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Enter The Dragon – Gurkha’s Groundbreaking Collaboration with Some of the Top Cigar Makers


A couple of pigs, a chicken, a rabbit, and a rat got together at last year’s Premium Cigar Association trade show in Las Vegas. No one noticed these cigar honchos, whose birth dates determined their totem mammal in accordance with the Chinese Zodiac. 

They spoke on the floor of the Venetian Conference Center, pondering a marketing exploit that has never been done. It was hardly nefarious, but on its own had an Ocean’s Eleven-style magnificence. 

Rather than overthrow an existing order, though, this cadre of conspirators, who were in fact some of the top names in the premium cigar industry and led by Juan Lopez, Gurkha Cigars VP of sales, assembled a landmark series of smokes in honor of the Chinese Zodiac’s Year of the Dragon. 

Within weeks of the Las Vegas gathering and brainstorming, Lopez had put together an all-star team of cigar producers; Oliva Cigars, Oscar Valladares, E.P. Carillo, and A.J. Fernandez Cigars all enlisted to be part of the quarterly release through 2024 of a Year of the Dragon cigar, each with its own professional touch in 10-count boxes with each housing a story of the respective brand on a vellum paper insert and primary and secondary band. 

The collection of cigar heavyweights, while it sounds difficult to navigate an upper echelon of the premium world rife with justifiable pride and unchecked ego, came together with relative ease, says Lopez. 

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Jim Colucci
President of Gurkha Cigars

“This project came about as Jim [Colucci, president of Gurkha] and I were sitting around the office and Kaizad [Hansotia, Gurkha founder] was there, and we thought, ‘we have this name ‘dragon’ trademarked, why don’t we do something with it?’,” Lopez says. “So we did the Dragon for the PCA show in July and it sold out.” 

This wasn’t necessarily a surprise, he says. 

“I said to Jim, ‘We know everybody, what if we did something bigger?’” Lopez says. Bigger became very big and as they walked the showroom floor with a list of brand names, it took shape. They hit around eight producers, and some said ‘no,’ for any number of reasons. 

Lopez and Colucci remained methodical as they moved forward. 

Gurkha wanted all regions represented in the series and their vision was realized. 

As it shakes out, this year – yes, the Year of the Dragon according to the Chinese Zodiac – will go like this: 

  • In mid-February, Gurkha Year of the Dragon by A.J. Fernandez, Nicaragua 
  • In April, Gurkha Year of the Dragon by Ernesto Perez-Carrillo, Dominican Republic 
  • In late June, Gurkha Year of the Dragon by Oliva Cigar, Nicaragua 
  • In September, Gurkha Year of the Dragon by Oscar Valladares, Honduras 

The cigars, which retail for $25 each, are the result of a culling by Gurkha, where execs sampled three or four blends before making a final approval. 

There will be some pomp to the introduction – the first hint is a teaser at The Great Smoke in February where the Year of the Dragon roster will debut in a 5-count box. 

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At PCA in March, a Year of the Dragon humidor will be on offer, featuring 20 of each cigar, a limited edition of 1,001. 

“I really let [the producers] do their magic,” Lopez says. “Our magic is in the marketing.” 

Gurkha has always had some magic, though, be it marketing or otherwise. 

As legend has it, Hansotia bought the brand in 1989 after smoking some of its cigars on vacation in Goa, India, purchased from a Portuguese vendor. The cost, including the vendor’s stash: $143. 

Cigars were not his thing at the time, but Hansotia pushed it. He created big ticket smokes, starting with the Grand Reserve which went for $12 at a time a Davidoff cost $8. When the cigar boom hit in the early 90s, Gurkha was front and center, selling out repeatedly. At the same time cigar quality was emerging, Gurkha also looked at packaging. 

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Juan Lopez
VP of sales for Gurkha Cigars

“When I came into the industry, quite honestly all I saw was a bunch of crap,” Hansotia told Parsi Khabar, an online news portal, in a 2014 story. “Everyone used those cheap paper cigar boxes and the packaging was boring.” 

Gurkha nudged the industry into today’s glittering standard, with finely crafted boxes and bands, many of them telling an illustrious story. 

Gurkha’s best platform initially was catalog, then internet sales, but its brick-and-mortar operations, led in the U.S. by Lopez starting in 2009, has emerged as its pearl. 

When he got to Gurkha, it was doing $4 million a year in the stores; this year that figure will be $18 million. 

Lopez acknowledges other brands have done their own Chinese Zodiac cigars, which have gained favor over the past few years. The zodiac includes 12 animals, each representing a different, rotating year. For example, the dragon represents individuals born in 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, and 2024. 

Brands have often embossed their packaging with the symbol of the specific animal and each also has “lucky” colors and numbers. 

But marking each quarter of a year via a top-notch brand’s cigar? 

“Other manufacturers have never done this,” Lopez notes, correctly. 

As China has emerged as a cigar consumer market, and a lucrative one, marketers have leaned into the country and, as an extension, the zodiac celebration and tradition. 

