Tag: state express

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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Latakia Lover

Latakia

Latakia tobacco

Yes I admit.. I am a lover of the dark leaf that many pipe smokers love and even more wives and girlfriends hate: latakia. But I did not always like it..

fire_curedFirst something about latakia. What is NOT used in the process of making it is camel dung.. Many people think that because of the odour it gives when it is burned. Also latakia is not a ready tobacco. It is an oriental from which the leaves are hung above a smouldering fire so long that the leaves go from a light colour to dark brown or even black. Hence the name, the dark leaf.

Part of the Latakia port in 1935

Part of the Latakia port in 1935

Like so many things the discovery of latakia was unintentionally. Somewhere in the 1800’s in the northern part of Syria near the port city Latakia a bumper crop of tobacco was left in the storage attic of a house for many months where it was exposed to household fires and smoke. The following spring the unique flavouring and taste of the left behind tobacco was discovered. At the beginning of the 20th century latakia was used to spice up the then popular Turkish cigarettes. Later when ordinary domestic cigarettes rose in popularity the use of the dark leaf declined. Now it is only found in pipe tobacco blends.

There are 2 kinds of latakia: Syrian and Cyprian.

Shekk-el-bint leaves drying

Shekk-el-bint leaves drying

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. When they have dried they are taken to storehouses, where they are smoked for a period of 13 to 15 weeks. The smoke is made by primarily 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. When all is ready the tobacco is known as latakia and is referred to by the Syrians as “Abourihm,” which translates as “king of flavour”. Regarding taste Syrian latakia has a mellow, wine-like, wood-like character. Famous writer Charles Dickens was a big fan of Syrian latakia: “Syria provided the finest tobacco  in the world, the Latakia, in the neighbourhood of the ancient and renowned port of Laodicea (Latakia) at the foot of Mount Lebanon. And as Syria provides the finest tobacco in the world, the Prince of Syria, the Emir Bekir, had the reputation one most deservedly, of furnishing to his guests a pipe of tobacco far more complete than any which could be furnished by any rival potentate in the East.

Prime example of a blend with Cyprian latakia: Penzance

Prime example of a blend with Cyprian latakia: Penzance

Cyprian 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 taste of Cyprian latakia is more assertive, sweet and leathery.

blendingWhen you mix latakia with other tobaccos you have to be careful. Although some others like to smoke it almost pure.. With percentages around 3% to 5% you just start to notice latakia. The sweetness of the Cyprian variant comes alive around 10%. The wine-like character of the Syrian variant begins to emerge at 10% to 12% until it dominates the blend around 30% to 35%. The maximum of Cyprian latakia is around 40% to 50%. However, higher percentages (60%) are possible but then a very skilful blending hand is needed.

Peterson Old Dublin

Peterson Old Dublin

I first read about latakia in Janneman’s Pijpenboek. I was growing a bit tired of all the aromatic tobaccos I was smoking. I wanted to taste something new. And I got just that.. My first choice of a mixture with latakia was Peterson Old Dublin simply because it was the only one that the Rokado tobacconist had in stock. At home I anxiously opened the tin and smelled the contents. Whooaahh!!! My nose went open instantaneously. What the……. “Does anyone smoke this??” I thought.. “Wel ok, let’s give it a try.” I picked a Peterson (how fitting), filled it up and lit it. Whooaahh again!! Like smoking wood from a fireplace! I did not really enjoy that first bowl but I was intrigued. After a couple of pipes I liked it a bit more but I still had some reservations. On a visit in Germany I bought a tin of Dunhill Nightcap. “Let’s try that one, maybe it is better.” Well, it was not.. Way too much nicotine for me at that point. I got sick and put the latakia mixture tins aside.

PS_BSA couple of months later a pipe of me was fixed by a fellow pipe-smoker from Belgium. As a payment he wanted tobacco in stead of money. I knew he liked latakia and I wanted to give him something special. So for the first time I ordered some blends from The States. Peter Stokkebye Balkan Supreme and McClelland 3 Oaks Syrian to be precise. Balkan Supreme came in a zip-lock bag which I put on a shelf in the kitchen. One evening I sat in the living room and suddenly I smelled something very nice. “What is that??” I wondered. I followed my nose to… The zip-lock bag with Balkan Supreme. Of course I could not smoke it, it was the payment for the fixed pipe. But when I visited the fellow pipe-smoker I asked if I could try the tobacco. And luckily I could. It was di-vine! Quickly I ordered a bag of Balkan Supreme for myself.

Old tin of Balkan Sobranie

Old tin of Balkan Sobranie

From then on my love of the dark leaf and the search for new (and vintage) latakia mixtures began. In the time that followed I was able to smoke classic vintage mixtures like Balkan Sobranie Original Mixture, Balkan Sobranie Mixture 759, State Express London Mixture, De Graaff Kegelbaan, Smoker’s Haven Exotique and many more.

Nowadays recommended latakia mixtures are:
– 4noggins: Britt’s Balkan
– Ashton: Artisan’s Blend*, Consummate Gentleman*
Balkan Sobranie Original Smoking Mixture (by J.F. Germain)
– Charles Faimorn: Lancer’s Slices
– Cornell & Diehl: Star of the East flake, Red Odessa
– DTM: Midnight Ride, Bill Bailey’s Balkan Blend, Old Ironsides
– Dunhill: Nightcap*, Early Morning Pipe*, Standard Mixture Mellow*, My Mixture 965*, London Mixture*
– Esoterica Tobacciana: Penzance, Margate
– GL Pease: Abingdon, Lagonda, Westminster, Odyssee, Samarra, Ashbury
– Hearth & Home: Magnum Opus
– HU Tobacco: Brullende Leeuw, Balkan Passion, My Special One, Olaf’s Favourite English, Khoisaan, Masai, Tuarekh, Tigray, Zulu
MacBaren HH Vintage Syrian
– McClelland: Frog Morton, Blue Mountain, Wilderness, Old Dog
Peterson Old Dublin*
– Peter Stokkebye: Balkan Sasieni, Balkan Supreme
Presbyterian Mixture
– Rattray: Black Mallory*, Red Rapparee*
– Robert McConnell: Scottish Blend*
– Samuel Gawith: Squadron Leader, Skiff Mixture, Perfection*
Sillem’s Black (one of the only aromatic latakia mixtures)
Solani Blend 779 Gold*

* Available in The Netherlands

UPDATE 15-06-2017:

IMG_0762

Cyprian pipe maker Yiannos Kokkinos and my friend

Recently a good friend of mine went on holiday to Cyprus. Amongst other things he wanted to score some Cyprian latakia. After a visit to pipe-maker Yiannos Kokkinos he was directed to the West of the island to a village called Neo Chorio. Because there, in the Akamas region between Neo Chorio and the town of Polis were the tobacco fields where the Yellow Cyprus was grown. WAS grown yes. Several locals said in interviews (my friend had an interpreter with him) that 10 to 15 years ago tobacco production stopped in Cyprus. According to them nowadays the “Cyprian” latakia is produced in the Izmir region of Turkey. Afterwards it is shipped to the Turkish part of Cyprus where it is sold to tobacco brokers as Cyprian latakia. Luckily the quality has not been compromised because of this, I mean, I have not hear anyone complaining that their Cyprian latakia blends tasted worse than before. This story has been confirmed by Per Jensen of MacBaren.