Ghosts of Tobaccos Past

Russ Ouellette, Master Blender and creator of Hearth & Home pipe tobaccosLet me start of this missive by saying that I don’t really care for trying to recreate old blends. Let me explain- there are so many issues involved in attempting to match these blends, that it’s a daunting task to even get started. Here are some of the problems: Finding a sample of the blend (usually extinct) to work from, adjusting the blend due to the age of the sample, trying to work from memory (especially troublesome as I believe that my brains have been leaking out of my ears for quite some time), coming up with the same or similar components, getting the proportions right, determining if the tobacco needs to be heated, pressed, flavored. I think you’re starting to get the picture. It’s sort of like trying to match the sound of your favorite guitar riff- what kind of guitar and amplifier were used? What kind of strings? Did they use any effects pedals? What kind of pick?

That said, I’ve done it a fair number of times with varying amounts of success. In some cases I didn’t try to exactly match a blend, but to capture its character. In our product line, I have a handful of products of this nature- Ambassador’s Blend (Dunhill Standard Mixture/London Mixture),  Daybreak (Early Morning Pipe), Old Tartan (Vottis’ Black Watch, Iwan Ries original 3 Star Blue, Ehrlich’s DPE), Sunjammer (965), Virginia Memory #10 (Sobranie Virginian #10) and my best known attempt- BlackHouse (winner of the judge’s choice of the Sobranie 759 Throwdown).

Greg Pease and I discussed this subject one time and he put it very succinctly. What he said, in essence, is that all you have to do is change one component, proportion or process and the blend will go off the mark. Of course, he’s absolutely right. When we get to the taste-testing stage, even more problems crop up. Some people will try the new blend, hoping for an exact recreation of an old favorite and will proclaim the new tobacco to be spot on, but mostly out of a fervent desire to be able to recapture that lost blend. Others will say that something that comes pretty close to be way off  because they have elevated the old tobacco, in their mind, to such a lofty status that if you were to give them some of the original blend that they loved, they would swear that it’s not even close.

Pipe tobacco blending by requestSo why even bother trying to reproduce old blends? Mainly, I do it because of customer requests. I understand the feeling and can identify. A local take-out restaurant in my area was a regular haunt of mine for many years (over 30), because they made the best and most authentic Buffalo-style chicken wings around Albany, NY. At one time they had two locations, and did great business. One of the shops was in an area that had become really run-down, so they shut it down, but there was still the other store, so I was okay with that. But when the other location shut down without warning, I was disappointed. I tried a number of other places, but there was always something I didn’t like (I especially hate over-sauced, sloppy wings). Last year, someone had picked up some wings and brought them to my house and I tried one. It was perfect. It reminded me so much of my old favorite that I asked where the person had gotten them. He told me that he actually had gotten them five minutes from my home at a new place called Scubbers. That explained why they tasted so much like my old go-to- it was the same place re-opened in a new location, and really close to home.

In my opinion, sometimes it’s best to let these old favorites die, because it’s going to be an effort in futility to make a clone. One excellent example is Bengal Slices. The first problem is that the old blend changed at least once, and there were a couple of different versions, so, which one do you recreate? One of the key ingredients in the version I liked was Xanthia, which is an Oriental varietal that I haven’t been able to procure for around 25 years. I could “ballpark” it with some other varietals, but it certainly wouldn’t be the same. An attempt to do so might wind up making a very good blend, but if I didn’t think that it was all that close, should we even advertise it as a recreation of Bengal Slices? And that sets off another potential firestorm. If we did put it out there as a clone, the furious traffic on the pipe forums would make my head spin.

BlackHouse Pipe Tobacco by Hearth & HomeThere are a number of blends that I wish I could match. Certainly, I would like to do something along the lines of the old John Cotton’s and Four Square blends, Bell’s Three Nuns, St. Bruno and Capstan. I’d be thrilled if I could make reasonable facsimiles of Lane’s Crown Achievement, 10 Downing St and BS-005. Unfortunately, I have no samples of any of these tobaccos, and if I were to procure some old tins or jars, the age would have changed the blends significantly versus the way I remember them.

I know that other blenders have done a great job of reverse engineering and deconstructing mixtures of the past by separating the components and analyzing the proportions. That method doesn’t work for me; I have to use my palate. I’ll taste the blend and use my memory of flavors to put my “clone” together. Using my method, I may wind up using tobaccos that weren’t in the original blend, but that’s how I roll, as it were.

Will I continue to try to match older mixtures? Most likely, as long as our customers are searching for their old “holy grail” which has disappeared. There’s one thought, though, that gives me some smug satisfaction- sometime in the (hopefully) far-flung future, some poor SOB will be tearing his hair out to try to reconstruct Larry’s Blend or BlackHouse. Ha, ha, sucker.

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About Russ

Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for www.pipesandcigars.com in Bethlehem, PA. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at russo@pipesandcigars.com or by calling 1-800-494-9144.