Robust Rustica

prototype macbaren rustica

Prototype of the new MacBaren Rustica flake

The Rustica story begins
For me this story began at the Inter Tabak fair in Dortmund last year. Or better said, in a private room in the nearby Dorint hotel, only a short walk from the Westfalenhallen. There the mighty MacBaren was holding court and when the doors swung open we were warmly greeted by product manager / master blender / tobacco ambassador Per Jensen. One of the highlights of the conversation we had was when he produced a blank tin while telling that it was another project on which he was working. It was a blend which also contained the powerful, vitamine N rich Nicotiana rustica. He asked me to smoke it, a prototype, which I did in a small pipe. Of course I said it was good but the truth was that my tasting palate was totally shot after a day of smoking at the Inter Tabak. Not to mention my stomach was pretty empty so the nicotine wreaked havoc on my body. I did not finish the bowl. But I made a firm mental note to keep an eye out for it in the time to come. It had certainly piqued my interest. I mean, I had Nicotiana rustica before in the shape of snuff (Toque USA Whiskey & Honey, which kicked like a mule) but never as a pipe-tobacco, unique!

mayan smokingAncient “creative” uses of tobacco
Most tobacco consumed by us humans is from the Nictotiana tabacum variety, a tall broad leafed plant. Nicotiana rustica looks alike but is shorter with slightly thinner leaves. Both species are native to the Americas where mankind stumbled upon them roughly 18,000 years ago. But the first area where tobacco was cultivated was the Peruvian/Ecuadorean Andes around 5000-3000 BC. Throughout the years the use of it moved northwards. It was used by all kinds of cultures and civilizations for all kinds of purposes in all kinds of ways. For rituals but also purely for personal pleasure. I can’t begin to describe how “creative” the South-American tribes were in the use of tobacco. It was chewed, snuff was made out of it, it was smoked in the form of cigars or in pipes etc. Even some kind of tea was made of it which would be “drunk” anally with the help of a clyster/enema, like a bulb made of animal skin and a tube made of bone or reed. Or a man would flay his gentleman sausage and soak up the blood in pieces of paper or strips of cloth, add some tobacco and then burn it as an offer to the gods. I am glad that nowadays we only smoke, sniff or chew it orally…

John Rolfe and Pocahontas

John Rolfe and his wife Pocahontas

The savior: John Rolfe
By the time Columbus discovered America in 1492 tobacco had reached every corner of the continent. At 14 May 1607 a group of settlers from the Virginia Company of London established the Jamestown settlement in the Colony of Virginia. In May 1610 John Rolfe arrived there after a long and difficult journey and he was shocked by what he found. The Virginia Colony was almost destroyed by famine and disease. They had tried selling the local tobacco smoked by the Powhatan and Chesapeake Indians (hint: that was Nicotiana rustica) but the settlers themselves and more important the English market did not like it. It burned poorly and hot, tasted bitter and was very strong. THE tobacco back then was called “Spanish Tobacco” (Nictotiana tabacum) because Spain had the monopoly on it. But somehow John Rolfe had obtained seeds of the Spanish Tobacco, even though Spain had declared a death penalty to anyone selling such seeds to a non-Spaniard. In 1611 he was the first to commercially grow Nicotiana tabacum in North-America. And in 1612 the export of this sweeter tobacco, called “Orinoco” by Rolfe, made the Virginia Colony a success. And what about the Nicotiana rustica? Well, it still exists today, it is known as ucuch in southern Mexico, mapacho in South America, thuốc lào in Vietnam and makhorka in Russia. Also it is used for Swedish snus and chew bags.

rustica leaf

Nicotiana rustica leaf

Backstory
And those snus and chew bags is where the MacBaren part of the story begins. It is damn difficult to make a decent pipe-tobacco out of Nicotiana rustica. But at the end of 2018 MacBaren began producing chew bags. The ingredient was Nicotiana rustica although different from the original tobacco smoked by the Indians. These leaves were sun-cured which means there is more sugar in them. It was then that the idea sprang into Per’s head to create a blend from the original tobacco that made smoking popular in the Western world. But the journey was long and difficult because he did not know how to combine the rustica with other tobaccos, a process of experimenting, trial and error. In the end a dark air and fire cured Virginia in the style of the old colonists was used, which was a big step forwards. The use of some modern Burley to balance out the tobaccos was the final ingredient. Last but not least the result was steam-pressed, so all the flavours could optimally meld together, and cut in flakes.

Macbaren Rustica tinPackage / tin:
MacBaren Rustica comes in a pretty plain flat 50gr. tin with artwork in the vein of the other HH blends. You see the MacBaren lions on a dark background with in the middle the HH logo with underneath it “Rustica, hot pressed flake”. My tin is German and on the backside it says (translated): In order to make this strong pipe-tobacco Nicotiana Tabacum and Nicotiana Rustica are being blended together. Since the beginning of pipe-smoking in the 17th century this style of tobacco is rare. The tobacco is being hot pressed to let the natural aromas blend together perfectly.

Mac Baren Rustica flakes tinContents / Cut / Ingredients:
As I open the tin I am greeted by a classy golden MacBaren wrapper. Inside that are neatly stacked thin brown flakes with lighter spots throughout them. One thing I have never seen before, the top flake is laid down diagonally. The ingredients are of course Nicotiana rustica, dark air and fire cured Virginias and modern Burley.

Smell from the tin:
When I first opened the tin the flakes smelled like fermented straw (cattle feed) with a slight sour funky undertone. I liked it because it immediately transferred me back to my youth and the farm of my uncle and aunt. However, when I now smell the remaining flakes it is more earthty, woody and I detect a faint BBQ odour.

Taste:
First of all I have to honestly admit that I am a bit of a Burley noob. For some reason I rarely smoke the stuff and mostly stick to English / Balkan / Virginia / VaPer blends. And boy, am I at a loss! I was honestly positively surprised when I first lit up Rustica. I expected a full assault of pungent tobacco taste but instead it was, ok, still bold, but round, creamy, cool and inviting. Taste-wise I noticed earth, wood, nuts (sometimes even a bit almond-paste like whiffs), toast with unsalted butter, roast and the gentle perfectly dosed sweetness of the Virginia. There is no roller-coaster of tastes throughout the bowl like with a good Balkan. But in the last half the flavours intensify a bit, more wood, more toast, more pure robust tobacco taste while the Virginia sweetness remains until the end.

macbaren rustica tin nicotineMiscellaneous:
Because of the steam-pressing Rustica is smooth like Ellen her buttocks after a hot shower. Of course when smoking I tried to put the pedal to the metal several times by puffin’ really hard but no bite, it keeps smoking cool. The flakes are moist but immediately smokeable from the tin. Fold them or break them into smaller pieces. I choose the latter method. Make sure to not pack the bowl too tightly and try not to tamp too much during the smoke. Now nicotine… Whoooaaaaa….. Nicotiana tabacum leaves have a nicotine content of about 1 to 3%. Nicotiana rustica leaves contain 9%! The curing and steam-pressing processes made the rustica somewhat friendlier but still.. The only way I could smoke and enjoy it was in a small pipe (Dunhill group 1-3) right after dinner with a sweet beverage beside me to counteract vitamin N effects. Then there is the “Limited Edition”. USA pipe tobacco giant Smokingpipes.com says that only 7100 tins of this special edition blend were produced worldwide. Uhmm… My German tin does not mention any kind of limited edition. After some careful reading I found out, the limited USA version is 3.5 oz (about 100 gr.), the regular not limited German version is 50 gr.

Room-note:
This is a strong tobacco and has a strong room-note. Most noticeable by the fact that when I had smoked it in the evening Ellen used the Lampe Berger the next morning.

Price:
In Germany you pay €12,- for a 50 gr. MacBaren Rustica tin. In the USA you pay $21,- for a 3.5 oz.

macbaren rustica conclusionConclusion:
MacBaren Rustica really surprised me taste-wise in a very good way. Loved it! Robust, bold, strong, yet refined flavours that make you look out to smoking a bowl of it. Technically it also is a very good flake, well made and when properly handled it burns ok. My own personal concern is the level of nicotine. Each time I smoked it it was like stepping into the ring with Muhammad Ali. You know you are going to be knocked-out but when… All you can do is make the proper preparations, sit back in your favourite chair, brace yourself and go ahead. I swear I grown some extra chest-hair in the past weeks! For some reason when smoking this, perhaps it is the flavour or the hallucinative rustica, I imagined myself sitting on the porch of some farm-house looking out over the fields. Ha! If the Vikings had MacBaren Rustica they would have stayed at home with their blond wives instead of trying to conquer Europe!

