Category: Tobacco reviews

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.

Marvellous Motzek

Herbert Motzek

Herbert Motzek

Like I said in my last blogpost “Luxury tobacco from Lauenburg” this year the destination for the summer holiday of Ellen and myself was Germany. Of course I planned to visit several tobacco-shops and the number 1 on my list was the store of Herbert Motzek in Kiel, one of the major maritime centres of Germany. With a lot of you the name “Motzek” will ring a bell.. Motzek.. Motzek.. Ah! From the Strang-Curly (rope-curly)! I first heard of the existence of that tobacco from Dutch pipe smokers forum member and walking pipe and tobacco encyclopaedia Huub, who has been smoking it, to his utter delight, for years. But that excellent tobacco is not the only thing Motzek has to offer..

Tobacco tins stacked up to the ceiling

Tobacco tins stacked up to the ceiling

The store is located at a busy street with lots of traffic and in front of it beside the door the Dannebrog, the Danish flag, proudly flutters. The signal that the business of Motzek, which he operates with his from origin Danish wife Lizzie (hence the flag) since 1975, is open. Inside the store the sound of buzzing traffic becomes even less than a background noise and a relaxed atmosphere prevails. Smooth jazz music is playing through the shop and behind the counter the tobacco tins are stacked up to the ceiling. As soon as I saw Herr Motzek I immediately began to ramble about the Strang-Curly and ask him questions. “Easy, easy! Time enough, do you want some coffee?” Ah! The sign of an old-world tobacconist. We were placed in some soft chairs and the hot dark liquid was served. Motzek sat opposite us and took a good look at me. “An old habit, when a new customer comes in, I always ask myself, what pipe would probably look good with him. But please, fill your pipe and smoke something!”

IMG_3276For me the shop has one big plus, cigarettes are nowhere to be seen! Motzek fulfils the wishes of smokers who smoke for their enjoyment. In 1978 he received a license for (pipe) tobacco production (recognizable by German tax number 12502) and is the only tobacconist in Germany who produces his own tobacco. Well, that is not entirely true, Herr Motzek does not produce tobacco himself. In a factory in a small town just a couple of kilometres outside of Kiel the entire range of Motzek tobaccos is made by his wife Lizzie. “She has acquired loads of knowledge at seminars and trainings, that is why I leave the mixing to her. However, for the final end control I take over again because I want to exactly know what I am selling.” In addition to the finest cigars from around the world in one of the largest walk-in humidors of Schleswig-Holstein, the shop holds a wide range of pipes. Currently about 1000 pieces. But there is something special. Not only can you buy pipes from well known manufacturers like Winslow (a personal friend of Motzek), Peterson, and Vauen but you can also purchase a real “Motzek”. Herbert Motzek is the only pipe maker in Kiel and one of only a few in Schleswig-Holstein.

3Together with the opening of his business Motzek learned the craft of pipemaking from Viggo Nielsen in Danish town of Faaborg. “I did not only wanted to sell pipes, I also wanted to know how they are made.” says the trained stained-glass painter (his original profession). The thought behind it was originally that Motzek could offer his customers a low-cost repair service without long waits. From that the pipe making has grown. “At some point I was ready, so I dared to offer my pipes for sale”. 6 to 10 hours, from start to finish and nearly 80 individual steps it takes to produce a pipe in his small workshop. Motzek manufactures about 40 to 50 pipes per year, mostly on order. “First the pipe should smoke technically perfect, second comes the design that can extra delight a customer.” says the 69 year old. Even if the design is of secondary importance, the fact is that the pipes must smoke well and look good. So each piece of briar Motzek takes into his own hands in order to “read it”. To look closely at the wood and its grain before going to work. And sometimes it brings out so much that it is difficult for him to sell the pipe. “I have a pipe that I am working on for almost 13 years. That is perhaps my masterpiece. It has a perfect birds eye but I dare not properly complete it, because there is a small chance it might break..” Motzek gets a lot of recognition and positive reactions from his customers. For him the joy of a customer when he smokes a Motzek-made pipe or tobacco means almost more than the money he gets for his work.

