Tag: cyprian latakia

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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Let’s celebrate the return of Bengal Slices

The Celebrated Bengal Slices © GL Pease

The Celebrated Bengal Slices © GL Pease

Sometimes I think I was a pipe-smoker in a former life. You know, that sometimes you look at an old tobacco tin and you could swear you have seen it before, that it just speaks to you. That happened to me in my early pipe-smoking days when I browsed through the site of GL Pease and stumbled upon an article about The Celebrated Bengal Slices. I saw a dreamy picture of a classy, black rectangular tin with red letters and flags and even without looking at the text I thought: Woww.. That tobacco must be amazing! Of course, after reading the article I was disappointed because the blend was no longer made. Luckily, after some searching on e-bay I found a still sealed tin for a good price. I immediately bought it and when the postman delivered the package it did not take long for me to crack open the tin, fill up a pipe and smoke it. To be honest I was slightly disappointed, it tasted a bit flat and dull. Maybe my expectations were too high. Besides I saw that the tin was not made by the House of Sobranie but by Danish company A&C Petersen. Bummer.. I stashed away the tin (had never heard of mason jars back then) until some weeks ago when I was able to buy the latest incarnation of The Celebrated Bengal Slices. Of course I had to compare the both. But first some history.

Sobranie made Bengal Slices © Neill Archer Roan

Sobranie made Bengal Slices © Neill Archer Roan

It all started in the early 1950’s when the founder of Smokers’ Haven, Joseph Zieve, came up with an idea for a new, revolutionary tobacco. He was thinking of a full English blend that was cut, pressed and then cut into slices. That way, you could easily rub it out with only one hand and fill your pipe. It also had to be so compressed that you could carry a weeks supply on you without a big bulge in your pocket. Smokers’ Haven Krumble Kake was born as a blend and as a style (cut) of tobacco with the help of the legendary house of Sobranie which produced it. A couple decades later, in 1977 to be precise, when Krumble Kake was a huge success in the USA the Sobranie house decided to bring their own version on the market. They replicated Krumble Kake but made it unique by the addition of a special topping. It even was whispered that the new blend, called The Celebrated Bengal Slices, was the pressed and sliced version of the fabled Balkan Sobranie Smoking Mixture. But despite that the blend became only moderately popular. It was always eclipsed by the real stars of the Sobranie house: the better known and more widely available Balkan Sobranie mixtures.

A&C Petersen made Bengal Slices

A&C Petersen made Bengal Slices

In 1980 Gallaher took over the Sobranie trademarks. The Krumble Kake recipe and all of the equipment to make it was transferred over to J. F. Germain & Son who produced it for Smokers’ Haven. The production of Bengal Slices was transferred to the Manchester Tobacco Company (MTC) but was almost directly discontinued. However, the blend made a first comeback! Apparently Bengal Slices actually was a house blend prepared by the House of Sobranie for its jointly owned subsidiary James B. Russell Inc. (a well known tobacco importer / distributor). As such it was not a part of the 1980 transaction with Gallaher. James B. Russell Inc. owned the Bengal Slices trademark and retained control of the brand (I thank Jon Guss for this information). So in 1991 Danish company A&C Petersen began producing the blend for James B. Russell Inc. It maintained something of a cult following but it was too different from the original to really make an impact on sales. In 1999, possibly due to the impending acquisition of A&C Petersen by Orlik/Scandinavian Tobacco Group in 2000, The Celebrated Bengal Slices was discontinued, never to be seen again…