Spark Plug; the Dark Lord strikes back

dutch_pipe_smoker_coronaHeal your soul, smoke Spark Plug!
Life is not easy now in these pandemic Corona virus times. We are limited in our freedom; not seeing friends or family, no open restaurants or cafes, social distancing, no open smoking lounges etc. We have to stay indoors as much as possible, get our groceries as fast as possible (keeping in mind 1.5 meters distance), all hoping we won’t get infected or infect someone else. It also is a huge assault to our mental health; constantly being at home, being at each other’s lips at home, no toilet paper at the supermarket, unsure what the future will bring (for me personally, I am jobless, so if you need an expert Graphical (Digital) Designer / Desktop Publisher / Blog and text writer/ Content Marketeer, let me know!), it all leads to much frustration. Luckily I have a hobby which benefits my mental state: pipe-smoking. Just focusing on the ritual of it while reading a good book heals my soul, lets me forget my worries. And right now I feel extra blessed, because I am smoking the newest offering of the “Dark Lord” GL Pease named Spark Plug.

dark_lord_pease

The Dark Lord himself

Don’t be sceptic, rejoice!
Of course it is exciting when GL Pease comes with a new tobacco. But there is always extra reason to rejoice when it is a latakia blend because Greg is the “Dark Lord”, grand master of the delicious smoky dark leaf. And yet I could detect little enthusiasm on the online forums. Even a bit of scepticism.. Come on people! It is the Dark Lord bringing you divine ambrosia for your mortal taste buds! “Luckily” most pipe-smokers agreed with me, when I tried to order Spark Plug at first all shops were sold-out.. Fortunately in the end I managed to secure some tins.

gl pease spark plug meerschaumBackstory:
Here I quote GL Pease himself from his website: This has been something of a dream project for me, and I’m happy to say that it’s on its way. Spark Plug is the latest blend to find a home in my Heirloom Series. I’ve been smoking prototypes for nearly a year, and am absolutely loving the final product. As always, working with Jeremy at C&D has been a pure and effortless joy, and Calvin has my often impenetrable design briefs and transformed my concept into the wonderful label seen above. My deepest gratitude and appreciation goes out to these guys for their continued willingness to work with whacky ideas and make them a reality. In a conversation with me Greg had to add: Dream project? That might be somewhat overstated; certainly I’ve wanted to do a latakia plug for a very long time, and it had to be just right, so it took some time, and haunted my dreams more than a few times. There were technical challenges to overcome, but we worked hard to get everything sorted, and I absolutely love the result. 

spark plug tinsPackage / tin:
Even when you lived under a stone and had no idea about the new Spark Plug tobacco, the tin art with a big Union Jack leaves nothing to the imagination. It almost screams: this is an English blend! On the flag is an image of the name-giver: a spark plug made to look a bit like the caduceus, the staff of Hermes, emissary and messenger of the gods. On the back of the tin it says: Deep and dark. Powerful yet refined. The smoky, leathery backdrop of Latakia is layered with an almost incense-like spice of rich orientals, with fine Virginias added for depth and a subtle sweetness. Like the classic roadsters that inspired its creation, Spark Plug has an alluring charm that invites you to rev it up and take it out for long drives in the country. Sliced thick or thin, it will never leave you stranded. 

GL Pease Spark Plug cutContents / Cut / Ingredients:
When I open the tin and pry away the carton lids I see a beautiful pressed hunk of dark, brown, red-brown, and lighter tobaccos. The name of the blend is Spark PLUG but in reality it is a hybrid of a crumble cake and a plug. I handled it as the latter, I used my antique Samuel McLardy tobacco cutter to cut off thin slices which I would gently rub out. The ingredients are Cyprian latakia, orientals from Greece and Turkey (I asked Greg which ones precisely, no answer..) and bright and red Virginias.

Smell from the tin:
Ooohhh yeah! Ooohhh yeah! Damn this stuff smells good! Best odour from a tobacco tin ever! Well, maybe a tie with that aged Capstan.. Leather, campfire smoke, cedar, spice, sweet, sour. But kind of concentrated, the odour immediately triggers something inside you, awakens your senses. Like you would get a whiff of fresh bread or fresh coffee. It just hits you in a very pleasant way.

Taste:
When the first light is done and the curled up tobacco is gently tapped down a bit I get a smoky salt-licorice taste, no bitterness. Then two things strike me a bit. First I detect a floral element, not full blast Lakeland soap sh*t but something subtle, almost refreshing. Second I discern an oiliness in the aroma, it reminds me of working on my old trusty Toyota Starlet. When I told Greg this he was pleased: I like that you discern an oiliness in the aroma, that it reminds you of working on your Starlet. When I was developing this, there were aspects of it that reminded me of the old British cars I have owned, worked on, restored and loved. The smell of grease, oil, petrol, the leather and horsehair stuffing of the seats, all mingling together while driving along winding roads on misty days. It’s not that the smells are the same, but there’s a sort of sensory link, a trigger to something reminiscent of an old Triumph or MG in my garage. I’ve chatted with other gearheads who have mentioned a similar reaction. That’s where the name came from. I don’t think “Smelly Under-bonnet Plug” would have had quite the same charm. Further down the bowl the blend builds in fullness, richness while retaining the balance of all the top notch ingredients (especially the orientals). I detect cedar, leather, earth, smoke, spice, floral, sweet, sour.. All in exotic harmony and without tiring my taste buds. With some blends you really have to “work” to get the most out of it. With Spark Plug you sit back, relax, and go like “Oh I now taste this, oh now that.” And before you know it, way too soon, all that is left in the bowl is grey ash. One tip, smoke it slow to get the most out of it.

Dutch Pipe Smoker GL Pease Spark PlugMiscellaneous:
Spark Plug is smoooooth all the way, no bite at all. Moisture level out of the tin was good. But the last bit of the tin (with any Pease blend) is always the best because it is a tad dryer (so why don’t I just let a little bit of tobacco dry out before smoking??). Nicotine level is mild to medium. I tried Spark Plug in several different shaped and sized pipes. All good smokes. But I got the best results in medium size princes.

Room-note:
At first I thought I was doing fine with Spark Plug, no complaints or “I-hate-what-you-are-smoking” coughs from the old battle-axe. But when I dared to ask Ellen how it smelled all hell broke loose. “I almost went upstairs several times when you smoked it, I can’t stand it!” Now this sounds negative, but 1. Ellen did not leave the room, she only threatened. 2. She CAN stand it, she stayed. Besides that, when I come into the living room the next morning after smoking Spark Plug the odour is acceptable, it does not linger for long.

Price:
At Cup O’ Joes I paid for a 2 oz. tin $11.48 (± €10,48).

gl pease spark plugConclusion:
The mark of a good tobacco for me is when I smoke it down to the last crumble in the tin. And I did just that with Spark Plug. Reluctantly I gave away a sample of it, but the rest was mine! Mine! My preciousss! Every day I looked forward to the evening because then I could smoke Spark Plug again (I only smoke 1 pipe per day, preferably in the evening). This was one of the best freshest blends I ever smoked. I am really curious how it will taste with some age on it in about 4 or 5 years. For me Spark Plug ticks a lot of boxes and in my opinion it is another masterpiece from GL Pease.

Oh, I almost forgot, I have a new website! 😀 No more “wordpress” in the internet address. I have my own domain now, I wish daddy could have seen this.. *tears up* And I ditched the banner with that bald ugly bloke smoking a pipe with skulls coming out of it 😉 Special thanks go out to bearded WordPress wizard and coding-nerd Johnny!

My no. 1: Abingdon

Sometimes it is with tobacco as it is with music. You hear songs that are ok or ones that suck until suddenly, whoaaa.. What is that?? You listen to it more closely and slowly feel yourself falling in love with it with every time you hear it. After that the song sort of becomes part of your life and you keep listening to it until the day you die. Luckily I am not yet in that last phase but master-blender GL Pease’s creation Abingdon certainly has ingrained itself in my existence.