4When asked if he had famous people in his store he nods. “Oh yes, Sigfried Lenz, Vanessa Mae, Herbert Wehner, Vicky Leandros, Blacky Fuchsberger… Motzek thinks and sighs wistfully. “I had so many customers in this store. Especially creative people took on pipe smoking. The looking into the smoke, slowly sipping the pipe, the thought and consideration process. That has inspired artists.” says Motzek philosophically. In Berlin’s trendy pubs young hipsters transport pipes in their jute bags back and forth. But whether this trend also goes for the rest of the country? Kiel certainly has not been reached yet. Motzek is increasingly relying on his regular customers. “Every time pipe smoking is a new trend, but it is also politically incorrect. Why do many public persons smoke in secret? The times when Helmut Kohl (former Chancellor of Germany) was still to be seen with his pipe on the election poster are long gone. Once the pipe was a symbol of reliability and dependability. Today society is health conscious and keeps on doing fitness into old age. The pipe does not fit with that.” With his 69 years Herbert Motzek thinks harder and harder about quitting. Only one problem, “I can let go so badly.”

Me and Motzek

Me and Motzek

The fact that a visit to the store for customers is not “just” shopping almost goes without saying. Things are not “just” bought. There is conversation, there is smoking going on and there are discussions on equal terms. But many customers Motzek does not know personally, a sign of the times. Even on the Internet he sells his wares to customers throughout Germany, The Netherlands, England, the Mediterranean region and several other countries around the world even as far away as Dubai. Asked about the health hazards of smoking Herbert Motzek responds with a sly smile with a quote from Swiss-German physician Paracelsus (1493 – 1541): “Dosis facit venenum. All things are poison. Only the dose makes that a thing is not a poison.”

At the shop I bought two of Motzek’s house-tobaccos. Of course the well known Strang-Curly but also an English blend: Herbst 84. I already knew the Strang-Curly, I received samples from forum-member Smoking Rob from both the cut and uncut version for which I am still grateful! Here is a review of the two blends.

motzek_packagingPackage/tin description (translated from German):
Strang-Curly:
A strang (rope), a speciality, rare to find nowadays: fine virginias filled with dark burley are spun together with a spicy but mild perique. This speciality is for connoisseurs, we deliver it cut or uncut. The strang is packed in a large sealed zip-lock bag of 100 gram.
Herbst 84: The classic amongst the English mixtures. Fine oriental tobaccos, bright light and red virginias are rounded off with spicy latakia. The slow cool burn guarantees a high smoking pleasure.
The mixture is packed in 50 gram pouches and sealed zip lock bags of 100 and 200 gram.

IMG_3667Contents/cut:
Strang-Curly:
Virginias, burley and perique. It is a rope tobacco which is a delight to look at. In general the core of the rope is a bit darker with lighter leaves around it with traces of tobacco-stems in between.
Herbst 84: Bright light and red virginias, oriental tobaccos and latakia. Remarkably Motzek still has some Syrian latakia, although not much, only 20 kg is left from his once large stock. “I can’t get it any more these days..” he sighs. When I asked if Syrian latakia was used in Herbst 84 he was unsure. “My wife better knows the exact ingredients of the blends. But if it is in, it only will be a couple of strands..” It is a ribbon cut with a beautiful presentation of light and dark tobacco strands.

noseSmell from the pouch/bag:
Strang-Curly: An earthy but sweet and inviting smell comes from the strang. Hay and figs with a slightly dark nutty undertone are pleasing my spoiled nostrils.
Herbst 84: When I opened the pouch I immediately thought that the name of the blend was well chosen. It brings forth a pleasant, earthy and slightly salty peaty smell that is strongly reminiscent of autumn leaves, forest floor and freshly harvested fields. In my head it smelled like a mix of Samuel Gawith’s Squadron Leader and Pipes & Cigar’s Magnum Opus. Needles to say, my anticipation grew.

