This is the time when we should all take a moment to reflect on our good fortune throughout the year. It all started, of course, as a harvest celebration, but we now use it as a way to appreciate family, friends and life as a lead-in to the end of the year holidays. For the modern pipe and cigar smokers, there’s even more of a reason to be thankful because, in spite of all the anti-smoking rhetoric and usurious taxation, our hobbies are stronger today than in many, many years.
Premium cigars were a very small part of the market up until the early nineties, but a bustling economy, the glorification of “the good life”, newer and better cigars and Cigar Aficionado magazine all contributed to what we now call the cigar boom. We saw new brands and the renewed vigor of such names as Joya de Nicaragua during this period. It’s almost a miracle, however, that the boom lasted as long as it did, as there was an awful lot of crap that came out to fill the empty spaces on tobacconists’ shelves during that seven year span. There were names popping up that no one had heard of before, and no one wanted to know after they smoked one. Everybody who could roll a cigar became “Don Something”, and I remember having a number of crappy sticks that were probably made of 100% sand leaves, but when demand outstrips supply, that’s what can happen.
Then something amazing happened around 1998…the boom went bust. Now, this had a number of negative effects as a lot of the newer smokeshops closed due to lack of business, but for those who fell in love with premium smokes, the bust had positives. First, the drought was over. It was now possible to walk into nearly any tobacconist and find mostly all of the cigars that anyone could want, and prices began to moderate as the supply/demand cycle moved in the opposite direction. But maybe the most significant impact came as a by-product. Since the growers had planted more acreage planning on the continued robust expansion of the market, they had some huge stockpiles of leaf that didn’t need to be made into cigars. Luckily, tobacco, when stored properly, can stay in great condition for extended periods of time.
Cigar companies looked at these piles of quality tobacco and couldn’t decide, in many cases, what to do with them. So they held onto the leaf, allowed it to mature even further, and then could use it in limited-edition blends or new frontmarks. Many of these new sticks were spectacular due to the great properties of these aged tobaccos, and they also meshed with the newfound growth of the full-bodied segment of the U.S. market. Beside these loads of vintage tobacco, the farmers could concentrate their efforts on increasing the positive properties of their crops, and developing new hybrids and better versions of old strains. The end result is that we are in a new “golden age”. Never have we had access to so many different types, sizes and shapes of cigars with such a high standard.
On the pipe side, the number of incredibly talented new pipe makers has grown exponentially in the last twenty years or so. Our Pipe Artisan Collection section is filling up with exquisite work by a great community of artists who not only make pipes that are beautiful, but also with smoking qualities not available in the past. Attention to detail and a more scientific approach to chamber and airway design along with devices like secondary chambers have given us access to cool and dry smokers that we couldn’t have imagined a decade ago.
Many artisans are using a variety of woods, like fruitwoods (lemon, olive, strawberry tree, apricot and others) and morta (bog oak) to make the pipes themselves and then they use gorgeous exotic woods for shank extensions and trim. Delicate and intriguing designs including bamboo shanks are growing in popularity, and materials such as horn and semi-precious stones are finding their way into today’s works of art. And although many pieces at the top end of the market are almost astronomical in price, most of the great looking pipes made by the newer artists are well within reach for most pipesters.
Even the factory pipes are great values, for the most part. It’s possible to buy nice looking, terrific smokers for well under $100, and they’re made well enough to last a lifetime or more. Since some of the factories have elite craftsmen who turn out superb one-of-a-kind pieces, along the lines of the Savinelli Autographs, a lot of these pipes are dynamite examples of top-notch work at a lower price than one might find from an individual artisan.
Pipe tobacco has grown as well. The variety of blends has exploded in the last decade and a half with the proliferation of blends from the boutique blenders such as G.L. Pease, McClelland, Cornell & Diehl and our own Hearth & Home series. The larger companies haven’t rested on their laurels, either. Altadis has released a huge number of bulk blends and has made a big splash with their Sutliff Private Stock brand. Most of the European tobacco companies have a new blend coming out every few months. It’s virtually impossible not to find a blend that satisfies one’s wants and needs, and the quality of the leaf is generally very high. Beside all the terrific new tobaccos, a lot of the old favorites are still available, and as long as people clamor for more, we’ll all keep working on new mixtures.
There’s no doubt that, for the cigar and pipe enthusiast, this is a great time to enjoy premium tobacco products, and for those of us on both sides of the buyer/seller aisle, there’s an awful lot to be thankful for. Take the time during this happy season to celebrate by sharing a smoke with people you care about, and enjoy!