The Suave and Erudite Ashish Bhasin speaks to Prajakta Albuquerque
The cigar smoking culture is a unique one, and one cannot say that all cigars are the same. They differ in size, taste, shape, and filler. The differences could be subtle or distinct. So what distinguishes handmade/bespoke cigars from a machine-made cigar?
Not all cigars are the same, as it is for any handcrafted product; ‘Variation’ is the signature essence of any handmade product. Cigars are in a true sense a ‘hand-craft’. Right from sowing the seeds, plucking the leaves, seasoning, cutting, blending, filling, binding, wrapping, and rolling; the entire regimen is done by very deft fingers, and only by the master craftsman of the game not just about anyone. Machine rolled cigars are all about technology and controlled mechanics which have the normal distinction of an assembly line product. Handmade cigars in their core carry the skills of each hand that they have passed through; they travel a long journey (170 steps) before they rest in a cigar box.
How does one select the right one for themselves? And also, the accessories that go with it?
Every cigar has a unique blend of tobacco leaves which are seasoned over a period of time giving them a certain flavor. Ideally, I would choose anything that suits my palate and pocket; sadly, most people choose what is Hot or Hyped in the market. This is exactly what I want to demystify by giving them multiple options from the New World. It’s about training your palate over choices, see which settles well on it and suits your budget. Remember! Palate and Pocket, pick the one which matches this. But try as many to distinguish the good from the bad, ugly, and otherwise simple!
Cigars, as many may not know, are not like any smoking trivia; it’s a mastered drill, a honed skill! It’s a play of seduction of leaves with the senses, so it has to have a ritual, which you do right with the right accessories. Usually cigars at the smoking end are always closed, so we need to cut at its cap, or punch a hole through so the flavor travels through the veins to meld into your senses of taste and smell; next we need a good, pure, odorless butane jet lighter to fire up the leaves at its foot which is called ‘toasting’. Using any other gas or petrol lighters is a sacrilege, and strictly CANNOT be used, as Cigars are hygroscopic and can carry the smell of the gas or petrol, ruining the bouquet of its flavor. Although true cigar connoisseurs prefer using Cedar spills/long cedar, however, they are cumbersome for outdoor lighting.
Other accessories are an extension to your style and grace – cigar clips to hold while smoking, ashtrays to rest and rim the cigars, holders to rest them while playing a game of poker, while fishing or golfing, cigar cases to carry them on person and most importantly Cigar Humidors where the cigars live in a controlled environment of usually 70/70 formula- 70% humidity and 70’F temperature. Cigars have a very sensitive shelf life if not preserved well, and if taken care well can survive for several years. It’s an expensive but a seductive passion to pursue.
Is the Indian palate ready for cigars, and how does one initiate a beginner into the art of smoking a cigar? Do we have something like Cigar Etiquette?
I think it was never ready for the masses until we tried breaking the ice by setting up special workshops and Cigar 101 sessions to demystify concepts of cigar and get people out of the cigar intimidation mode. Most of the cigar importers here in the country had the objective to sell, however; I initiated the Cigar culture in India, by letting people understand the world of Cigars and get acquainted with its seductive charm. Cigars to me are ‘passion and Not business’, but no complaints! We are happy to have grown over40 %, and that’s only because we connect with a beginner with as much passion as with an aficionado. Beginners are made comfortable enough to ask questions to get a better grip on what cigars are, what kind of strength they would prefer – light, medium, or strong. We do profiling of a beginner and make suggestions on cigars from various origins to open them to the world of cigars, we do not restrict to names they have heard from people who have in turn heard them from the others and continued their journey on someone else’s palate. I have myself defied hyped brands and origins that would have fogged my preferences and built my own likes and dislikes over my own tastes rather than dazzle over glazed brand marketing.
Like I said before, cigar smoking is not just a regular activity it’s a ritual that transports you to connect with your senses; it’s a titillation, it’s a seduction in solitude or over a company, it’s an indulgence which is performed with certain finesse and etiquettes.
Few basics of Cigar Etiquette are -Never light someone else’s cigar unless asked because you are denying that person the delight of making this piece ready for himself and if the cigar is not toasted well it can be a killjoy for the person. Cigars are not to be lighted with ordinary matches, or gas, or petrol lighters. Cigar ash is not to be ever flicked like cigarettes, but they are gracefully rimmed alongside the ashtray wall. You do not give cigarette ashtray to a cigar smoker. It’s NOT rude to refuse to give your cigar to a person you are not comfortable to share with. No sentiments or politeness runs through that. If shared, the cigar is not to be wetted at the mouth or cleaned; if you are not ready to share – Refuse
Smoke cigars where people are not offended preferably open spaces or cigar lounges. Sadly, in India, there are not many, but we have been approached off late by hoteliers and architects for consulting on setting up cigar lounges in condominium clubs and pubs.