Unfortunately I can’t remember exactly when I first smoked Abingdon. My First Pease blend was the then hyped Chelsea Morning. With trembling hands I popped that tin, filled the bowl, lit the pipe aaand… It sucked. Perhaps I was expecting the nectar of the pipe-gods or so but it wasn’t on par with anything I had in my mind. I never had it since, maybe I should because during the years my taste-buds have vastly improved. After that I got a sample of Westminster from a friend and it blew me away. Ok, perhaps this “Dark Lord” Pease-guy does know what he is doing after all, I thought. It must have been after that when I tried my first bowl of Abingdon. Apparently I liked it really, really much because when I look at my tobacco tin purchase history the name “Abingdon” often pops up. Nowadays about once a year I open up a tin of it as a treat to myself. It never fails to deliver.

Thanks to Troy Lloyd

Backstory:
I quote GL Pease here: Some may have caught the hints of the inspiration behind this one when I’ve written about it in the past, but for the rest of you, here’s the back story. When I began to think about what I wanted to do with the Classic Collection, I had it in mind to pay tribute to some of the tobaccos of the past that had inspired me over the years—not to attempt their recreation, which is always something of a fool’s errand, but to produce blends that were reminiscent of what certain blends meant to me. It was my desire to paint something of a leaky memory picture of what the now old 759 was like in its relative youth that inspired me to concoct Abingdon. First, there was 759 and there was 759. The blend went through some changes during its life, and not every vintage is like every other. Too, while many have claimed to “clone” or “replicate” particular blends, I have never once found one of these copy-cats to successfully reproduce one of the old blends. In most cases, they’re not even really close. Later vintages of 759 seem to have been more dominated by Latakia. For those, I think Abingdon may be a little closer, though certainly not identical. Abingdon was named after Abingdon on Thames, the home of the legendary MG motorcar. For me, something about that wonderful, oily, intense smokiness of the tobacco recalled the wonderful smells of my old MGA, so it seemed fitting.

Description from the producer:
Abingdon: Dark, Mysterious and Full. Abingdon is the fullest Balkan style blend in the collection. It is rich and robust, powerful and forthright, yet still possessing subtlety and finesse. Dark flavours of wood and leather mingle with delicate undercurrents of sweetness, and deep earthy notes, while the oriental tobaccos provide hints of their verdant, sometimes herbaceous character. A big Balkan blend, reminding us once more of what these blends used to be. Because of the high percentage of dark and oriental tobaccos, it’s recommended to pack Abingdon a little less firmly than you might a lighter blend. Abingdon was released in July, 2003. And another quote from GL Pease himself: Abingdon is not topped or cased. It, like most of my blends, relies solely on the flavours of the leaf to make it what it is. It’s actually a fairly simple formula, but the result is delightfully complex. It’s an interesting mixture as it is quite heavy with latakia, but the orientals are more subdued. The virginias form the backbone of the smoke, but the latakia makes quite a statement.

Package/tin:
A typical American round pop-lid tin with paper wrapper. I must say that for this review I have an old production tin (from 2012). Not too long ago the artwork changed a bit. But still on the front there is a picture of a bulldog shaped pipe on top of a fountain pen and a piece of writing paper. On the back it says: A full Balkan style blend with a generous measure of Cyprian Latakia, seasoned with fine red and lemon yellow Virginia tobaccos, and enhanced with rich oriental leaf. Abingdon is bold and assertive, while retaining a stylish finesse. The Classic Collection draws inspiration from the great tobaccos of days past. The blends offered are not meant as attempts to replicate them, but to pay them homage to capture some of their essence.

Contents/Ingredients/cut:
Upon opening the tin I am greeted by the light and dark blended ingredients: Cyprian latakia, red and lemon yellow Virginias and orientals. The cut is a kind of rough ribbon cut with chunky pieces throughout it which you sometimes have to rub out a bit.

Smell from the tin:
The smell from the tin is wonderful to my nose. Sweet, salt, leather, smoke, spice, autumn, wood, earth all mixed into one like the instruments of an orchestra. I would have expected to notice more of the latakia. Perhaps it is the age of tin (6 years) so that the tobaccos inside have mellowed but this does not smell at all like the “bold and assertive” which is promised on the tin label.

Taste:
Upon lighting the blend there sometimes can be a slight bitterness, but it usually goes away after a few puffs. I have to think of my old and trusty Toyota Starlet. When I first start it there is lots of smoke and the pungent smell of petrol but after some hitting the gas it runs smoothly. Sort of the same with Abingdon. When the blend awakens and I am lucky I get some dark fruit/raisin/apricot taste-swirls throughout the rising smokiness from the latakia, the Virginia sweetness and the oriental sourness. For me Abingdon is not a complex blend. Once it gets going basically the same taste stays throughout the bowl with some little nuances here and then. But that basic taste is… So damn yummie! The balance between all the tobacco components is unbelievable. Lots of contradictions but somehow they work together like a well composed symphony. The instruments are soft, creamy, smooth, full, leather, musty, earth, sour, spice, wood and smoky. The resulting piece is Abingdon. Like with the smell I had expected more latakia “oomph” but I am glad it is not there. The dark leaf is almost like the conductor who supports the other instruments and let them play better. In some of the Tobaccoreviews.com reviews I read comparisons with my favourite whisky: Lagavulin. And I have to agree! The two make a perfect pair. Like with Abingdon Lagavulin boasts a lot of smokiness but if you compare it to some other whiskies (Laphroaig, Ardbeg) it really is not that much. Also Lagavulin possesses that rich, full harmony of flavours that Abingdon has. Anyway, in the end the tobacco burns down to a fine grey ash.

Miscellaneous:
Abingdon can bite a little bit if you pack the bowl too firmly and the tobacco is too moist. But if you take that into consideration, no problems at all. It stays pretty well lit throughout the smoke, nicotine hit is mild to medium. In my opinion and experience Abingdon performs best in somewhat larger (Dunhill group 4) prince shaped or pot shapes pipes. It certainly is not an all-pipe friend.

Room-note:
Whenever Ellen sees this tin on the table in our living room she starts to shift uncomfortably. “Is this that blend, you know? Well, I am afraid it is darling.. Oh.. Ok, eh, I am going to sleep/play music/do the laundry/get the f*ck away from here/etc.” As I write this I am smoking a pipe of Abingdon, Ellen just came downstairs and immediately got a red face. “Are you smoking it again? Yes darling. Grrr.. I really wish you waited until I had to go away for work. You can write in that blog of yours it is the most vile, evil smelling tobacco there is! I just did that darling.”

Price:
On Smokingpipes.com a 2 oz. tin will set you back at $10.63 (± €9,30). An 8 oz. tin will cost you $35.70 (± €31,25).

Conclusion:
From all the still available tobaccos I like Abingdon the best. Period. Of course I prefer blends like London Mixture State Express, Renaissance or De Graaff Kegelbaan but eejj, I can’t get them any more. Abingdon possesses an old world quality which only improves with age, a timeless mixture. I can totally imagine myself sitting in my living room decades from now when I am old, wrinkled and slightly senile, while smoking a pipe of well aged Abingdon, enjoying the hell out of it and thinking back to the good ol’ days before tobaccogeddon. Just before Ellen whacks me with her walking stick while shouting “You are not smoking it again aren’t you??”

Of course I wish all my readers a merry Christmas and a smoky 2019!!!

Smooth Smyrna, a John Cotton story

One of the great old names in the pipe-tobacco pantheon is that of John Cotton. Mostly known for their No. 1 (Mild), Nos. 1 & 2 (Medium) and Smyrna blends. My first encounter with the brand was some time ago at the end of the first year I started smoking pipe. I had done some research about the old venerable pipe-tobacco names and while surfing ebay stumbled upon an old sealed tin of John Cotton No. 1 Mild. I can’t remember what I paid but the price was very reasonable. However when I smoked the mixture I was not impressed. I had just started smoking latakia blends such as Old Dublin, Nightcap and Balkan Supreme and found No. 1 Mild too.. Mild.. How wrong I was in hindsight..