011Taste:
Strang-Curly: A few puffs after lighting the pipe-bowl the mildly sweet virginias come forth upon a broad earthy, yeasty and slightly nutty layer. The flavour is complex but almost unbelievable very well balanced. It grabs your attention and basically stays the same throughout the bowl. I would almost say it has a signature taste, once you smoked it you can recognize it blindfolded a next time. Towards the middle of the bowl the flavours broaden and become a thoroughly enjoyable symphony of natural tobaccos. In short I would say, think of toasted bread with some walnuts on it and a small splash of honey. I can’t really detect the perique but I guess it adds some zest to the strang. At the end of the bowl an ashy taste begins to appear. A messenger that the fun is almost over. Oh, I very much recommend the uncut Strang-Curly as opposed to the cut version. The taste is just, fuller, better, more intense.
Herbst 84: What can I say, like the strang this one is also unbelievable very well balanced. The smoky latakia stays in the background throughout the bowl together with the orientals and both support the dominant and sweet virginias in perfect harmony. Mid-bowl the floral orientals pop out now and then which provide interesting counter-flavours to the virginias. Towards the end of the bowl the well orchestrated blend gradually fades out into grey ash. Like with the smell I also had to think of Samuel Gawith’s Squadron Leader and Pipes & Cigar’s Magnum Opus when smoking it.

IMG_3664Miscellaneous:
Strang-Curly: The strang is wetter than Ellen when she sees me coming out of the shower.. I am used to tobaccos that are pretty moist (hello Samuel Gawith flakes) but this one requires some serious drying time. At least 2 to 3 hours. Or less if you nick the hair-dryer of your friend/girlfriend. I tend to rub out the cut coins, it makes packing the bowl easier. Nicotinewise the strang is medium, it won’t kick you off your feet but will satisfy your cravings.
Herbst 84: The blend packs and burns perfectly. Although it dries out pretty fast in the pouch. Motzek refuses to use hygroscopic agents like sorbitol, propylene glycol and glycerine to keep the tobacco wet. Only water is used to moisten the tobacco.

thumbs2Room-note:
Strang-Curly: Ellen has no trouble when I smoke this one inside. Although I kind of dislike the cigarette-like odour in the room the next morning.
Herbst 84: Because it is not a latakia-bomb Ellen has no objections when I smoke Herbst 84 inside. The next morning only a slight incense odour was left.

moneyPrice:
Strang-Curly: Tobaccos made by Motzek are relatively cheap compared to other German offerings. 100 gram will only cost you €15,50 (± $17.28)
Herbst 84: A 50 gram pouch will set you back at €6,25 (± $6.97). 100 gram costs €12,- (± $13.38) and 200 gram €23,- (± $25.64).

IMG_3658Conclusion:
Strang-Curly: I congratulate Lizzie Motzek, this is the best rope tobacco I smoked so far. Period. It has a signature taste that does not get boring. And bear in mind that the strang I smoked was pretty fresh. Imagine what a few years of ageing will do. Ooooh yeah…
Herbst 84: For me this is one of the best latakia-blends made on Europe mainland. It utterly surprised me in a most pleasant way. I never expected such an excellent tobacco could come out of a pouch. I will be stocking up on this one. Because it has a more than good price-quality ratio and who knows when Motzek finally decides to quit…

EDIT 01-12-2015: Sadly (for us pipe-smokers) Motzek decided to quit.. This is written (in German) on his website: After a working career of 51 years, 46 years within the industry and 40 years with my own business, I’m almost 70 now and I want to retire. I’m looking for an able successor for my unique shop (Cigar lounge, pipe repair shop, and tobacco manufacturing license) in Kiel. Interested parties please inquire per phone +49 431 554162.