The Standard Tobacco Company made Bengal Slices

The Standard Tobacco Company made Bengal Slices

…Until 10 July 2015 when a message appeared on several pipe forums: “We are pleased to announce that the Board of Directors of The Standard Tobacco Company of Pennsylvania, today at 9:30 am executed the instrument conveying to Meier & Dutch the right to manufacture and distribute, under Standard Tobacco’s trademarks, War Horse, John Cotton’s blends, and Bengal Slices.” 3 friends with a passion for pipe-smoking, Dan, Simon, and Roger started the Standard Tobacco Company after a long evening of too much sake and sushi in the autumn of 2014. They talked about resurrecting long-dead trademarks of revered British blends. At first with a laugh and not really serious but later they began to ponder. What if… So with help of other friends they acquired the abandoned trademarks, unearthed lost recipes, investigated and chemically analysed vintage tins and interviewed people whose memories held the secrets of the old tobaccos. At a pipe-club meeting Dan asked master-blender Russ Ouellette if he was willing to help make the blends, and he was. Before Russ had created a tribute to Bengal Slices, Fusilier’s Ration, released in 2012. The Standard Tobacco project provided such a wealth of new research that it confirmed that his tribute blend was surprisingly accurate. With only some subtle refinements and improvements the new Celebrated Bengal Slices was ready to hit the shelves.

Bengal Slices TinPackage/tin:
A&C Petersen Bengal Slices:
Here the same rectangular tin is used as the old Sobranie made Bengal Slices. Only difference is that the tin itself is not black and on the label is says “Made in Denmark exclusively for James B Russell Inc.” instead of “Made in England exclusively for James B Russell Inc.”. I just love the artwork, being a Desktop Publisher I can really appreciate it. Because of the simple use of black, gold and red in the letters and flags the tin has a downright classy look. There is no further description on the tin.
Standard tobacco Bengal Slices: A round European style tin is used. A bit of a let down for me because for me the rectangular tin just has a more nostalgic feel. But they made up for that with the exquisite faithfully reproduced label. Amazing job well done! Because of the relief printing the images and texts pop out of the black background even more. On the backside is a sticker with amongst other things this description: Bengal Slices is a crumble cake made of Cyprian Latakia, outstanding Orientals, Bright Virginia and a touch of Black Cavendish, finished with a subtle top note.

IMG_4053Contents/Ingredients/cut:
A&C Petersen Bengal Slices: Upon opening the tin you see a gold paper in which the neatly stacked slices are wrapped. It looks organized, a feast for the eye, feels like you are unwrapping a box of delicious bonbons. The slices themselves are almost black with few colours protruding. I am not sure about the ingredients but I believe they are dark Virginias, black cavendish and quite a lot of Cyprian latakia. If there are orientals in the blend (which I doubt) it surely is not much. The cut is a classic crumble cake like Krumble Kake and Penzance.
Standard tobacco Bengal Slices: I was a bit disappointed when I opened the tin. A standard white wrapping paper with a round black insert upon loose random sized slices of presses tobacco. It just looked a bit messy compared to the neatly stacked contents of the A&C Petersen tin. The slices are more colourful and thicker than the old version. A joy to look at if only they were a bit more uniform. The ingredients are bright toasted Virginias, orientals, a bit of black cavendish and Cyprian latakia. The cut is a crumble cake like Seattle Pipe Club’s Mississippi River.

noseSmell from the tin:
A&C Petersen Bengal Slices: A dark, earthy, musty, leathery smell rises from the tin and that is pretty much it. I had to rehydrate the slices with the moist-towel-over-a-bowl technique so perhaps a part of the original topping was lost.
Standard tobacco Bengal Slices: This tobacco surely has a unique trademark smell. Aside from the leathery, woodsy latakia I detect a topping which, according to my nose, contains liquorice, chocolate, anise and a hint of vanilla. I can’t really compare it to any other blend I sniffed at. Only perhaps HU tobacco’s (excellent) RaiKo ChocoLat comes a bit close.