The John Cotton re-makes

In 2015 The Standard Tobacco Company of Pennsylvania brought back several old tobacco-brands from the abyss of oblivion under which the celebrated Bengal Slices and some of the John Cotton range. “Ah, they also have re-made Smyrna, I forgotten about that one!” I thought. I always loved oriental forwarded blends so I ordered some tins. And the tobacco did not disappoint me, I loved it! Master-blender Russ Ouellette did a wonderful job re-creating the old mixture. Some months ago I was surfing ebay again and to my surprise I saw a vintage John Cotton’s Smyrna tin up for auction, they are pretty rare. Probably some rich American, Russian or Chinese guy was going to pay big bucks for it so I set my bid not too high, more like a kind of joke than a serious offer. When I awoke the next morning I saw to my amazement that I had won!

Sorting out the history of John Cotton was rather difficult and time consuming. At first I could only find a little bit of information on the internet like the Firesign Theatre & Gresham’s Law document by the great Jon Guss, which mentions John Cotton. Good friend Troy Lloyd had a few pictures but nothing more and there was some loose information on several pipe-fora. But they did steer me into the right direction; the wonderful Scottish Post Office Directories for Edinburgh. There (and in later phone-books) I discovered the history of John Cotton. In contrast with common belief the firm was not founded in 1770. I know, on (old) advertisements and tins it says so, but it is not true. Also Jon Guss says that the first Cotton established his tobacco shop in Edinburgh in 1773. I could not find evidence for that so Jon, if you read this, let me know why you think it is 1773!

  • Edinburgh map of 1774

    1774: The first year I can find anything of a Cotton. Not a John Cotton but George Cottons, the founding father so to say. The following years he moves from location to location throughout the city.

  • 1813: For the first time several tobacconists with the Cotton name can be found: George junior and James.
  • 1820: Tobacconist James Cotton has disappeared from the directories.
  • 1822: James is back together with a new Cotton tobacconist: William.
  • 1826: A very important year because for the first time a John Cotton is mentioned as tobacconist.
  • 1829: One of the George’s and John Cotton are not mentioned in the directory.
  • 1834: A good year for the Cottons, John is back and the remaining George has become tobacconist to king William IV.
  • 1838: James is replaced by Chas W. and because of a royal death George is now tobacconist to the late king.
  • 1839: William Cotton is no longer mentioned but a George S.S.C. is.
  • 1840: Chas is gone, James is back and George is once again a royal tobacconist. Only now to a woman, her majesty Victoria.
  • 1846: Perhaps the Queen herself is not a big fan of George (& Son) Cotton because now he holds the title of “Tobacconists to the Royal Household”. The following years nothing much changes.
  • 1872: For the first time a Cotton (George & Son) is listed on the now famous 100 Princes Street address. John Cotton is nearby on 122 Princes Street.
  • 1879: A mention is made in the Edinburg Gazette of the dissolution of co-partnership between John Cotton and George Cotton, apparently they were partners.
  • 1884: It seems that George Cotton & Son and John Cotton are the only Cotton tobacconists left. The latter is now active on the well known 7 Frederick Street address.
  • 1890: George Cotton & Son loses the “Tobacconists to the Royal Household” title.
  • 1905: Apparently business is going well for John Cotton, for the first time a factory is mentioned on 10 Abbeymount.
  • 1906: An important year, Limited is now added after the John Cotton name and a new factory is put into service on 172 Easter Road. In fact, this building still exists! Today it is a business centre and the original chimney with the letters “JC” on it has survived.
  • 1907: John Cotton Limited gets an office at 11 Duke Street with a secretary: J. Aikman Smith.
  • 1933: Not 1 but 2 secretaries, J. Aikman Smith and Wells at the new office address of 8 Forres Street.
  • 100 Princes Street address

    1935: The first year that John Cotton Limited is active on the 100 Princes Street address although George Cotton & Son also remains there.

  • 1954: Suddenly there is a George Cotton Limited and the 100 Princes Street address is no longer mentioned. Only the 172 Easter Road factory is named.
  • 1955: George Cotton Limited is no longer mentioned, only John Cotton Limited remains on the factory address.
  • 1962: John Cotton Limited is acquired by Gallaher.
  • 1963: John Cotton Limited is no longer mentioned in Edinburgh. The address now is in the Trafalgar House, Waterloo Place in London.
  • 1968 and beyond: I can’t find John Cotton Limited any more in the phone-book. Some later addresses I found on the internet and the No. 1 Mild tin are 65 Kingsway, London W.C.2 and P.O. Box 14, Rowdell Road, Northolt, Middlesex.
  • 1972: A memorandum is written about John Cotton smoking tobaccos manufactured in Denmark (by Erik Stokkebye): Harvest Gold, Burley, Rich Mellow Virginia, Honeydew, Gaelic Mixture and Danish Aromatic.
  • 1986: In a Gallaher document John Cotton’s No. 1 Mild and Nos. 1 & 2 Medium are mentioned. After this date I can find nothing, the brand disappeared.

Now a comparison between the vintage and re-made John Cotton Smyrna. I had some help in the person of Robbin, an experienced vintage blend smoker with a good tasting palette.

Package/tin:
Vintage John Cotton Smyrna: 
There were several kinds of tins in which Smyrna came. I have seen pictures of knife-cutter tins, rectangular ones and the version I have is a round 50 gr. one. The background colour is white with on it the well-known lion holding tobacco leaves in red. The letters “John Cotton’s Smoking Tobacco” are in black and “Smyrna” in between them is in red. On top of the tin it says “Made in the United Kingdom”, on the bottom is a banner with in it “A blend of Smyrna and other fine tobaccos”. For me the whole has a kind of weird Wild West appearance because of the used fonts. Hell, “Smyrna” even has bullet holes in it! I don’t know what the original graphic designers smoked when they designed the tin, but certainly not Smyrna!
Re-made John Cotton Smyrna: Also a round tin and ladies and gentlemen graphic designers, this is a prime example of excellent tin-artwork. I like it way better than the old design to be honest. The background is beige with on it the lion in gold. In the middle is a classic looking dark-green banner with in the text “John Cotton’s (in serif font) traditional English pipe tobacco mixture (in a sans-serif font).” The edges of the banner are in gold and together with the lion are made with embossed printing. Below the banner is the name of the blend, Smyrna, also in a serif font. The golden embossed printing combined with the fonts make this tin look real classy.

Contents/Ingredients/cut:
Vintage John Cotton Smyrna: Upon opening the tin I am greeted by a simple white carton with nothing on it. Hmm, at least the inlay in my old No. 1 Mild tin had some printing on it. When I remove it I see a colourful ensemble of latakia, Virginia and Turkish strands with quite a lot of the dark leaf in it. The cut is a good ol’ fashioned ribbon cut.
Re-made John Cotton Smyrna: When I open the tin I see a transparent plastic inlay upon the tobacco. Oh well, better than nothing. Compared to the vintage Smyrna the tobacco colours in this version are similar but brighter. Also there are more lighter strands in my opinion. The cut is a thin ribbon cut.

Smell from the tin:
Vintage John Cotton Smyrna: This blend surprised me, after all these years I thought the latakia had toned down a bit but no, when I first smelled it, whoaahh.. Definitely not Syrian latakia but strong assertive Cyprian. For the rest I detect a little woodsy sweet and sour odour.
Re-made John Cotton Smyrna: Yup, there is latakia in this one, no question about it. But besides that the (fresher) smell isn’t that different from its older brother. Despite the presence of more lighter tobacco-strands. However I do detect a tiny little bit of topping, coumarin (a chemical also to be found in for example cinnamon, tonka-bean and deer-tongue), which I can’t smell on the vintage version*. 