EDIT 18-04-2016: Motzek’s retirement is definitive now. His website states that he will say “goodbye” Thursday 28 April 2016. However, the store is not closing down because Herbert has found a successor who will begin on 1 May. I heard that he is currently learning the ropes of making THE rope, the Strang-Curly. So I have high hopes that the legend of the Strang-Curly will continue.

EDIT 08-05-2016: The successor for Herbert Motzek is pipe-maker Thomas Darasz! He also took over the Motzek name and the tobacco tax-number needed for producing the house-blends (under which the Strang-Curly). So it looks like the future of the store is secured.

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Germain Rich Dark Flake vs. Esoterica Stonehaven

Franz

Franz

At the latest Heukelum meeting I talked to fellow PRF-member Franz. Besides a fondness for old English made pipes (except Dunhill) he also very much likes the tobaccos made by the well known J.F. Germain & Son company from the British Channel Islands. Throughout the time I know Franz I was able to smoke quite a few Germain-made samples provided by him. Now he also did not disappoint me because from England he had ordered a vast amount of Germain Rich Dark Flake! I always wanted to try that one because according to a lot of stories it is similar to the famous Esoterica Tobacciana Stonehaven. I asked Franz if I could fill up a decent sized sample bag so I could compare it to Stonehaven at home. With a smile he said: go ahead!

jf_germain_sonBackground information:
Rich Dark Flake: Unfortunately I have very little background information about Rich Dark Flake. It is only available in the UK and is sold solely in bulk and not in tins. According to Mr Germain some of their blends maintained their recipe for 60 years. If that is the case with Rich Dark Flake, nooo idea.. I would love to hear from some elderly English pipe-smokers how long they are buying the blend.
Stonehaven: The origins of Esoterica Stonehaven are easier to trace. The range of Esoterica tobaccos was founded by Steve Richman, the owner of the Piedmont Tobacconist in Oakland, somewhere halfway the 1980’s. He was looking for someone who could produce his blends. J.F. Germain & Son heard about his interest and made contact through the British embassy. They must have been what Steve Richman was looking for because they started doing business together immediately. For the evaluation of the created blends Steve Richman founded a panel in which GL Pease also took place. Stonehaven is the only blend in the Esoterica range which includes Burley.

Package/tin description:
Rich Dark Flake:
“A great medium to strong dark flake made using a combination of Virginia and Burley tobaccos. Very similar to the popular Germains Stonehaven blend.” Rich Dark Flake comes in standard plastic pouches of a variety of gram weights with a lot of health warnings and in the same gold-coloured sealed bag as Stonehaven. It is always hit or miss if it comes all broken up or in thin juicy flakes.
Stonehaven: “A marriage of air-cured leaf and Burley with selected dark Virginia. Hard pressed and aged to produce brown flakes with dark undertones. A traditional English flake favoured by experienced pipe smokers.” Stonehaven comes in a gold-coloured sealed bag of 8 ounce with on it a simple but elegant label. As far as I know it never was available in tins.

Contents/cut:
Rich Dark Flake:
Burley and Virginia. The flake looks dark, long and thin but just not as thin as Stonehaven. On the picture the flake looks a bit broken up but this comes or from the journey to Franz, him dividing it in smaller portions and finally me putting it in a sample bag, or it was a batch which was a bit broken up.
Stonehaven: The same as Rich Dark Flake: Burley and Virginia. Apart from the slightly thinner cut both flakes look the same. According to Mr Germain Stonehaven is made with 22 cuts an inch. To me this is the thinnest flake I know of.

noseSmell from the pouch/bag:
Rich Dark Flake: When I hold the tobacco under my nose I smell milk chocolate, liquorice, treacle, leather, hay, raisins and some “earthiness”.
Stonehaven: Upon opening the mason jar in which I keep the tobacco I am greeted by a whiff of dark chocolate and some kind of liquor (cognac?) which reminds me of certain Belgian bonbons. Close to my sniffing organ the chocolate still dominates with a faint odour of hay and treacle. Obviously Stonehaven has a “darker” smell than Rich Dark Flake.

