Our journey began on Friday, May 4th before the sun came up. Scotty, Bobby G., and myself converged at Albany International Airport, and groggily waited in line for our very early flight. Everything was on time and smooth, soon enough we were leaving Midway Airport and heading for downtown Chicago. After a quick tourist stroll around Navy Pier and the surrounding area, we headed for the suburb of St. Charles, about an hour west of Chicago, and right on the Fox river. From the second we entered the Pheasant Run facility, we could smell Latakia in the air, and it was very clear that this was not a “normal” convention by any stretch of the imagination. We made our way slowly around the pre-show, taking in the slew of gorgeous hand-crafted pipes and the comfort of both the world’s greatest pipe makers and many of our long-time friends.
After enjoying cocktails paired perfectly with vintage Virginia tobaccos, we made our way into the beautiful city of St. Charles for dinner. We were generously treated to a delicious Italian meal by 30-year pipe veteran Tom Fitzpatrick, the food was scrumptious, the service impeccable and the atmosphere just right for our lively conversation which skipped quickly back and forth between business and pleasure. Our stomachs full, we returned to the smoking tent at Pheasant Run to enjoy scotch and cigars. Tom Fitzpatrick was still with us, and our table was quickly joined by legends Erik Nording and Tao Nielsen. We smoked and drank into the night, but not too late, we knew we had an early morning and a big day in front of us.
Saturday morning we hit the convention floor as early as we could, wanting to maximize our set-up time. The floor was mostly empty, but there was a sense of excitement in the air as vendors bustled around, getting ready to meet the hundreds of pipe smokers who would flood the floor in a few short hours. Once the floor opened to the public, we were met by a never-ending flow of pipe smokers from all over the world who are incredibly enthusiastic about this hobby. We never tire of listening to all the different accents of our brothers of the briar throughout the globe. The show was a busy blur, with us getting to meet new friends, put faces to the names of our customers and vendors, and catching up with old friends we haven’t seen in far too long. Without our resident master blender/celebrity Russ Ouellette we were a little short-handed, but the many heartfelt well-wishes and condolences made his absence a little easier to handle.
Over the course of the seven hours the floor was open, we handed out over 500 samples of Hearth & Home, Cerberus, and the New York Pipe Club blends that we were introducing.
We also gave away 300 tote bags, as well as countless boxes of matches, bundles of pipe cleaners, and of course own very own catalogs and calendars. We also took entries where one lucky winner will win a $200 shopping spree on our website. We were met with some surprise that everything was free, but everyone seemed much appreciative of all our free stuff, and seemed to enjoy getting the chance to try many of the slew of blends we brought to the show. After our samples were gone and the floor was covered with a sea of green tote bags, it was time to move back to the smoking tent where the John Cotton Throwdown was just getting underway.
This was the 2nd Throwdown at the Chicagoland show, based on the anticipation and response I’m going to guess this event will stick around for a while. This seems to be something everyone from the blenders to the judges to everyone else who gets to smoke the blends truly enjoys. Our own Russ Ouellette, last year’s champ, was slated to move over to the judges side of the table this year, but in his absence Scotty adeptly stepped
in to deliver Russ’s notes with his usual flair and charisma. Again, the audience seemed to really enjoy this event, and they also got to participate by voting on their favorite. Leonard Wortzel from Lane Limited took the People’s Choice prize, but Dick Silverman from Chief Catoonah took home the grand prize in a landslide. This really is a fantastic tradition that I hope continues for a long time to come, from where I’m sitting it seems like there are plenty of long-lost blends to emulate, and no shortage of talented blenders ready to take a shot at matching these iconic blends.
After the Throwdown concluded, it was back to St. Charles for dinner at the St. Charles Steakhouse with our good friend Jeff Abel from Mitchell Thomas. Another great meal with another talented pipe veteran, again, our talk flowed seamlessly between work and play, with the excitement level for all of our plans and ideas bubbling over. For the second day in a row stuffed full, we again returned to the smoking tent at Pheasant Run. Our group and Jeff sat down with cigars and drinks, only to be quickly joined by three of the industry’s heaviest hitters, Paul Creasy from Altadis, Leonard Wortzel from Lane, and Mike McNeil of McClelland. It was then we learned that we had missed Mike receiving his Doctor of Pipes award, which was too bad, but at a show with this much going on you can’t see everything and we refused to let it spoil our fun. We stayed up long into the night, drinking, smoking, and socializing with our friends.
Sunday morning we returned Pheasant Run to enjoy breakfast and say our goodbyes to our many friends, old and new. We took a last turn around the floor, getting some last-minute pictures of all the great people and pipes. It was hard to say goodbye with still more to go in the show, but we left and headed to the airport to begin the journey home back to our busy Monday.
Overall this was a fantastic experience for us, and we hope for everyone who was able to attend. For me personally being my first pipe convention, I really enjoyed myself and learned a lot about our hobby and the people who are so passionate about it. I’m already looking forward to next year, and I’m sure everyone else is as well. I could keep talking about all the fun we had, but they say a picture is worth a thousand words. If that’s true, than the photo-montage that Scotty put together is worth at least a novel, so take a minute and check out his photo-journal of our trip!