Taste:
Vintage John Cotton Smyrna: Ahh.. This is how I want all my tobaccos to taste like at the first light. Almost no bitterness, the Turkish and latakia are fighting about the main role and it is full, round and smooth as Ellen her bottom. A bit further the grassy, earthy Virginia comes into play a bit more. Towards the middle the superb Turkish are winning the fight and the whole becomes a big rich flavour-bomb; cedar, spice, sweet, sour, chocolate creamy, leather you name it, the blend all has it. Robbin remarks that this part also reminds him a bit of red wine. Towards the end of the bowl the different components really become one and burn down to a fine grey ash.
Re-made John Cotton Smyrna: I can remember the first time I smoked the re-made version, I instantly fell in love with the taste. Cyprian woodsy and leathery latakia that is kept under control by the grassy Virginia and spicy and sour Turkish, yummie! Now I have smoked the vintage version I am a bit amazed that the latakia there seems more powerful as the re-made one. Despite the unquestionable presence of the fresh dark leaf the newer leans more on the Turkish and Virginias in my opinion. Or at least, they are more detectable, the taste is more clear. Perhaps everything has melted so together in the old one that I get this result. I can also taste a tiny little bit of the coumarin topping which for me is pleasant*. Towards the middle the Turkish come even more forward and it more or less stays this way until the end.

Miscellaneous:
Vintage John Cotton Smyrna: The tobacco had the perfect moisture when I opened the tin and the ol’ fashioned ribbon cut made filling the bowl and smoking the pipe easy. The nicotine level is just above medium and there was absolutely no tongue bite.
Re-made John Cotton Smyrna: I had to get used a bit to the springy, thinner ribbon cut but after a couple of times you know how to best fill your bowl. Simply don’t press the tobacco too hard. The blend does not bite but if you puff too hard an fast it can burn hot. Vitamin N level is medium.

Room-note:
Vintage John Cotton Smyrna: For a latakia blend the room-note is pretty decent! I could smoke it without a complaint from Ellen. The next morning a lovely incense smell lingered.
Re-made John Cotton Smyrna: This one has one of the best room-notes I have ever smelled for a latakia mixture. Like the old one incense-like and perhaps enhanced by the coumarin*.

Price:
Vintage John Cotton Smyrna: I paid €61 for it, not too bad!
Re-made John Cotton Smyrna: At 4noggins you pay $11.99 (± €10,03) for a 1.75 oz. tin.

Conclusion:
Vintage John Cotton Smyrna: It is an excellent blend, I can understand why people still speak with respect about the old John Cotton Smyrna. It totally talks the talk and walks the walk so to say. I had many very pleasant evenings smoking it. It is a blend that demands attention, grabs you by the balls and does not let loose. For Robbin and me one of the remarkable things was that the latakia had not really subdued, it was still powerful. We both rate this mixture a 8.5 out of 10.
Re-made John Cotton Smyrna: First of all Russ Ouellette did a wonderful job re-creating the old blend. It is not exactly a copy but according to Robbin more an excellently executed remake. When I smoke it and I keep in mind the ageing process, well, in 30 years it could be where the vintage version is now. And that is a compliment! Robbin and I both rate this mixture a 8 out of 10. Oh, and that vintage No. 1 Mild I thought was too mild, I love it now. But I have to end this blogpost in a sad way. Probably the new version will not be amongst us much longer. See this Facebook message from one of the founders of the The Standard Tobacco Company of Pennsylvania, Dan Z. Johnson: 

Buy It While You Can
With the FDA Deeming Regulations poised to take effect in about two weeks, I have some sobering news for our friends. Unless something changes, there will not be another production run on the 5 original Standard Tobacco Co. of PA blends. Once the current inventory of War Horse, Bengal Slices and John Cotton’s is sold, there will be no more. Ever.
I’ve held off making this announcement until I was certain that the end is near. August 8, 2018 is the cut-off date for selling post 2007 blends such as ours without an FDA Substantial Equivalence (SE) approval. Since it now appears highly unlikely that we will get an SE, and since our distributor does not want to get stuck with product that they can not sell, their plan is to sell out existing stock and not re-order.
Caveat: If we sell out of everything quickly, the distributor might change their mind and do another run, but that is doubtful given the glut of new, last ditch blends clogging up production and warehouse space. Also, if the FDA is forced by congress to change the grandfather date to include post 2007 blends such as ours, then we are free to continue production. That, however, is exceedingly unlikely at this point in time.
I can’t tell you how sad and disappointed I am to have to tell you this. It’s not where we wanted to be at this point in time, but I wanted to give you all the opportunity to order your favorites before it’s too late.

* EDIT 25-9-2017: In the comment below this post Russ Ouellette says that there is no top dressing on the re-made Smyrna. So I don’t know what I smelled and tasted, but certainly no coumarin!

EDIT 16-1-2018: I received a mail and picture from Andrew Robertson. Apparently his mother worked at the Cotton’s factory in Easter Road, Edinburgh from 1935 until she joined the army as a Radar Operator in 1941. The picture was taken outside the Cotton Factory at Sunnyside on Easter Road Leith circa 1939. Andrew’s Mother, Alice Bowie as she was then, is 2nd on the left of the back row, immediately behind the foreman. His mother’s friend May Wilkie is standing on the right of the picture. Andrew’s mother always explained that she and May made “cocktail” cigarettes similar to the Sobranie brand.

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State Express London Mixture

© GL Pease

State Express London Mixture © GL Pease

The first time I read about State Express London Mixture was years ago in an article by master-blender GL Pease. It was about re-hydrating the bone-dry contents of an old tin of this classic English blend. What struck me most was not the story (although since then I often used the described re-hydration methods), but the picture on top of it. It showed the lid of a State Express London Mixture tin and I immediately fell in love with it. It had a classy, luxurious, nostalgic old world appearance which instantly appealed to me. So I went searching on e-bay and pretty soon I stumbled upon a sealed and unopened tin from the late 1980’s. To my utter joy I won the auction and soon I had the object of my desire in my possession. With trembling hands I pried off the lid and heard the beautiful hiss that indicates the air-seal was still intact. I filled up my pipe and here comes the sad part, at that point I only had been smoking pipe for about a year so I could not appreciate the blend. My taste-buds were not developed enough. I stashed away the tin until a year later when I re-hydrated the contents and tried it again. This time I was able to enjoy the mixture and acknowledge the genius of the blenders. It tasted absolutely great, a harmonious yet adventurous blend of bright golden Virginias, Syrian latakia and the costly Greek and Turkish (oriental) tobaccos Samsun, Izmir, Xanthi and Cavalla.

img_5587I always kept searching for another tin but that proved to be rather difficult. Or it was empty, or the seal had been broken, or it was too expensive or the seller did not want to ship to The Netherlands. A couple of weeks ago on an evening I spotted a tin. It looked somewhat rusty on some spots but eejj, that is the risk you have to take. But I kept that in mind, set the bid not too high and went to sleep. The next morning I saw to my utter amazement that I had won the tin! Needless to say, I was a happy man. When I received the package (with some extra customs office costs.. Grrr…) I had to laugh. In the box was a message which read: “This tin is old and contents are not for use! Frankly, it would choke a horse!” “Well, we will see about that madam ebay-seller!” I thought. I could not wait to open the tin. I felt like Howard Carter when I pried open the lid but unfortunately no hiss this time and indeed the contents seemed mummified. Of course I immediately started re-hydrating the blend.

img_5594In the mean time I started digging for information about the tin. On the seal it said “US Distributors Faber, Coe, & Gregg Inc. Newark, New Jersey 07108”. I had no idea so decided to ask for information on the PipesMagazine.com forum. Luckily Jon Guss roams there and Jon is a first class researcher and author of many pipe and tobacco related books and articles. He saw my question and responded: There are two key indicators that enable me to date it to within a relatively narrow span: the measurement of the weight of the contents, and the reference to a Newark address. When first released (about 1967) SELM (State Express London Mixture but shorter) tins were denominated in ounces; sometime over the course of 1972-73 this was switched to 50 grams (listed as 1 3/4 oz in the States). As for Faber Coe’s location, their NJ headquarters address changed from Newark to Clifton in the second half of 1978. Your tin therefore dates from 1972-78. That could be narrowed a bit further by consulting RTDA annuals for 1972 and 1973, neither of which I happen to have handy. But in the scheme of things knowing your tin is forty years old plus or minus a couple of years is a pretty good outcome. So in other words, I could have a birth-year tin in my hands! Whoohoo!