Does a cigar need to be paired, or can it be enjoyed on its own? What is the appropriate pairing?
‘Break the stereotypes!’ that’s what I tell beginners. Smoke them with whatever suits their palate and pocket; however, certain flavors as we all know settle well with other complimenting beverages matching their strengths and flavors. I am a big beer drinker, and I choose cigars that go well with the beers I have, but in winters I am happy to have malts and rums with my cigars. There are few cigars that we import from Spain and Italy, and these are all time smokes. I smoke them with my copious amounts of cappuccino or coffee shots.
Do ideally whatever works up your alley. Rums, beers, cognac, malts, coffee go very well with cigars.
Temperatures in India vary. What is the right way of storing cigars in these varying temperatures?
An ideal way to store cigars is in an environment where there is NO smell, no excessive dry heat or humidity. Cigars are meant to be pampered like babies and taken care of regularly by ensuring they live in a controlled environment of 70% humidity and 70F temperature in an odorless humidor with proper humidification system. Use clean hands to pick them, and serve, or even rotate in the humidor.
There is a Cigar Club in Mumbai, and in Calcutta where like-minded people meet to cultivate the Cigar Culture. What do you think is the future of cigars in India where the government is passing bans and taxes on tobacco?
There are many clubs across India, and you will be surprised that even in many smaller cities there are Cigar smokers and enthusiasts who indulge in evenings over malts and cigars; there are communities of bikers, golfers, bankers, poker and polo players who meet regularly over cigars.
Future of cigars?!? Now that is a toughie – your guess is as good as mine!
It’s Incredible India! Does that sound like a nudge closer to an answer, what is ever predictable here? But, I am a diehard optimist, and the future looks good; but if currency and liquor ban can happen then I can’t rest my reservations on cigars.
But as of now we have seen good progress, lot of cigarette smokers are switching to cigars because A )it’s expensive so they smoke less B) you need time to smoke a cigar C) people are realizing that Cigars are any day a better alternative to cigarettes, as you do not inhale chemical fumes of paper and tobacco blend to fill up your lungs. Cigar smoke is only swirled and not taken in; its mouth fagging, so less harmful. Cigars are being seen today as a status symbol. We do a lot of cigars hosting at big weddings in nicely curated lounges. Cigars are thrown in at Fashion parties, brand launches, art auctions, sports, conferences, and pubs and hotels are looking at new ways to entice their well-traveled discerning guests; all these surely tell-tale signs of positive growth.
While it’s the government’s prerogative to see what is more harmful on priority to regulate and control, we have no say in that and neither would our say work on any. But, I would like to be vocal on one thing which I have repeatedly said, and for the sake of sounding clichéd would still reiterate – there are many more gripping agendas such as sanitation, education, health, nutrition, pollution, drug menace, and corruption that’s gnawing the innards of our country that should be attended on priority by the authorities than to police on what people eat, drink and indulge in… People are mature to know what they like or dislike; on the contrary by goods being made more expensive by slapping excessive taxes, people are being made to gravitate towards consuming low grade, inferior quality, or spurious, or cheap alternate substances that we all know have even more negative ramifications than smoking cigars. On a lighter practical note, cigar plantation is the most organic activity, so much so that even chemical pesticides and insecticides are not used, they add to the global green cover rather than cutting trees, unlike for paper for making zillions of cigarettes. Cigar factories give millions of jobs, unlike automated cigarette factories. While I endorse that Smoking is Not healthy, however in comparison to the cigarettes, Cigars are any day a better alternative than to be smoking a blend of paper and chemicals. The Government should consider the obvious.
What is your study on the Indian market as opposed to the International market?
As we all know, India is almost the world’s largest smoking country… but cheroots, cigarettes, and Biddies; so although the market has a lot of potentials for the Big Ticket Cigar Brands to come in, the sector is so unorganized that despite many international brands who wish to get a foot in the door get shy of launching in. It’s a chicken and egg syndrome – while the brand owners want numbers, the market says come and build the market and get your numbers. It’s a dilemma; however, they are watching and noticing, and things look bright. A lot also depends on your local partners to instill that confidence, and I feel we are playing our cards very well in successfully doing so. We are doing our best to promote Cigars as a better alternate lifestyle than to smoking and choking on paper cigarettes. Cigars are being seen as an indulgence for the new brigade thus PR agencies, wedding planners, builders, hoteliers, pub and club owners want cigar lounges to be part of their new infrastructure.
International markets, on the other hand, are faster and more mature who have seen the regulatory spikes and surges, and know how to play along. They are more organized and promote Cigars as a lifestyle culture and they have the reasons to do so; since the demand is there and fanned frequently which keeps the cigar industry’s wheels of fortune well -oiled to keep building infrastructure and move in new brands.