011Taste:
A&C Petersen Bengal Slices: When I lit the first pipe after the rehydration I almost thought the towel I used contained traces of soap. I got a faint floral / Lakeland note! Yuck! Yeahyeah, I am not a fan of Lakeland tobaccos ok? Later, when I re-read the GL pease article, I saw that the old Sobranie made Bengal Slices had such a floral taste so I guess that in that retrospect the Danish version was spot on. Once I overcame the soapy note I started to enjoy the tobacco a bit. A well balanced, dark, creamy and smooth blend wit not much going on. But in the second half of the bowl I began to lose interest. The basis taste stayed the same and I found the tobacco becoming monotonous. Damn, I really missed some oriental firework. With some effort I forced myself to fully smoke the pipe. Purely to determine if my first impression was right I smoked several bowls more, each time I came to the same conclusion: not my cup of tea.
Standard tobacco Bengal Slices: I first smoked this Bengal Slices version in the car while driving back home late in the evening. It was almost magical. The roads were quiet, the moon was high and bright, the music in the car slow and moody and I had one of my best first impressions of a tobacco ever. Upon lighting the bowl there immediately was thick, fat and creamy smoke coming off the pipe. The soft latakia in combination with the topping had an incense like quality, it tasted superb. Going further through the bowl I noticed that this was not a roller-coaster blend with different tastes at each puff, the flavour profile did not change much. You just got some leather and wood from the latakia, some sweet from the Virginias and black cavendish and some sour and spice from the orientals. All working in perfect harmony. After smoking more bowls I also detected a BBQ flavour sometimes weaving through the smoke (especially in the last part) and hints of white chocolate. In my opinion the strong point of the new Bengal Slices is the exquisite balance and great basic trademark flavour.

Miscellaneous:
A&C Petersen Bengal Slices: When I finally had dehydrated the slices they were fine to handle. Crumbling was easy, smoking also. Oh, this also goes for the Standard Tobacco slices, do not tamp the tobacco too hard when smoking. Otherwise you get a big chunk of ash on the bottom which clogs up the pipe. Nicotine level medium and no tongue bite.
Standard tobacco Bengal Slices: The tobacco was at first a bit on the dry side for me. Or I am just used to smoking wet.. Anyway, I could not help rehydrating the slices a little bit. Crumbling the blend is easy and that also goes for smoking it. In my opinion this one smokes a bit better than the old version. Nicotine level medium and only in a few pipes I had a tiny bit of tongue bite.

thumbsRoom-note:
A&C Petersen Bengal Slices: Ellen was mostly already at sleep when I smoked this one, but my nose said mwoah… Not too bad for a latakia blend.
Standard tobacco Bengal Slices: Here the Ellen-meter says: mwoah. She does not really like it (it contains latakia, duh!) but the smell is bearable.

moneyPrice:
A&C Petersen Bengal Slices: I bought the tin on e-bay 2 June 2011 and paid $26 (± €23) for it. Pretty good huh?
Standard tobacco Bengal Slices: At 4noggins you pay $12.79 (± €11,70) for a 1.75 oz. tin.

IMG_4057Conclusion:
A&C Petersen Bengal Slices: To be honest I am glad I don’t have to smoke this one any more. I don’t like the floral note, I don’t like the monotonous taste. like I said before, not my thing.
Standard tobacco Bengal Slices: I love this new incarnation of The Celebrated Bengal Slices. I smoked a lot of bowls of it and each time I was looking forward to the experience. My only comment is the shape of the tin, I rather see the beautifully elegant rectangular tin and the rough uneven slices. People at Lane Ltd. (manufacturer of the blend), can you please make neat slices of similar size and put them in a rectangular tin? The eye also wants something, let’s say it adds to the smoking experience. And that experience is already superb considering the young age of my tin. I can see the blend age very well so I definitely will stock up on this one. Standard Tobacco Company of Pennsylvania, thank you!

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Curing is the cure

curingRecently I realized with a shock that I had never written a proper blogpost about an essential tobacco process: curing. Ok, here and there in older blogposts I told stuff but nothing combined. So I put all the bits and pieces together with some additional info. The primary purpose of curing leaf tobacco is to accelerate the ageing and drying processes under controlled conditions to make it ready for consumption. Trust me, you do not want to smoke fresh tobacco.. Curing allows for the slow oxidation and degradation of carotenoids in the tobacco leaf. This produces various compounds that give cured tobacco the “smoothness” of the consumed end-product. The primary methods of curing include: air curing, flue curing, fire curing (or smoke curing) and sun curing (considered by some people to be the same as air curing).

