Oh Capstan, my Capstan

The new MacBaren-version Capstan tins © PipesMagazine

The new MacBaren-version Capstan tins © PipesMagazine

These days there is a lot of news surrounding Capstan. This because after an absence of 18 years the legendary brand returns to the USA. Not only as the well-known flake, but also as the lesser-known ready rubbed. Also the manufacturer is no longer Orlik / STG, but another Danish company, MacBaren. Of course under license of Imperial Tobacco. Luckily we in Europe were able to enjoy Capstan all this time. It actually is one of the few tobaccos that is available in The Netherlands that I like very, very much.

Old Capstan Navy Cut ad from 1898

Old Capstan Navy Cut ad from 1898

Capstan already exists for a looong time. The brand was introduced by W. D. & H. O. Wills around 1893. The company was founded as Wills, Watkins & Co. by Henry Overton Wills I and his partner Watkins. He opened a shop in 1786 Castle Street, Bristol in 1786. After the retirement of his partner in 1789 the name became “Wills & Co.”. From 1791 to 1793 the company was known as Lilly, Wills & Co when it merged with the firm of Peter Lilly. Then, from 1793 to Lillly’s retirement in 1803, as Lilly and Wills.In 1826 Wills’ two sons, William Day Wills and Henry Overton Wills took over the company and finally in 1830 the company took the well known name of W. D. & H. O. Wills.

Sorting and cutting tobacco for mixtures at the Bristol factory in 1926

Sorting and cutting tobacco for mixtures at the Bristol factory in 1926

The company was good for its workers and pioneered canteens, free medical care, sports facilities and paid holidays. Their first brand was “Bristol”, made at the London factory from 1871 to 1974. “Three Castles” and “Gold Flake” followed in 1878, “Woodbine” in 1888, Capstan around 1893 and Three Nuns from 1957 to the late 1980’s. The company not only had factories and offices in Bristol, but also in Swindon, Dublin, Newcastle and Glasgow. The largest cigarette factory in Europe was opened at Hartcliffe Bristol in 1974 but closed in 1990. The beautiful Art Deco Newcastle factory closed in 1986. In 1901 Sir William Henry Wills formed the Imperial Tobacco company from a merger of W.D. & H.O. Wills with John Player & Sons of Nottingham and 11 other independent family businesses, which were being threatened by competition from the United States by the American Tobacco Company. Imperial remains one of the world’s largest tobacco companies. The last member of the Wills family to serve the company was Christopher, the great great grandson of H.O. Wills I. He retired as sales research manager in 1969. Some time after the closure of the Bristol plant the making of Capstan was finally licensed by Imperial Tobacco to Orlik and now MacBaren. For more (old) pictures of the W.D. & H.O. Wills factories click on this link.

My old (± 1989) Capstan Navy Cut Medium tin

My old (± 1989) Capstan Medium Navy Cut tin

My love for Capstan began when I made a bid on an old Medium Navy Cut tin on the British e-bay. And did not win it.. Fortunately something went wrong with the winner and the seller approached me if I wanted the tin. Of course, but not for the money the winner offered. I’m still Dutch after all. That was possible and after some price negotiations she sent me the tin. It was my first vintage tobacco so I eagerly pried with my Czech pipe-tool under the lid and was rewarded with a *Ssssssss*. The flakes inside smelled absolutely hea-ven-ly. Since then I never came across a vintage tobacco that smelled so nice. A deep, sweet hay / grass/ raisins / figs aroma that reminded me of the hay-barn of my uncle and aunt. Even to this day, when I stick my nose in a Capstan tin I have to think of that. *Sighs* Good ol’ times.. Speaking about those, Capstan used to be the favourite tobacco of well known writer J.R.R. Tolkien and also later of his son Christopher until he quit smoking..

Older rectangular Orlik made Capstan tin

Older rectangular Orlik made Capstan tin

When I put a flake in my Winslow Harlekin and lit it my taste buds had a shuddering orgasm. Before that I smoked some aromatics and wasn’t converted to the dark latakia leaf yet. The taste was full and naturally sweet with the hints of hay and raisins / figs that I smelled before. In other words, the Virginias had aged very well. Yes, that old Capstan really was an eye opener. So I mailed the e-bay lady if she had any more tins left that she was willing to sell and asked how she got does. She answered that she had acquired them from the left over inventory of a closed tobacco-shop and that she had a couple more tins left. I bought those and I still have them. Only on very special occasions I pop one open. After I finished the old Capstan I went looking for the new version. I was in luck, the local tobacco store had one left. When I got home I opened it and was a bit disappointed. Yes the sweet hay/grass/ raisins / figs aroma was there but it lacked the depth of the Old Capstan. But that is not so strange since it was a new tin..