Ardath tobacco offices and factories in 1914

Ardath tobacco offices and factories in 1914

I was already happy with this bit of information but Jon came with even more! A history of the blend and Ardath, the manufacturer: State Express London Mixture was made by Ardath Tobacco Company, Ltd. There is info readily available online about Ardath (much of it wrong or misleading), but in a fairly small nutshell what later became Ardath Tobacco Company, Ltd. was founded by Albert Levy in 1895. He was joined by a partner, Barnett S. Gluckstein, in 1903. In a complex set of transactions apparently triggered by his desire to retire, in January of 1926 Gluckstein sold his shares “to a financial house in the City” and a holding company was created which held all the outstanding shares (Gluckstein’s and Levy’s) of Ardath.

british_american_tobacco_logo-svgAt the time it was coyly announced that British American Tobacco Company Ltd. (BAT) had acquired an “interest” in this new holding entity, and a collaboration in overseas markets was to begin immediately. Levy, who remained as head of the company, announced that despite BAT’s interest, the business of Ardath would be “carried on independently, exactly the same as before”. Half a year later it became clear that the new holding company (“Universal Tobacco Company”) was in reality controlled and managed by BAT, and Ardath had become in essence a subsidiary. The long sad litany of events Ardath suffered under its new master, including the eventual outsourcing of its manufacturing and closure of its factories, is wholly irrelevant to the story of SELM. Likewise the convoluted relationship between BAT, Imperial, and what remained of Ardath’s brands and the geographic rights thereto.

The famous State Express 555 cigarettes

The famous State Express 555 cigarettes

More to the point, by the time SELM came on the stage in the late 1960s Ardath had been a creature of BAT for generations, and what remained of the original company was apparently mostly a collection of brand names (along with a distribution function tacked on later). By then State Express, originally a cigarette brand trademarked by Ardath in 1896, was one of the largest assets left over from the Ardath acquisition, and had been exploited over time through a series of brand extensions and entries into international markets. SELM, a new pipe tobacco based on the marque, was developed in the mid-1960s. It was then trademarked in a variety of countries, including Canada (March 20, 1967), Australia (April 21, 1967), the U.S. (April 4, 1968), Germany (March 30, 1969), and Kenya (1970). It was advertised for sale in the US by the end of 1968. Internal company documents make it clear, however, that despite the various international trademark filings the blend was “created largely with the U.S. market in mind”.

State Express London mixture trademark

State Express London mixture trademark

As far as I can tell SELM was only ever available in 2 ounce (from launch until about 1972-73) and 50 gram (1972-73 onward) rectangular tins. The product was considered to be successful enough that two expansions were considered: a) introduction into the UK (per documents dating to late 1974), and b) development of a cigarette incorporating SELM tobacco. It’s not entirely clear to me whether either ever got off the ground. I should add SELM had a run of a bit over two decades. It was withdrawn from production sometime between 1989-1992: SELM appears in the 1988 RTDA almanac, but the US trademark was allowed to expire on November 3, 1992. It remains possible that the blend continued to be available in other countries thereafter, but given the importance of the US market to the brand that seems unlikely.

Now over to the review of the blend, I go a bit back and forth between the 1970’s and 1980’s version.

img_5556Description from the producer – Package/tin:
At the bottom of the 70’s tin you can read: Bright Golden Virginia and dark latakia spiced with rare Greek and Turkish tobaccos. Further on the bottom is a sticker with the image of the blend inside. On the 80’s version this sticker is omitted. There is also (I guess on even older tins) a bottom which held an English penny to help open the tin. The frontal image on the lid is together with the old Balkan Sobranie and Marcovitch artwork the most beautiful I have ever seen. It is an old looking stylized map of Anatolia (or Asia minor) and surrounding areas with on the bottom left a sailing ship and on the bottom right a mariner’s compass. In the map are the names of the places where (most of) the ingredients originate from like (Syrian) Latakia, Samsun, Izmir, Xanthi and Cavalla. Above the card in a classy golden looking rectangle is the name of the blend. “State Express” in serif characters and “London Mixture” in a script font. On top of it all is a coat of arms, the royal warrant, granted to Ardath by King George VI in 1946 and again later by Queen Elizabeth II.

img_5565Once you remove the lid of the 70’s version you are greeted by a golden wrapper, the 80’s one has sober wrapping which repeatedly states “Supreme British Tobacco”. On top of the golden wrapper is a small but wonderful booklet. It contains information about the State Express brand, the London Mixture blend and has a beautiful (educational) illustration of the tobacco leaves used in the mixture. On the backside of the front lid of the 70’s version the royal warrant is repeated together with the name of the blend and the description of it. The 80’s version is empty, I guess they had to cut back costs.. A pity, because as Jon Guss his father would say: packaging is marketing. A wise man.

img_5578Ingredients/Contents/Cut:
In an old document I found the recipe of State Express London Mixture, it consisted of 35% bright flue cured golden Virginia, 25% orientals (Samsun, Izmir, Xanthi and Cavalla) and 40% (Syrian) latakia. In the same file the manufacturing process is also explained, an interesting read which you can see here. Upon opening the 70’s tin I was greeted by the beautiful sight of 1 whole oriental leaf placed upon the mixture. According to information given to me by Jon there once also was a version with 2 different varieties of oriental leaves laid crossways over the blend. The 80’s version tin contained no whole oriental leaf at all, once again, perhaps they had to cut back costs. The mixture itself looks identical in both tins, I guess the contents have darkened in colour by age. Dark brown/black latakia, light orange/green and dark yellow Virginia and darker orange/green and light-brown orientals. The cut for both versions is a typical ribbon cut, although the 70’s one had a few chunkier pieces.

noseSmell from the tin:
Both versions smell aged, I can’t really describe it, those who have sniffed the contents of 20+ year tins know what I mean. A kind of “musty but in a good way” smell. If I look (smell) beneath that I am a bit surprised that the latakia is so toned down. Ok, that is common with the ageing of the dark leaf and Syrian latakia is not as assertive as its Cyprian cousin but still, there is 40% of the stuff in the blend. For the rest the hay-like, raisin Virginia dominates with mildy pungent underlying notes of the exotic oriental tobaccos.

011Taste:
Both versions were an absolute utter delight to smoke, but there were differences. They start with a kind of strong black tea taste in which the dark fruit sweetness of the Virginia and exotic orientals slowly become more and more prominent. Like with the smell the latakia also tastes toned down. Don’t get me wrong, it is ideal for the blend, it really is in perfect sync with the other ingredients. And you get used to it, after having smoked SELM for days and days I wanted something a bit different and lit up a bowl full of (the new and excellent) John Cotton’s Smyrna, which has a moderate amount of Cyprian latakia. My taste buds who are used to a good portion of the dark leaf went like: whoaahh, latakia bomb! Anyway, the difference between the two vintages becomes apparent halfway the bowl when the oriental tobaccos take main stage. The 80’s version is taste-wise like a roller-coaster. Essences of fragrant exotic herbs and spices roll around your taste-buds with every puff while still being in harmony with the other ingredients. A true delight for the adventurous pipe smoker. The contents of the 70’s tin have melted together more. No big highs and lows here, I compare it with the curry I make, there is a kind of great basic taste and if you pay attention you can discern some ingredients. All the while with both versions the Virginia together with the latakia provide a sweet and smoky backbone. In the last third of the bowl the mixture gains flavour and intensity. The Virginias sing together with the orientals while the latakia softly but surely hums underneath. The 70’s version even has a kind of cigar-like heaviness in the end.