Air-curing the Burley tobaccoAir curing: here the leaves are allowed to dry by exposure to air in well ventilated barns. Fans can also be used in this process to make the air movement stronger to accelerate the loss of moisture. This air curing process normally takes from 4 to 6 weeks. It is completed when the central vein of the leaf is completely free of sap. This type of curing is used primarily for burley. Light air cured burley and dark air cured burley to be precise. The top grades of light air cured burley, which are yellow, are referred to as “White Burley”. These larger, thinner middle leaves are those most desired for the manufacture of fine pipe tobacco and premium quality cigarettes. White burley has a fine texture, excellent burning qualities and the ability to absorb large amounts of casings and flavourings. The top and bottom leaves are used in the manufacture of snuff, plugs, twist and inexpensive brands of pipe smoking tobacco. The taste is nutty, sometimes with a bit of a cocoa note.

dark air cured burleyDark Air cured burley is mostly used for chewing tobacco, plugs, snuff and inexpensive brands of pipe tobacco. The lower grades (or heavier leaves) are used in some tobacco mixtures to give the tobacco blend more “body”. The taste is earthy, spicy and cigar-like and the colour of the leaves ranges from light to dark brown. Most cigar leaf is also air cured but will undergo an extra step: “bulking”. Essentially this means that big bundles are made of the leaves so that they can be laid to rest in order to start the fermentation process. The pepperiness of  burley and many of the Central American-grown Cuban-seed cigar strains comes from the nicotine that naturally is in the leaf.

fire-cured-tobacco-barnFire curing (or smoke curing): here the leaves are essentially BBQed. In the case of dark fired Kentucky burley they are exposed to open fires (smouldering, not blazing, otherwise the tobacco will prematurely burn up) of hardwood and hardwood sawdust that are maintained on the barn-floor and give off smoke. In some cases, the amount of smoke is fairly moderate.  In addition to drying the tobacco the fire curing process imparts an unusual, modest smoky and wood-like taste and aroma to the tobacco. Latakia is also a fire cured tobacco but has a far more pronounced smoke flavour and aroma. This is due to the intensity of the fumes and aromatic quality of the used woods. Syrian latakia is derived from a tobacco leaf known as “shekk-el-bint.” When it is harvest time the plant is cut and the leaves and flowers are laid on the ground to dry in the sun (essentially sun curing). When they have dried they are taken to storehouses, where they are smoked for a period of 13 to 15 weeks. The smoke is primarily made by using nearby hardwoods and pines, probably from the Baer forest, such as Aleppo pine, Turkey oak and Valonia oak. Also lesser amounts of other aromatic species like Lebanon cedar and Greek Juniper were used.

fire_curedCyprian latakia comes from a Smyrna or Izmir-type tobacco plant that is known as “Yellow Cyprus.” The Yellow Cyprus leaves are harvested by de-stalking them and are made on long poles to be hung in a tobacco shed. The leaves are then smoked over open smouldering fires. These fires are made from hardwoods, some pine and aromatic shrubs and woods such as prickly cedar and myrtle. It has been reported that the Mastic shrub is primarily used in the smoke generation for Cyprian latakia. The following formula may approximate the shrubs and woods used for the fire/smoke-curing process: Mastic 90%, Myrtle 4%, Stone pine (this one or this one) 4%, Cypress 1%, Other 1%. The nicotine content does not seem to be severely affected by the process. Dark fired Kentucky burley with its significant nicotine level is not that much different from the dark air cured variety. The moderate nicotine level of latakia does not vary greatly from the oriental base leaf it is made of.