Davidoff began its Chinese Zodiac cigars in 2011, housed in intricately designed boxes, and has kept it up ever since. Carillo, Cohiba, Drew Estate, Macanudo, and Plasencia, among others, have also joined the zodiac sweepstakes in the past several years. 

Lopez is a “brick and mortar guy” who plans to ensure the Year of the Dragon has a strong ground game, aware that he’s breaking some new ground. 

“We’re doing what no one has done before,” he says pridefully. 

And while we’re on the subject of Chinese Zodiac animal symbols, Lopez is a pig as far as the calendar is concerned. 

“I eat like a pig so maybe that makes sense,” Lopez says. 

Ernesto Perez-Carrillo
President EPC Cigar Co

“This actually started three years ago, Juan Lopez and I were at an airport and started talking about it. We wanted to do something together. For this, I wasn’t at PCA, my son was, and that’s where the talk about this started. So it was in the making, I just didn’t know what it would be. So once we figured out what this project would look like, Juan gave us the outline, [Gurkha] showed us what the packing was going to be, and once we picked the colors, black and gold, we went to the cigar. We chose a Mexican dark wrapper, having done something like this before, the Aura, for our Asian distributor in 2022. It was a success and it was even very much in demand in the U.S., people were buying 20-25 boxes. In China, it was presold and also did well in Europe. I was at an event in Detroit and someone had a box for me to sign, so it got around. 

So we had an idea of what each cigar was going to smoke like in reference to the Year of the Dragon. We wanted spice and peppers but not too much fire. I based it more or less on what I thought was not only the concept but also on my interpretation of the dragon. The size is 6.5 x 54, and it really delivers what I am looking for. 

A collaboration like this has to be something both parties have faith in, feel proud of, and are eager to sell. I don’t want something I like and no one else does. But we sent four blends and they picked the one I liked. 

We produced 30,000 of these, and when you do something like this, you don’t want to go too low, or too high. You want a number that will move through the market and when you start with 50,000, or 100,000, there’s more marketing to do. But in this case, 30,000 may not be enough. 

For price, we didn’t speak about the retail of the cigar, but we know it is going to sell well. We didn’t come up with a price based on the cost of the tobacco, this is a very well-aged, well-fermented Mexican wrapper, but sell it for what they want, we don’t get into that. 

I like the Chinese market, it is still emerging. It will be another five years before we see a large input of New World cigars [in China], but they do produce cigars there now, I believe there are three or four factories. It will open up.”

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Oscar Valladares
President Oscar Valladares Tobacco

“To get this started, Juan called me, he knows what I do. I was in Honduras and he was looking for something from Honduras. Juan asked if I were interested in making a cigar for him, I said ‘No problem, I have a factory right here, you need cigars, I can do that.’ It was that simple. I sent the first samples to him, I had some already on hand and he called me when I got back to Miami, and we got together to smoke some of the ones I sent, there were seven of them. I needed to understand what he was looking for, to find out what he wanted. The cigars I have on the market right now are cigars that I like, that I want to make. That makes my life easy, but for someone else, I want to give them what they want. He liked the seven that I brought but they were not what he was looking for and he told me a little more about what he wanted. So I called in the recipe to the factory, I sent the recipe by phone, this tobacco, this binder, this wrapper. I also have grown tobacco in Mexico for the last 20 years, I know every kind of tobacco, flowery, spicy, the best wrapper combo, this binder, that wrapper. So I give this recipe, it’s like cooking, you know, some salt, some pepper. I called that in for three different blends and I sent them to Juan. He made the decision, he picked one and just said ‘it’s amazing.’ I said ‘ok, done.’ I’ve never really done anything like this before, I made a batch of cigars for EP Carrillo (the E.P. Carrillo Short Run 2023) 100,000 cigars, one time that was the first time. This is usually not my style, I try to make different things, but Juan is a great guy and it’s a great opportunity to be part of this group. And I don’t even know anything about the Chinese Zodiac.”

Fidel Valdés Rodríguez
Chief Operations Officer Oliva Cigar Company

“Gurkha contacted Cory on this and asked if we would be interested in making a year of the Dragon for them. So we prepared these blends and sent them three, and they chose one with a San Andreas wrapper, Cameroon binder and a Nicaraguan filler. We had to wait a bit to ship the samples, because we go with at least 35 days in the aging room, then have to ship it from Nicaragua and you can’t smoke it right away. We wanted to make sure to pay attention to the flavor; we didn’t want anything that was too close to our own portfolio. Over the years we’ve done blends for the big boys and also did Chinese Zodiac for ourselves. The Chinese market, well, the reality is that only a few of the bigger producers are in the Chinese market, and the others get in through the black market. And even then, they import very small amounts into China because tobacco is so regulated and China tobacco has the monopoly. People can get into China through Hong Kong, but it’s still a closed market. I don’t know much about the zodiac, but I am a dog.”

This article appeared in the Jan/Feb 2024 issue. Subscribe today to get the magazine in your mailbox.

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