STANUNED flavour info

STANUNED flavour info

When I did some research about the Capstan topping (I knew it wasn’t all-natural) I stumbled upon the used flavour in the earlier years. It had the code-name STANUNED. After some more research I discovered that the Tonka bean (tonquin, coumarin) was used as  an ingredient. Unfortunately the use of tonka bean in pipe-tobacco is now prohibited in most countries.. So I wonder how the current topping is made. A chemical rip-off? Imperial Tobacco has the original recipe so who knows what they have done to it over the years..

Different Capstan tins FLTR: W.D. & H.O. Wills tin, older Orlik/STG tin, later Orlik/STG tin, MacBaren tin

Different Capstan tins fltr: W.D. & H.O. Wills tin, older Orlik/STG tin, later Orlik/STG tin, MacBaren tin

Ok, now it is time to do some comparisons between the Orlik / STG version and the new MacBaren version. As you can see in the picture on the left both the latest Orlik / STG tin and the new MacBaren one are identical. The folks in the USA are fine, every new tin is the MacBaren version plus it has the manufacturing month and year clearly stated on the back. But here in Europe we have some “old” Orlik / STG stock left that looks exactly the same as the new one! The same yes, only the codes on the back of the tin are different.

IMG_9538Let me explain. On the picture on the right you see the backside of the two similar Capstan tins. Left the Orlik / STG version, right the new MacBaren. The Orlik / STG tin has 10 digits and then 4. The MacBaren one has 8 and then 5. That is the difference. As you zoom in on the MacBaren tin you see: 09130281 30212. This is how the code can be deciphered:
09 = Packing machine used
13 = Year of packing
028 = Calendar day of production. That means day 028 in 2013. January 28th.
1 = Shift (1 indicates it is packed on the day shift)
The 5 digit number is the internal batch number.
The Orlik / STG tin code is a bit harder to crack: 1208025527 0164.
12 = Year of packing
08 = Calender day of production. That means the 8th day of the month.
02 = Month of packing.
What the rest of the digits mean, no idea.. The 4 digit number is an internal batch number I guess. But this tin comes from February 8th 2012.

IMG_9543When you open both tins the flakes inside look the same (I already smoked from the MacBaren version at the time of the picture). Ok, maybe the Orlik / STG verison is a tiny bit darker but that is because it is almost a year older. The tin odour is also almost the same although I find that the MacBaren version smells just a bit sharper. Also maybe because of the youthfulness of the flake. I must say that that sharp edge goes away after a week after opening. For the last one and a half week I have been smoking both versions extensively in different pipes. And… I can detect no real difference. They both are a damn fine smoke. The Orlik / STG version tastes just a bit rounder, fuller but once again, that could very well be the age difference. Also Orlik / STG have brought 2 flakes on the market: Orlik English Original and Orlik English Gold. I have not smoked these but it is said that they are similar to the Blue and Yellow Capstan.

MacBarenTruthfully I never expected that MacBaren could pull off a tobacco that I actually like very much. I am not a big MacBaren fan to be honest.. But they have done a damn fine job with the new Capstan, I got to give them credit for that. And for the people who say, it tasted better in the past! Yes, the old W.D. & H.O. Wills tins taste superior. But keep in mind the formidable ageing of the Virginias! Anyway, I am just glad that I can buy a new tin of an old brand without worrying.

0 thoughts on “Oh Capstan, my Capstan

  1. Hi Arno,

    Great news. I’ve let Brian Telford at Telfords in Marin County know. He’ll ask his distributors when it will be available here. Several members of the Golden Gate Pipe Club will be very pleased to see it again.

  2. Hello: For what it is worth I am a 65 year old pipe smoker who used to smoke Capstan blue exclusively back in the 1970’s and I can assure you, if memory serves me correctly that the Macbaren is virtually identical to the old Wills brand, Let us all enjoy Capstan before they ban tobacco all together!

    • Hello Doug, thank you for reading. I just hope that the MacBaren Capstan will age well. If they after a few years will be as good as the couple of Bristol made tins I have.. Woww..
      I am not too afraid that they will ban tobacco. Too much money (taxes) is to be made from it. But still, let us enjoy!

  3. Hello Arno,
    Here in the States, there is no need to understand the code on the new Mac Baren Capstan as they list the month and year of manufacture on the bottom tin. As an example, the bottom of the label actually reads, “April 2013”
    Great article! Thanks!

    • Hello Chris,

      thanks for the tip! You are correct, I have some HH Vintage Syrian tins from the States that clearly state the month and year. I shall adjust my blogpost.


  4. Thank you for the info on dating the Orlik as I have 16 tins purchased in Denmark a few years ago and I have wondered how to understand the date of manufacture.

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  6. Dear Arno,

    My name is Rudolf, I am eightteen years old, I’m also Dutch, and just very recently gained interest in pipe smoking.
    Today dad gave me a tin just like the vintage tin shown in you pictures wich he found at my grandmother’s. Unfortunately the tin was already opened but still full op tobacco.

    It is dried out but I would love to smoke it, is that possible? It still smells great!

