Landing at the Tegucigalpa Airport of Honduras is anything but boring. After making a steep descent through jagged terrain, the plane makes a swift turn at low altitude before touching down on a short runway. It is not uncommon to hear the cabin fill with applause after a successful landing which was fortunately the case for my flight. Just two days earlier I received an urgent phone call from my friend Rocky Patel. He was elated with news that he found the "Holy Grail" of tobacco and told me I needed to meet him in Danli Honduras as soon as possible. Rocky is not the type to embellish, so when I heard about his new venture, I had my bags packed and was on my way to the airport.
It was the rainy season in Honduras and after collecting my bags I met my driver outside. The Pan-American highway was unusually busy and the winding roads from Tegucigalpa to Danli were relentless. About two hours and three cigars later our car was pulling through the gates of El Pariaso, Rocky's Danli factory. Inside I was greeted by a smiling Rocky and his cousin Nimish. Wasting little time, Rocky stretched a large Sumatra wrapper leaf on the table and invited me over to inspect it. Dark, sun grown, with no flaws, it is one of the highest quality wrappers I have ever seen, let alone the darkest I have come across in Ecuador. Rocky informed me that this wrapper would be the key piece to a blend that would commemorate his 10 years in the cigar industry, his crowning achievement called the "Rocky Patel Decade". This wrapper was purchased from the Olivas, the largest growers of Ecuadorian Sumatra tobacco in the world. Rocky had a meeting scheduled with the Olivas in Esteli Nicaragua in three short days to purchasing the remainder of the tobacco he needed for his new masterpiece and he asked me if I would accompany Nimish and him on a tobacco expedition from Danli to Esteli in search of the perfect tobaccos to create the new Decade.
The next morning was an early one. On our way out of town, we stopped at the mayor's office where Rocky had a scheduled meeting. For over a year now, Rocky has been busy establishing a charitable foundation. The mayor was donating land to the foundation that would later be the site for a new school that Rocky has been raising money for.
After spending brief time with the mayor, we started our trek to Nicaragua. With the windows down and cigars in our mouths, our first stops were four separate farms outside Danli owned and operated by the world famous Plasencia family, the largest growers of Cuban seed tobacco in the world. Here Rocky spent hours inspecting cured leaf and fresh tobacco, looking for the perfect soils, plants and primings to find tobacco that would deliver the necessary punch of flavor and body. One by one, Rocky separated leaves that to the average person all looked the same, but to Rocky's well-trained eye and uncompromising commitment to quality, were the "best of the best". He explained that "the wrapper is the key component to any blend, but the filler selection process is equally as important because each leaf of tobacco must interact with one another harmoniously to achieve the perfect balance." Now with his selections in front of him, Rocky began to test the leaves for combustion and flavor, adding them to his cigar and tasting every subtlety and nuance. After an hour or so he handed me a crude looking cigar and asked me to try it. Almost immediately my palate was on sensory overload as rich and deep flavors consumed every inch of my mouth. I could not fight back the smile on my face and upon seeing it, Rocky was quick to say, "this is what blending is all about!"
Now, having selected the foundation for the filler, we piled back into the car to drive over the border or "frontera" as they called it. As we approached Nicaragua, lines of trucks filled the sides of the road preparing for inspection. With Rocky's connections and resources, our stay at the border was short as he shook a few hands and gave a few waves to the border guards who promptly lowered the gate and let us pass. The countryside in Honduras and Nicaragua is beautiful during the rainy season. Everything is so lush and green over the complex topography. The first stop in Nicaragua on our way to Esteli was Jalapa. The Jalapa region is well known for its tobacco, particularly its wrapper grade leaf that carries a reddish hue on account of its soil. Bordered by volcanoes and rough terrain, Jalapa is one of Central America's premier destinations for tobacco growers. Immediately upon exiting the car, Rocky and Nimish were at it again, sorting through bales of tobacco and walking the fields. It was late in the day and we were losing light fast. Once the best leaf was separated we retired to our hotel to work the new Jalapa tobacco into the Honduran blended filler.
After a late night of smoking, we were back at it again the next day with our sights set squarely on Esteli and our upcoming meeting with the Olivas. As we made our way into Esteli, we stopped at another three or four farms just outside the city. In contrast to Jalapa, Esteli is known for its rich black soil that sprouts strong and robusto tobacco. According to Rocky, this is where we would find the final ingredient for the filler. Having visited Esteli a few days prior, Rocky already had tobacco selected and waiting for him so our stops were short. Back in the car Rocky fiddled with all of his new found tobacco like a kid with a Rubic's Cube. After about an hour I was presented with what appeared to a complete cigar. I lit it up and the taste was extraordinary. I told Rocky I loved it but didn't remember seeing him select binder tobacco for the cigar. With no response I grew frustrated and continued to drill him about the binder on the cigar, it was a leaf that clearly finished the blend of fillers we had spent the past 36 hours creating. Finally, Rocky turned from the front seat with a smile ear to ear and said, "a good chef never reveals his recipe." At that point it dawned on me, throughout the whole process I was documenting what tobaccos we were using and Rocky left the biggest teaser for the end. For cigar makers, their blend is as closely a guarded secret as the formula for Coca-Cola. He called the binder his "special touch," that made the blend distinctly Rocky Patel. Sure enough, with the completed cigar in hand, its complexity, body, flavor and above all, quality made me realize I was smoking Rocky's greatest concoction.
As we pulled into the lot at the Oliva's sorting and fermentation facility, I was sad our trip was over but taken back by just how much time and attention Rocky put into his Decade cigar. He spares no expenses and cuts no corners, especially when it comes to his new Decade blend. After a successful meeting with the Olivas where Rocky acquired the remaining bales of wrapper, I met my driver and made the long haul to Managua where I met my flight for Miami. Fortunately, Rocky made a small care package for me that included a dozen of the new Decade which I smoked the whole way home.
Look for this new brand by Rocky Patel later this year after it debuts at the 2007 RTDA tradeshow in Houston.