In 1989, Kaizad Hansotia came across a Portuguese man and his tiny shop on the beach while vacationing in India. Hansotia was a young man who’d had a little too much rum when he decided to buy every cigar in the man’s shop. At the time, he worked for his father selling high-end watches, and he knew nothing about cigars. Still, for just under $150, Hansotia not only bought out the man’s inventory, he also bought the brand that marked their label: Gurkha Cigars.
Hansotia planned to use the cigars as gifts for his watch clients, and he had no intention of making them his business. But whether or not it was good luck, chance or a bottle of rum that can be credited for his start, Hansotia’s creativity and willingness to bring new ideas to a centuries-old art has made Gurkha Cigars one of the best-known premium-cigar brands in the world today.
The name Gurkha comes from the sword-wielding warriors of Nepal, known for their fierceness and tenacity on the battlefield. Recruited by British officers in the early 1800s, Gurkha soldiers fought in both world wars and nearly every other major conflict through today’s fight in Afghanistan. The Royal Gurkha Regiment, as they have come to be called, is still known for its motto: “Better to die than to be a coward.”
At least in spirit, the Gurkha Cigars brand seeks to embody that of its namesake as it unapologetically appeals to people who approach life as their own to conquer. Gurkha cigars have turned up in the hands of celebrities and tycoons, have been enjoyed by presidential guests at the Inaugural Ball, and were puffed by members of SEAL Team Six as they celebrated their takedown of the world’s most wanted terrorist.
Here are some highlights from our recent interview with the man behind Gurkha’s modern American success story:
Skillset: Your family comes from India and you were raised in Hong Kong, then London before coming to the United States when you were a teenager. Were you a typical kid? How did your upbringing help shape you into the entrepreneur you are today?
KH: I was absolutely a typical kid, mostly living in London, and then I came to the U.S. I love this country. Of course, when you’re young, you see Disney World and think everything is like Disney World. (Laughs.) My father used to run watch companies and from the age of 13 or 14, I was designing watches. I then started designing the packaging for the watches too.
Skillset: Without any background in the industry, what made you think you should start selling cigars?
KH: When I left the watch business for the cigar industry, I went to cigar factories and every single one had the same old papier-mâché box. The owners would say, “Oh, I’m never going to change what my great grandfather did. This is our heritage,” and I’m thinking, I understand that, that’s great, but you’ve got to change with the times.
Skillset: So, you thought you could just step in and change things?
KH: In my experiences with duty-free and luxury-watch customers, I knew there were people who would go out to dinner on Friday or Saturday night who wouldn’t mind smoking a $20 or $30 cigar. At the time, the most expensive cigar was a Davidoff, at $7.
So, I said, “OK, I’m going to do this my way,” and I created a cigar — it cost $14. The average cigar in those days was $3. You can imagine what kind of pushback I got when I went to the stores, but we sold out in less than two months — every single cigar. And ever since that day, we have always been on back-order for at least four months for all our cigars.
Skillset: Did you feel you were taking a big risk?
KH: It was a big risk. The risks are always there, but it’s fine as long as you believe in your product. What makes a $3 hamburger and what makes a $35 hamburger, you know? People say, “I would never pay $35 for a hamburger,” but when you sit down and analyze what you’re eating, you realize “Wow! This is worth every penny.” I’m not saying a $3 hamburger at McDonald’s is bad. It is what it is — it’s meant for the masses. Now, if you go to Capitol Grill or Morton’s Steakhouse, they’re giving you a filet mignon, they’re grinding it down, they’re making truffle oil, they hand-make the buns and they hand-sauté every single onion. They’re giving you this burger that’s a different level, right? The quality is different.
That’s exactly what we are — the top of the top of the top. Out of a hundred bails of tobacco, we only take three bails, maybe two bails. We know what we put in there, so of course, when someone tries our cigars they had better understand the differences between super premium cigars and other cigars.