10679974_10205010273567619_6481518945363759545_oMiscellaneous:
I had to laugh when I read more of the old document because the maker of State Express London Mixture had a, ehmm, more limited view of how long a tin on the shelf should last than we have nowadays. It states: “Should be smoked as soon as possible for maximum taste. Tendency after three months to noticeable loss of flavour. Loss of colour in ‘Brights’ increasingly noticeable after three months.” Perhaps the man who wrote that is related to the e-bay woman who sold me the 70’s tin. SELM is a smooth smoke, no bite whatsoever. Nicotine-wise it is moderate, I am under the impression that the 70’s version contained a bit more of vitamin N. Burn-wise both vintages were excellent, no trouble at all throughout the bowl, only some fine grey ash was left.

thumbsRoom-note:
Despite the toned down latakia Ellen really did not like the smell of SELM. She even became short of breath from the smoke.. “*coughs* Perhaps the e-bay woman was right that it would choke a horse!” I on the other hand quite liked it (that is why it is not a full thumbs downs room-note). When I came into the living-room the mornings after I smoked it I detected a quite pleasant smoky, herbal odour.

moneyPrice:
Years ago I paid $100 for the 80’s tin. At the time not so much because the dollar was low and the euro strong. Good ol’ days.. So with that price in my mind I was absolutely not sure if I would win the auction for the 70’s tin. I had a lower budget so I set a not too high maximum bid. In the end I won the vintage State Express London Mixture for $30.

img_5583_1Conclusion:
For me State Express London Mixture belongs in the same pantheon of legendary pipe tobacco blends as for example the Sobranie mixtures, Marcovitch and the old Dunhill offerings. It has an unique old world quality inside and on the outside of the tin. Sadly blends like this one can’t be made today. Syrian latakia is no longer made and sourcing the specific oriental tobacco varieties is nearly impossible. Something which I really regret because for me the key to adventure in pipe tobacco lies with the latter. Well ok, perhaps McClelland could pull it off with their stock of Syrian latakia and Grand Orientals series. But still, there is more to pipe tobacco than just putting ingredients together. I can’t really choose between the 2 vintages. The 80’s version was a fantastic roller-coaster taste-wise. If you hit a piece of oriental leaf in the bowl *booom!*, lots of flavour! On the other hand the 70’s one had an absolutely great basic taste with more subtle flavours of herbs and spices from far away. But it is not only the ingredients, also the classy look of the tin is absolutely superb. When you see it it almost calls out to me: “See the exotic places mentioned on my luxurious lid. I promise that if you smoke me and close your eyes your mind will be transported to far away countries where you will experience all their delights.” And I must say in all honesty, it did that to me, it was that good.

I would like to thank Jon Guss for his essential contribution to this blogpost.

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The legend of Renaissance (Reserve)

The Dark Lord

The Dark Lord

Once upon a time in a far away country lived a mysterious man named GL Pease. But he was not just any mortal man. No, for he possessed the divine gift to be able to work with a magical dark leaf called “latakia“, which came from the mystical ancient land of Bilad al-Sham. Pease made marvellous blends with this exceptional leaf that could be smoked in a clever device called a “pipe”. All over the earth people went ecstatic when they tried his creations. He was so good in this that his followers honoured him with the nickname “The Dark Lord”.

Pease_RenaissanceAt the pinnacle of his genius, during a haunting full moon, inside his secret room of wonders, he crafted his magnum opus. Anno Domini 2001 he unleashed a blend upon the world that it had never seen before, unique and magnificent, mesmerizing all who smoked it. Of course it contained the magical leaf from Bilad al-Sham but also a very reminiscent yet bolder cousin of it, coming from the mysterious island of Alashiya. The mixture was completed by red, golden and matured leaf from the Old Dominion and smaller deliciously exotic leaves from the unknown East. The Dark Lord named the blend “Renaissance” because it was the beginning of a period of new growth and activity.

Westminster, one of the best blends ever containing

Westminster, one of the best blends ever containing Alashiya leaf

Unfortunately this period did not last long. In the 11th month of Anno Domini 2004 an infernal hellish fire consumed the hoard of dark Bilad al-Sham latakia leaf. Pease was struck down by grief and with a heavy heart had to discontinue his magnum opus, Renaissance. In the years that followed many people offered (according to them) genuine Bilad al-Sham latakia to the Dark Lord. Sadly it was not the same as the magical leaf he first used. Luckily his divine talent was not diminished so with help of the more pungent, assertive Alashiya leaf he succeeded in creating many awesome blends. But the Dark Lord would always lament the loss of his magical Bilad al-Sham latakia leaf.

© GL Pease

Renaissance Reserve © GL Pease

Fortunately the ancient pipe-smoking Gods had something else in mind. Fast forward to Anno Domini 2015, this is an excerpt from Pease’s hidden diary: Both exciting and frustrating. During Cornell & Diehl’s (the Dark Lord’s grand supplier of leaf) move from the Old North State to South Carolus, several pounds of Bilad al-Sham Latakia leaf turned up. I was send a letter, and asked, “Do you want to do something with this?” A silly question. The right question was what I would want to do with it. That was easy to answer, too. I’ve always said that if I could ever again got my hands on the right Bilad al-Sham leaf, the mixture I’d most want to bring back would be Renaissance. It was always special to me, and has remained one of my faves. Knowing this would be a limited edition, I worked diligently over several months in my secret room of wonders to faithfully recreate the blend using the finest leaf available, taking no short-cuts, not stopping until I had achieved that ultimate goal. True to the original, Renaissance Reserve is a mixture of magical leaf from Bilad al-Sham and Alashiya, matured red and golden leaf from the Old Dominion and smaller deliciously exotic leaves from the unknown East. It is blended in just the right measure, aged in bulk, then given an additional six months in the tins before release, resulting in a rich, complex and sophisticated smoking experience. Unfortunately, we were only able to produce 500 tins of this exquisite mixture to be released and once it’s gone, it’s gone. It’s fantastic now, and will continue to develop in the specially designed tins for many years to come, for those who have the patience. I only wish we’d had ten times the amount of Bilad al-Sham leaf we had…

I was so happy I could dance!

I was so happy I could dance!

And here a legend becomes reality, because on 12 July the 500 available tins of Renaissance Reserve became available for us humble pipe-smokers. But where to buy them.. I choose for my regular online tobacconist, 4noggins. This because I know that Rich, the owner, most of the times updates his website around 13:00 CET. So around that time I was refreshing the GL Pease page on his site like a lunatic. 13:00, nothing. 14:00, nothing. 15:00, nothing. Damned! I took a look at the Dutch/Belgian pipe-smokers forum and read there that a member had actually phoned with Rich. He was a little late but the site-update was nearby. Finally at 15:45 I was able to order 2 tins (the maximum) and I was ecstatic! At last I was able to smoke one of the greatest blends ever (according to many) containing the fabled Syrian latakia. My expectations were high..

IMG_5108Description from the producer – Package/tin:
I’ve often said that if I ever again got my hands on the right vintage Syrian latakia the tobacco I’d most want to bring back would be Renaissance. Last year my wish was granted when several pounds of that superb leaf were discovered. True to the original formula, Renaissance Reserve is a blend of Cyprian and Syrian latakias, several matured virginias, and balkan orientals blended in just the right measure and aged for many months to provide a rich, complex and sophisticated smoking experience. Only 500 tins of this exquisite blend were produced. The tin is a typical American one with a pull-off lid. The artwork on it is nice but not really remarkable. On an underground of what looks like parchment the name of the blend dominates the tin. Under it a long clay pipe is depicted with in it “G.L. Pease Tobacco Company”. The blend-description is on the backside.

IMG_5110Contents/Ingredients/cut:
Upon opening the tin I was greeted by the familiar GL Pease carton inlay. When I lifted that I saw a mixture that was pretty light in colour for a latakia blend. The ingredients are Cyprian and Syrian latakia, several matured Virginias and Balkan Orientals. The cut is one which which is typical for lots of GL Pease blends, a sort of rough ribbon cut with some chunky pieces.

noseSmell from the tin:
I expected to smell leathery latakia when I stuck my nose in the tin. Instead I was greeted by a very pleasant mellow, exotic smoky odour. Once I smelled an empty wine barrel and I had to think about that. That combined with the grassy sweetness of the Virginias and tangy spiciness of the orientals typifies the odour of Renaissance Reserve for me.