Flue curingFlue curing: here the leaves are cured by exposure to indirect heat. This is created by moving hot air, smoke or steam through a flue or pipe inside a building (often a barn) thus allowing the heat to strongly warm up the building. The higher heat causes a more rapid drying effect and is the traditional method for curing Virginia. The yellow colour you often see Virginia has comes from the heat exposure. Generally the process will take about a week. This way of flue curing was not discovered until 1839. In that year a slave, Stephen Slade (owned by farmer Abisha Slade from Caswell County NC), fell asleep one night while keeping an eye on the wood fires used for curing the barns of tobacco. Whether it was the stormy night, instinct or just what woke him, no one will ever know. But he awoke realizing that the fires in the tobacco curing barn had almost gone out. Rather than throw wet wood into the dying fire, he rushed to the charcoal pit near the forge. He grabbed several charred log parts and threw them on the embers. The application of the sudden, drying heat, derived from the charred logs, produced an amazing effect on the green tobacco. The result was 600 pounds of the brightest yellow tobacco ever seen.

flue cured tobaccoFlue cured tobacco generally has more sugar, less oil and a lower nicotine content. The presence of the sugar counters tongue bite but can cause heat issues while smoking. Naturally sugars tend to have a higher combustion temperature. Because of the ability of this curing method to maintain the sugars in a relatively stable percentage a form of flue curing is used in making candela cigar wrapper. The heat not only fixes the few sugars present but the chlorophyll as well thus allowing the wrappers to stay green.

Sun curingSun curing: this method is used in Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania and Mediterranean countries which produce oriental tobaccos. Leaves are strung out on racks and exposed to the sun for 12 to 30 days to remove most of their moisture before being air cured to complete the process. The sun’s direct heat fixes the leaves at a yellow to orange colour with a high sugar content. Then they are stored in bales and allowed to ferment.

Pressure-fermentation

Pressure-fermentation

Additional or supplementary curing can be done by the use of heat and/or pressure after the initial process. A good example of pressure is the technique of pressure-fermentation which is used in making perique. This process remains a traditional craft,  not much has changed since the early 20th century. First air cured tobacco is hand stripped. The leaf which is used  is considered to be pretty similar to burley. The only moisture added is just prior to the stripping to make the leaves pliable. How many moisture is used is up to the craftsmen. You just have to feel it. Then the tobacco is rolled into “torquettes” of approximately 1 pound (450 g) and packed into hickory whisky barrels. These are  topped off with a wooden lid and pressed by using oak blocks and massive screw jacks. Thus forcing nearly all the air out of the still moist leaves. The barrels are unpacked at least three times during the active fermentation phase (around five months). The torquettes are then repacked in the barrels in reverse order (former top bundles on bottom and bottom bundles on top) to permit a little air back into the tobacco. They are then closely monitored with periodic increases of pressure. After at least a year of this treatment, the perique is ready for consumption.

toasting semoisA good example of supplementary curing by the use of heat is the fascinating Belgian leaf, Semois. First it is air cured (after all Semois is a type of burley) and then it is sort of heat cured. This because the tobacco is toasted in what looks like a metal custom made wood-burning oven. Inside is a large drum which is heated by a fire below and can spin around. The tobacco is put inside and while tumbling it is getting toasted.

Th-th-th-that’s all folks!

HH Vintage Syrian vs. 3 Oaks Syrian

LatakiaTobaccoSyriaIn my blog-posts Latakia Lover and Syrian Latakia I described the dark leaf that comes from Syria and why it is so rare these days. In fact, there are only two companies of which I am 100% certain that they still have it: Danish based Mac Baren and American based McClelland. Important to know is that they both use Syrian latakia that originates from the same stock! Which is the reason for this post. I was curious what was the better, tastier blend that contains the fire-cured shekk-el-bint: Mac Baren HH Vintage Syrian or McClelland 3 Oaks Syrian. I choose these blends because there is no other type of latakia in them. For example, McClelland Wilderness also contains Cyprian latakia.

