Havana cigars. Someone got the bright idea of developing an alternative source in Trichy, and the wheels of Whitehall were set in motion to make sure that boxes were sent over to London on a regular basis. Legend also says that no one bothered to inform the men in Trichy that Mr. Churchill smoked his last stogie in 1965, and for decades after, boxes of cigars continued to be shipped to London on his behalf.
I take that story with a sea full of salt. I do not doubt that Mr. Churchill smoked the wares of the fine men from Trichy. There’s no reason to suppose he didn’t. But that they were his favourite cigars, and eventually the only ones he smoked, I find that a bit farfetched. I have smoked “London Calling” and “Black Tiger”, both made by Fenn Thompson, the last of the cigar makers down south. Neither is particularly memorable. I also lay little credence to the bit about them continuing to ship cigars out to a dead Churchill. They do have newspapers in Trichy. But it’s those little bits that make the story a legend. And there’s nothing like a good legend to go with a smoke.
Unlike Fenn Thompson, which has to deal with sagging demand and the exodus of employees who’d probably rather be working in a call centre, Rocky Patel, Gurkha and Meluha have invested in sourcing tobacco, finding the right factories and creating a well made cigar. And that’s what gets people buying them.
Not because they carry Indian names, and are a novelty. Not because they have an exotic origin. But because their passion is a part of the product. Let’s face it. You can ignite passion. But a good cigar, you can smoke.