011Taste:
Rich Dark Flake: Already after the first few puffs you know you are on to something good. It has an “ancient”, traditional typical tobacco flavour to which only British manufacturers hold the secret. The first part of the bowl is utterly delicious and the creamy, rich flavours I encounter remind me of the typical Dutch “kerststol“: yeast, butter, (brown) sugar and almond. I did even taste some hints of dried fruit (plum?) and raisins. In the second part of the bowl the burley rears its head, the flavours deepen and the tobacco becomes more “manly”. A certain leathery earthiness develops and the sweetness sometimes gives way a bit to a pleasant bitterness. The flakes harmoniously burn down to a fine grey ash with no gooey stuff left behind.
Stonehaven: Dark chocolate hits my taste buds upon lighting and with the first couple of puffs. Pretty fast a dark sugary flavour comes in which diminishes the chocolate tones. There is not as much going on as with Rich Dark Flake in my opinion but the overall taste is excellent and harmonious. Here also a rich and creamy smoke but with a darker edge. Halfway the bowl you can really notice the burley (kept in check with a dark treacle sweetness) and the smoke becomes even deeper, fuller, with hints of nuttiness. Stonehaven clearly has a higher amount of burley than Rich Dark Flake. I detected nothing in the smoke itself of the liquor I smelled before on the bare flakes. Stonehaven also burns down to a fine grey ash.

Both tobaccos and the pipe I smoked them in: a Rattray's Old Perth

Both tobaccos and the pipe I smoked them in: a Rattray’s Old Perth

Miscellaneous:
Rich Dark Flake / Stonehaven: I don’t know how they do it but I seldom have tongue-bite with British made tobaccos. Rich Dark Flake and Stonehaven are no exceptions, even though they contain burley which has a tendency to cause pain on my tongue. They both smoke deliciously cool. Because of the thinner flakes the combustibility is good although they benefit from a bit of drying time. Nicotine-wise Stonehaven packs a bit more punch in my opinion and it is advisable to smoke both tobaccos after a good meal.

thumbs2Room-note:
Rich Dark Flake / Stonehaven: Both tobaccos I could actually smoke in the vicinity of my girlfriend Ellen. Not that she liked the odour of the smoke but it was bearable. Especially with Stonehaven I detected a faint cigarette like smell in the morning when I came downstairs but nothing too bad.

moneyPrice:
Rich Dark Flake: At MySmokingShop you pay £11.65 (± $18.24 /± €14.62) for a 50 gr. pouch and it seems the stuff is readily available. But beware, the shop does not ship to the USA..
Stonehaven: At 4noggins you pay $29.95 (± €24,-) for an 8 ounce bag. IF you can get it. Like so many offerings from Germain Stonehaven sells out almost the minute it hits the shop.. Oh, you can often get it on ebay but then an 8 ounce bag will set you back at over $ 100..

IMG_2428Conclusion:
In my opinion Rich Dark Flake and Stonehaven are not the same. Like Mr Germain said, they are similar. But not too similar. In Rich Dark Flake Virginia is the main component and in Stonehaven burley plays the leading role. For me in Rich Dark Flake there is more going on, more flavours, more sophistication. One of the few magnificent traditional British tobaccos. My mouth waters at the thought of some well-aged Rich Dark Flake.. Yummieyummieyummie! Stonehaven is more “Americanized”, an occasional treat and no all-day smoke but nonetheless superb. Very broadly speaking I think of Rich Dark Flake as milk chocolate and of Stonehaven as dark chocolate. The first I can eat all day long but the second is only tasty now and then. But then again, if you are a lover of dark chocolate… I would like to end with a thank you to Franz for making this blogpost possible!