3Background information:
HH Vintage Syrian: The inspiration for the recipe of HH Vintage Syrian originates back to the start of Mac Baren Tobacco more than 120 years ago. This blend is typical for that time and it is easy to describe as a “back to nature” tobacco. The reason for calling this tobacco HH is quite simple. HH are the initials of the founder of Mac Baren Tobacco: Mr. Harald Halberg. If you look closely you will find the same initials in the small Mac Baren logo at the top-centre of the tin. It is incorporated into the shield held by the lions.
3 Oaks Syrian: The original 3 Oaks Syrian was composed by Ted Gage for the Bufflehead Smoke Shop in the Kansas City area. In 2005 or 2006 there were changes in the laws for mail orders which went outside the state. These ruined the thriving store and it had to close down. In 2009 McClelland started manufacturing the blend according to the original recipe.

IMG_0393Contents/cut:
HH Vintage Syrian:
Syrian latakia, oriental, Virginia, Kentucky. Coarse cut, so that means it can contain some chunky pieces. Surprisingly enough this blend contains (or should contain) more Syrian latakia than 3 Oaks Syrian but the looks do not show it. 3 Oaks is darker in appearance.
3 Oaks Syrian: Syrian latakia, oriental, Virginia. Ribbon cut which I also found to be a bit chunky.

mac baren tobacco logoPackage/tin description:
HH Vintage Syrian:
A flat stylish 100 gr. tin with a black lid containing a stylized illustration of a lion’s head. “The base of the blend, a little under half of the volume, is a smooth and yet powerful Latakia from Syria. This tobacco gives the blend the overall smoky taste, a powerful taste and yet without any tongue bite. To add a spicy note to the blend, Turkish Oriental has been added. A mix of different Virginia tobaccos from 3 continents adds a sweet natural taste. To complete the taste with depth and body, we added a little Dark Fired Kentucky from the US. The HH-Vintage Syrian Latakia is a loose cut tobacco, which guarantees a smooth and steady burn. It does not get hot which means you will find extremely little bite on your tongue. When you empty your pipe after smoking, you will find only fine grey ashes, the sign of a slow and dry smoke.”
3 Oaks Syrian: A typical 50 gr. American “pop” tin with a yellow label. On it is an illustration of a weapon shield with the name of the blend and oak-leaves around it. “Rare Syrian Latakia, with its renowned mellow smokiness, is balanced with naturally sweet Orientals and aged Virginia leaf to create a satisfying blend reminiscent of classic Syrian Latakia blends of old. Formulated by Tad Gage to reflect the character of original Three Oaks Pipe Tobacco, it tantalizes with intriguing differences.”

noseSmell from the tin:
HH Vintage Syrian: When I opened the tin it did not smell like an average Cyprian latakia blend. Yes you can smell the smoky dark leaf but nothing overpowering. It reminds me of the current time of the year, autumn, with its fallen leaves. Imagine smelling a campfire in an October-time forest from 100 meters away that mainly consists of dry and half-dry autumn leaves. I also detect a certain sweetness that (I think) comes from the Virginias.
3 Oaks Syrian: Even more muted than the smell of HH Vintage Syrian is the tin-odour of 3 Oaks Syrian. It just whispers “subtle”. Fortunately there is almost no hint of the typical McClelland “ketchup” smell. Maybe when you have freshly opened the tin, but after some time that odour vanishes. Overall there is a certain kind of mustiness with none of the contents overpowering each other.