As I understand Dominican Cigars are growing in immense popularity. However, we have a clientele here that believe that Cuban cigars are the best. How have you managed to break the myth of Cuban cigars being the best?
If you pick up any good Cigar magazine you will see cigar ratings are given every year and predominantly the best in line are from the Dominican Republic; so, it’s Not about us breaking the myth, it’s a validated seal of approval from the Global connoisseurs and aficionados. Sadly, in India, there was no one who could unravel this to the people, which is now done by The Smoke Co. People are opening to the fascinating world of cigars from Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico, Costa Rica, Italy and Spain. So much so that we have been able to break the palate of old die-hard Cuban fans who keep ordering with us assortments of Cubans and Non- Cubans.
The Smoke Company was born out of your passion for Cigars. This passion led you to spread awareness about the Cigar Culture. You have also held exquisite events in Delhi and parts of India. Now you have started a Malt and Cigar store, the only one in India.What would be the challenges for the store as the Indian market is dominated by mid-range whiskeys and blended scotch, also mid-range cigarettes and cigars?
I have seen many shades of life and I love that indulgence to play against the tide, that’s my grain! What good are your wit and strength if there is no challenge to push the envelope and out- force it? Admitting it has not been a cakewalk but a beautiful and tiring solo journey this far. For many, including my close friends and family, launching non-Cuban cigars in India, they pronounced clearly was a sure recipe for my failure. In their own reasoning and judgment, they could be right, but I defied their logic and went ahead stealthily. Imagine a pipsqueak market like India, where there are hardly any cigar smokers, and then only brands available are the Cubans, and that’s what people only knew and wanted to know; comes along someone who is blinded by passion but in his vision spots a Big window of opportunity, and progressively plays on pricing and positioning to dislodge and disrupt the stereotypes, makes a niche for themselves; builds a Brand name to reckon with in a matter of less than 2 years … Sounds like a breeze now! But hold on, there’s more to this boastful and pompous spiel – a lot of backstage solo hard work and ego bruises have gone into building it (as no one had faith in me including my father that I will ever pull it off)!! I remember in the earlier days when I would come back home after work, and post my dinner, would sit in my study to find cigar factories around the world, dig coordinates of their owners and managers, write to them and send them reminders. It was very difficult to convince Spanish speaking factory owners over emails to relent to small orders. I would stay awake until 3/4 am every day (time zones) to make incessant follow up calls to prove that we mean serious business. That was my biggest challenge, and once I overcame that, building market was never a challenge because I was mentally prepared that there was no market and I had to do a different peacock dance to build one.
Marketing was my first challenge, as tobacco and liquor marketing we all know is taboo in India. We hosted India’s first ever Malts and Cigars fest last year from our own money that got us a lot of traction and opened avenues of engagement with other luxury and lifestyle brands, we were very strategically hunted by alliance partners/lifestyle and luxury brands … we regularly Sponsored and curated many cigar centric events, gave away a lot of free cigars in promotions to fan the fire.
It will be my foolhardiness to say there will be any challenges for the store; we understand the market dynamics in force. There is a need for a store so it’s opened.
Cigars are constituents of a fine lifestyle for people who have passion for all things nice in life, those who will pay and save for their indulgent lifestyle but will not compromise on any product that’s inferior, there will always be a room for better products and thus I see no challenge other than government regulations that can bring us to the knees. In fact, we have been approached by many people across various cities to setup cigar stores, or take up Franchise of The Smoke Co, or collaborate with us.
You will be startled to know that during Diwali our 24 carat Gold leaf and Swarovski encrusted range is at a peak demand, and we close the bookings two weeks before Diwali, so as we see there is a market for every range, as long as people have discerning tastes and outreach to buy, it will always be on upswing.
How do you manage to hit your target audience?
Cigars are all about your personal experience and indulgence. I strongly believe candies are sold in stores, but for experiences, you have to indulge with people to savor something as magnificent as Cigars. Opening a store became a necessity to showcase to B2B customers the range we have, so we collaborated with Lake forest, the biggest Liquor distributor in the NCR. We have regular cigar jazz evenings over malts pairings, where we introduce cigars to our patrons and beginners with equal passion. Most of these are private paid events to weed out any freeloading. There is social media, workshops and more so it’s the ‘word of mouth ‘ of our patrons that bring us, new clients.
Do you have plans of starting your own line of Cigars?
Yes, we are almost there, since the last 3 years we have been seasoning our tobacco leaves which have already been there for over8 years with two factories, so we are looking at launching our 2 brands next year, that is very carefully curated based on our market findings on the Indian palate and paying capacities for easy indulgence.
“There’s something about smoking a cigar that feels like a celebration.” George Burrow.