    Kind regards,


  7. Hello Rudolf,
    If it smells good you should have success dehydrating it. Here in the States I often use tobacco buttons. They should be available at your local tobacco shop or on line. They are very inexpensive, likely less than one Euro. For a full tin I would use at least 3 of them. Simply soak them in water (distilled if you can) and place them with the tobacco in a tight jar for a few days. After that time, check the tobacco, if it’s moist enough then smoke it! Don’t make it too moist. These little humidifiers can be resolved and used again if needed. Sometimes, I will even smoke it dry straight away. Just be sure there isn’t any rust inside the tin near the tobacco. If so, I wouldn’t smoke it. Feel free to ask any needed questions. Enjoy! Welcome to pipes!

    Austin, Texas USA

  8. Dear Arno,

    Great to hear from you too, thanks for sharing yourexperiences and knowledge!
    Is the towel + bowl method any better or less compared to the stones?
    I also have an estate pipe I spent ours cleaning with alcohol and I ever used a knife to remove some of the cake build-up. How can I maintain my pipe? It’s a chacom straight billiard with a relatively short mouth piece (the black plastic part) but the briar wood extends further giving the stem its full length. Attached to the black mouthpiece is a metal tube with holes in it. I’ve never seen that on pipes online before and couldn’t find my own pipe on the web. Perhaps you might have clue?
    Nogmaals bedankt!



  9. I have a Capstan tin like the one you first bought from eBay and am going to list it on eBay to try and sell it. (university fees are crippling us) in order to maximise the possible sale I wonder if you mind if I took some of the history of Capstan from your page and include it in my description? It makes the little tin suddenly more interesting.
    I hope you don’t mind this request.

    • Hello Marie, thank you for asking. I am not a commercial minded blogger so I don’t really like the idea of someone making money with using the Capstan history from my page. From the other hand, I can’t do much about it and who am I to deny someone an honest buck? Go ahead with it and good luck with the sale. Greetings, Arno

  10. Hi Arno. I have a tin Can like the +/- 1989 version. I can read 50G. on yours, but mine says 50 grs net. Can this say anything about age?

    Knut in Norway

    • Hallo Knut, first of all, beautiful country that you live in! Although for tobacco it isn’t such a beautiful country I believe.. Anyway, I am sorry but I don’t know if 50 grs net says something about the age.. Greetings, Arno

      • Thanks Arno. Tobacco are expensive in our country. Stopped smoking myself 3 years ago. Still fascinated of old tobacco-cans and and lot of other vintage things. The smell of tobacco from a pipe will allways give memories of my grand grandfather 🙂

  11. Hello Knut,
    I can’t say what that says about the age, although different markings like that can always help if you can find out when they are introduced. However, it is possible that the marking could have been used for the specific country it was distrusted. I am not saying that is the case here, but it does happen. Some of the old Rattray blends are a great example of that. What can help is the manufacturer. Is it Wills or Imperial? Wills would be the older of the two. I have tins from each era and find the flavor, at least at this point, very, very similar. Either way, it will be very tasty!
    Austin, Texas

      • Hi Arno,
        It tastes different too. I remember my first experience with Capstan. It was at a pipe show in Las Vegas. Capstan wasn’t available in the States at the time so I shelled out some bucks for 3 tins. They were 92g tins from Wills. Having no understanding of the treasure I had just found, I promptly smoked a bowl and it was amazing. At that time the Dunhill blends were no longer available in the US either (2008-2009) and I was having my favorite Dunhill blends shipped from a small shop in Copenhagen. I saw Capstan while preparing an order. I promptly bought 15 tins and forked over a lot of money to have it shipped. Needless to say, I was disappointed. But, I still have the remaining 14 tins stored in my tobacco cellar. Maybe I’ll celebrate this Christmas by opening a tin……
        I have cellared some of the Mac Baren version too, but haven’t tried it. But I better try some soon because in the wisdom of the US government, tobacco has been transferred to the oversight of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and massive new regulation has already begun as tobacco is now considered a drug. At the minimum many, many blends will soon be gone. But I digress……..LOL

    • Thanks Chris.
      I had to check. It says ” The contents of this package are the goodsof the successors to W.D. & H.D. Wills, Bristol and London”.

      Funny to know something about my findings.

      Tønsberg, Norway

  12. Hi Arno!

    Your reading of the Orlik tin code is right on the money. It was produced on February 21, 2012. The remaining numbers are the 4-digit factory code. This code works for Drew Estate, Dunhill (pre-2010), Erinmore and Escudo, as well as Orlik Capstan. Probably quite a few others, too, since Orlik makes or has made many blends. Love the blog!

    John Brasher

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  15. Such a great article….it was a great pleasure to read. I’m a beginner pipe smoker and blogger and I got to the Capstan “milestone” today, opening my very first tin. After I made my notes and started to summarize in my blog I found your article with this amazing amount of background information. If you don’t mind I would insert the link of your article in my tasting notes, with a reference to others who would be as happy as I am founding your great summary on your adventures with this brilliant tobacco. All the best!
    Peter from Switzerland

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