011Taste:
The keyword with this blend is balance. I can’t stress that enough, no ingredient overshadows another one. I have never smoked a mixture which had such a great harmony. Especially the cooperation between the Syrian and Cyprian latakia is masterfully done. When I smoke a blend like McClelland’s 3 Oaks Syrian the Syrian dark leaf is a bit too mellow for me. MacBaren tried to solve this with their tasty HH Vintage Syrian by adding some smoky dark-fired Kentucky. Mr Pease used Cyprian latakia to support its Syrian cousin. And the exciting thing is that you can really notice it. I taste the wine-like, woody, smoky but mellow Syrian leaf. But because of the addition of the more assertive, pungent, leathery Cyprian leaf the two latakias as a whole become more than the sum of their parts. Of course the other ingredients also play a large role. The matured Virginias provide the backbone of the blend with their earthy, dark sweet taste. They are supported by the Red Virginias which taste tangy and yeasty. Golden Virginas provide a grassy, hay-like and citrus flavour. The orientals fall in line with the Virginias and give the mixture a spicy, nutty and pleasantly refreshing sour note. I would place this blend in the “light English” department. It is no latakia-bomb and the orientals work harmonious with the rest of the ingredients. The mixture is complex, but in a good way. Some blends drown in complexness but Renaissance Reserve is easy accessible and heightens the curiosity with every smoke. What do I taste now? Cedar? Thyme? A member of the Dutch Pipe Smokers Forum who smoked a sample from me even tasted some hashish.. Also the mixture behaved well in most pipes, always the sign of a great blend. But I got the tastiest results in my (Dunhill) prince shaped pipes.

IMG_5114Miscellaneous:
Renaissance Reserve smokes smooth like butter on my bald head. Not a bite in sight. Nicotine-wise I rank it mild, although my tolerance for vitamin N has gone up due to the use of some snuff tobacco. Burn-wise I had no problems at all and it left almost no moisture in the bowl.

thumbs2Room-note:
For a blend that contains latakia it has a surprisingly nice room-note. I had no problems at all with Ellen. The wife of a member of the Dutch Pipe Smokers Forum even said it smelled good! And indeed, when I walk into the living room the next morning I smell a pleasant faint incense-like BBQ odour.

moneyPrice:
On the website of 4noggins I paid $11.25 (± €9,98) for a tin. Considering this was a limited blend (only 500 were made) I suspect that in some years the remaining tins will fetch good prices at e-bay.

IMG_5115Conclusion:
Renaissance Reserve just utterly wowed me. It felt like having steamy sex with the gorgeous babe you never ever thought you were going to nail. I just had to keep smoking it. Normally when I am roughly at 3/4 of a tin I lose interest and give or throw the rest away. Now I smoked it up to the last crumb. Although at first taste this blend did not seem really remarkable, it soon grabbed me at my balls and left me wanting for more every time. Like a geisha it constantly teased me, giving me something and promising pleasure with every puff to come. Smoking Renaissance Reserve is an exiting journey in which you constantly discover new tastes. And you know what the best thing is? I got one full, sealed tin left in my tobacco closet. I am a happy man.

Latakia and… Chocolate???

Rainer (on the right) and Hans (in the middle)

Rainer (on the right) and Hans (in the middle)

Once in a while you smoke a blend that surprises you, that tastes so different in a pleasant way than you expected. Such a mixture is ChocoLat (notice the capital “L”) by HU Tobacco. You would expect that master-blender Hans Wiedemann is behind the tobacco but no, it is a friend of him (and myself): Rainer. It all began when he read the excellent book by Fred Hanna: The Perfect Smoke. In there is a paragraph where Mr. Hanna describes a tobacco blending experiment with an aromatic mixture called McClelland Tastemaster (a (Black) Cavendish – Burley blend) and 50% latakia: Smoky Chocolate Surprise. The first candidate for an excellent crossover is a McClelland aromatic called Tastemaster. It appears to be the typical McClelland high-quality tobacco that is cased and suffused with chocolate. Yes, I said it was chocolate, and, unbelievably, it even tastes like chocolate. It is a nice aromatic all on its own if smoked after allowing it to dry for a few days. It smells nice and burns rather cool as long as, like I said, it has time to dry out. However, when mixed with 50% McClelland Cyprian Latakia, you have the dessert equivalent of Smoky Chocolate Surprise. It smells great, has depth of flavor, and burns cool with a nice chocolate taste. It is actually rather amazing stuff. I highly recommend it to the Latakia lover who has a sweet tooth. And, of course, the room note is pleasant indeed.

Norbert Hedtke

Norbert Hedtke

So Rainer started experimenting, got some Tastemaster from the States, mixed it with pure Latakia and indeed with a good result. But now the arduous task lay before him of re-creating the blend with European tobaccos. First he approached the master-blender of Kohlhase & Kopp, Norbert Hedtke. The blend that came out of that was ok, but it was not quite what Rainer had in mind. Something was off.. Of course! American (unflavoured) Black Cavendish is mostly made from Burley and European Black Cavendish is based on Virginia. Too much of the latter and the blend becomes a bit dry, woodsy. But with some tweaking this was solved. Then the mixture lacked a bit of body. This time the solution came from Hans Wiedemann. He added some special Burley and high quality Virginia which was precisely what the blend needed. The mixture then was rounded off with, not an overly sweet milk chocolate, but a dark chocolate topping.

logo_HU-TobaccoDescription from the producer:
The common passion for good tobacco has Rainer aka Raiko and me let become good friends. There was of course close to the Rainer finally created his own tobacco. The result is really fun – Chapeau Rainer!!! Luxurious, opulent and at the same time with a hint of decadence – ChocoLat has it all! Nearly half a measure of Latakia is sustained by high-grade Virginias, Burley and unflavoured Black Cavendish. A discreet cocoa flavour delivers a satisfying, indulging taste without ever becoming overly sweet. Deep and dark, pleasant and snugger alike a good Stout… ChocoLat – can also serve as an ideal companion to a dark beer.

ChocoLatPackage/tin:
A typical round European style 50 gr. tin is used. On the tin sadly no image but just plain text. Hans really makes wonderful tobaccos and some of his tins have really nice artwork. But also many tins lack that.. The eye also wants something and with a name like ChocoLat I am sure a good looking tin label could have been made.

IMG_4787Contents/Ingredients/cut:
Upon opening the tin you see a simple white paper. When you remove that a blend greets you which varies in colour from light to dark. Bright Virginias, slightly darker Burley and black Latakia and Black Cavendish. Which also sums up the ingredients. The cut is a regular ribbon cut.

noseSmell from the tin:
The smell from the tin is a bit strange, but in a good way. I smell the earthly, leathery camp-fire odour of the latakia but it is subdued by the other tobacco components and the topping. It reminds me of Sillem’s Black, marshmallows roasting above a camp-fire. But then less aromatic, more natural. A real chocolate smell I do not detect.

011Taste:
Upon lighting the pipe you get the dark earthy taste of the smoky latakia but without the bitterness you sometimes experience. After a few puffs the bright and sweet Virginias, together with some citrus, come through. They, in combination with the creamy Black Cavendish also provide a slight grassy taste. The Burley provides the nutty backbone of the blend. I don’t really detect a clear chocolate taste, it is just a bit of marshmallows roasting above a camp-fire. Smoking a pipe with this mixture is not a roller-coaster ride flavour-wise, all the ingredients are in perfect harmony and stay that way. Like with the smell I am taste-wise also reminded of Sillem’s Black; it is more natural than aromatic. Sometimes aromatic blends loose their taste halfway the bowl, but because ChocoLat leans on the natural tobaccos the flavour is consistently maintained throughout the bowl.

IMG_4786Miscellaneous:
German made blends sometimes have the tendency to bite but like most HU Tobacco blends ChocoLat is a good boy. Nicotine-wise it is a mild blend, I can smoke it without any troubles. Burn-wise this is an excellent mixture. I rarely required so few relights and it burns right down to the bottom of the bowl.

thumbs2Room-note:
For Ellen it contains latakia so no… However, even when she says she does not really like it, she made no remarks while I smoked it, no leaving the room, no coughing noises.. And when I entered the living-room the next morning all I could smell was a faint roasted marshmallow odour. So for me the room-note goes into the “pretty decent” department.

moneyPrice:
On the website of HU Tobacco this blend will cost you €11,30 (± $12.50).

P1090674Conclusion:
This blend will appeal to pipe-smokers on different levels. If you are a lover of Latakia-blends this mixture will be a nice and perhaps refreshing change of pace. Don’t let the “chocolat” label put you off, this is not an aromatic, there are loads of high quality natural tobaccos to be enjoyed. And if your wife loathes the smell of your favourite Latakia-blends, try ChocoLat, perhaps she will like it. Because every woman loves chocolate, right? Also when you want to try out a mixture with latakia I believe this is a good blend to start with. You get the characteristics of the dark leaf but in a smoothed, tasty way that won’t put you off.