011Taste:
HH Vintage Syrian: What surprised me when I first lit this blend was the overall sweetness. Hmm, I think the Virginias are cased.. However, this sweetness combines nicely with the herbal flavours of the orientals. But undeniably the star of this mixture is the Syrian latakia which unlike its Cyprian cousin has a warm, broad, smooth and subtle taste of smoky incense, sandalwood and red wine. It just says, ey, don’t worry, I am here, I will not overpower the rest of the contents, just sit back and enjoy. If you smoke very slow you can sometimes taste hints of apricot and apple-cider which I found fascinating. Halfway the bowl the sweetness goes away and the nutty Kentucky comes a bit more to the front. This stays until the end of the bowl when there is only fine grey ash left.
3 Oaks Syrian: The first time I tried this blend I only smoked pipe for half a year. I found it to be too mild and flavourless. I reluctantly finished the tin and gave away some. Some months ago I decided to pop open another tin. I let it air for several days and loaded some in my beloved Dunhill patent era Shell Briar prince. After all my taste buds had improved in the 2,5 years after I first tried the blend. With the charring light I got a symphony of flavours. 3 Oaks does not contain as much Syrian latakia as Vintage Syrian so the orientals get to shine more. Which they do halfway the bowl. I think the Virginias used are mainly the red variant because of the breadlike, yeast taste I experience throughout the smoke. At the end of the bowl the flavours get a bit more dark, like in dark chocolate. Here also a fine grey ash is left. What struck me about this blend is the subtleness and complexity. I now smoke for a bit over 3 years but I still feel my taste buds are not up to par with what this mixture has to offer. It reminded me a bit of the John Cotton’s No. 1 Mild I smoked before. There is magic happening but you have to carefully, with your full attention, search for it.

pipeCombustibility:
HH Vintage Syrian: No problems here, even if you are not paying full attention during the smoke you do not have to re-lit often.
3 Oaks Syrian: This one is more difficult to keep lit is my experience. Like if saying, if I do not have your attention I might as well go out..

thumbsRoom-note:
HH Vintage Syrian & 3 Oaks Syrian: My girlfriend Ellen seems to handle Syrian latakia better then the Cyprian dark leaf. She still does not like it but at least she does not force me to sit at the other end of the room in my smoking chair. When I smoke one of the blends in the late evening I notice a nice, faint incense smell the next morning. My benchmark that the used latakia was of high-quality.

JawMiscellaneous:
HH Vintage Syrian: In my first months as a pipe smoker I tried a couple of generally available Mac Baren blends and they bit me HARD. Later I learned that I was not the only one who experienced the phenomenon. So when I first lit up this blend I was fearful of the dreaded “Mac Bite”. And.. It did not happen to my relief! Ok, if you provoke it by puffing way to hard it will bite you, but that goes for a lot of blends. In the nicotine department I would rate this one light-medium to medium.
3 Oaks Syrian: This blend benefits from a bit of airing time when you have opened it. The flavours will improve then. If you like a nicotine shot while smoking, don’t go for this blend. It is just way too mild. A disadvantage of 3 Oaks was that it did not shine in many of my pipes. Only in a couple I had the impression that I got a lot out of the blend. HH Vintage Syrian on the contrary tasted good in all pipes I smoked it in.

moneyPrice:
HH Vintage Syrian: At 4noggins you pay $13,43 (± €9,88) for a 100 gr. tin. In Germany such a tin will set you back at €19,75 (± $26,84).
3 Oaks Syrian: At 4noggins you pay $10,49 (± €7,72) for a 50 gr. tin.

preview_A_Can_HH_Vintage_syrian_smallConclusion:
And my winner is…… *drumroll* HH Vintage Syrian! I admit I am not a Mac Baren fan. Often I called the brand Mac Blahren, masters of mediocrity, never a satisfying smoke only a burned tongue. Well… I had to swallow those words bigtime for their magnificent HH Vintage Syrian blend. Mac Baren did an amazingly good job with the creation of this almost divine mixture. A classic. That also goes for McClelland’s 3 Oaks Syrian despite it being second. Maybe in a couple of years when my taste buds have (hopefully) developed even more it can push off HH Vintage Syrian of the Syrian latakia throne. Only too bad the supply of Syrian latakia is not infinite. Until when can we enjoy these blends? No one precisely knows but I hope long enough for me to squirrel away a vast amount of tins in my tobacco closet.