Skillset: Speaking of luxury, the Gurkha His Majesty’s Reserve (HMR) cigars maintain the distinction of being world’s most expensive cigar, at around $1,000 a stick. What makes that cigar so special?
KH: For the HMR, we infuse 15-year-old tobacco with one whole bottle of Louis XIII Cognac per a single box of cigars. This is a cigar that goes to someone who has done a very big deal in the stock market, who is getting married or who is, perhaps, getting divorced. (Laughs.) Cigars like the HMRs are what you give a man who already has all the money in the world — basically, this is for him.
Skillset: Each of the Gurkha small-batch, limited-edition cigars is unique, with one-of-a-kind packaging. The Spec Ops Cigar came in a Pelican case; the Genghis Khan comes in what looks like an artifact. There is even a special-edition cigar called the “Trump Presidente,” that was made in honor of the Presidential Inauguration — though I understand these weren’t for sale.
KH: Those were made especially for President Trump — for him to give out at his inauguration — and that’s what he did.
Skillset: So, would you say the First Family are Gurkha fans?
KH: Of course. Eric and Don Jr. are my personal friends, and they are complete Gurkha guys.
Skillset: What inspires you when you’re creating a new cigar? Is it something conjured up by a marketing team in a board room? What’s your creative process?
KH: I’m constantly creating every single day. I am currently working on projects for two years from now, three years from now … it’s an ongoing process. We always try to come up with something different. I do all the packaging; everything comes from me.
Skillset: I understand that you have some impressive personal collections: artifacts, weapons, things like that. Can you tell us a little about these?
KH: Sure! I collect guns, mostly sniper rifles, love to shoot and I also love knives. I have over three thousand knives. You know, sometimes a man collects sunglasses; I collect swords, knives, guns, pens and watches. (Laughs.) As far as the sniper rifles are concerned, I have a Steyr, a Stoner and I have a Schmidt-Rubin, one of the first sniper rifles ever made. I also have Remington, Christensen Arms, Accuracy International, H-S Precision — I probably own close to 45 sniper rifles.
Skillset: I saw the story about the SEAL team smoking their Gurkhas right after taking down Bin Laden. How did Gurkha’s affinity for the military and special operations start?
KH: I have a lot of friends in the military, and I’ve always supported them. Whenever they go on deployment, if they ever need some cigars, we’re there. They take care of our country, and they’re just such a great group of people. We’ve got a huge military following — all the special forces from around the world, they all are Gurkha guys.
Skillset: There are a lot of people who try to go into business that aren’t successful. What do you think are your personal qualities that make you successful at what you do?
KH: That’s a good question. You must find your niche, and you must make sure that you believe in your product. What makes any entrepreneur successful? It’s nothing but persistence and endurance. You have to keep going and going and going and going, you know?
I tell my kids that selling a product or creating a company is like building a statue. Don’t think that you’re going to hit the block of granite one time and a statue is going to appear. You have to chip away at it and for the first four years, you’re not going to see much. Then, in the next four years you’re going to start seeing that outline shape, and in the next four years after that you’re going to be able to say, “Now you can see what I’ve been talking about!” And after that, it will become a beautiful statue.
Skillset: Other than making cigars and collecting some amazing things, what do you love to do the most?
KH: Cooking — I love to cook! I do everything from French classical cooking to Italian to cooking steaks, lots of fusion stuff. I like it all.
Skillset: Clearly, you’re good at many pursuits — what is challenging for you?
KH: My attention span. I have ADD. (Laughs.) Mentally, I’m always in ten different places at one time, and that is my biggest dilemma. I am trying to improve my ability to focus but still, it seems I am working on five hundred different projects over the course of any day.
Skillset: You have three boys of your own. Do you think your kids will go into the business or go off and do their own things?
KH: Oh, I think they’ll do their own things. I want them to be independent and to follow their interests — whatever they love — and if they want to join me, they’re more than welcome.