McClelland’s Mastermind: Mike McNeil Interview

mcclellandMcClelland is a brand that needs no introduction, their array of premium blends is among the most popular and most respected in the world of pipe tobacco. Mike McNeil is the man behind this iconic brand, and his tireless work ethic and supernatural blending talents are the driving force that have caused it’s phenomenal success. In addition to his blending skills, Mike is a great guy, very humble and down-to-earth, and as it might happen a personal friend of mine and of P&C as a whole. As such, he was gracious enough to take a few minutes out of his busy schedule to answer a few questions for me, and by proxy all of you. We’re proud to print this exclusive interview here on Talking Tobacco and we hope you enjoy this little inside view from one of the most innovative companies in our industry.

SB: How did you start off in the tobacco industry?

MM: I began at Fred Diebel’s factory in 1973. Diebel’s was a retailer with four stores. The factory was in a cave at 95th and Holmes Road in Kansas City at that time. I was 17 years old, and the prospect of a part-time job in a cave was very appealing to me. Some say that explains a lot. The first day, I labeled cans. The next day, I was shoveling burley into a dryer. I loved every minute of it, and I still do, after 40 years in pipe tobacco.

SB: What is your favorite McClelland tobacco blend? Favorite non-McClelland blend?

MM: My favorite McClelland blend right now is Stave-Aged 35. I am fascinated with the mingling of the Virginias with the bourbon barrel wood. My favorite non-McClelland is Wessex Gold Sliced Virginia. It is great in a small clay or meerschaum. I find it strange, but I just don’t like it in a briar. What does that mean?

SB: When you get ready to create a new blend, do you start by identifying a style your catalog is lacking and blend with that concept in mind, or does the blend just present itself to you regardless of style/components?

MM: Over the years we have filled in gaps, but most of our recent blends are ideas that just come to us out of the blue. In recent years, my concentration has been on attempting things that haven’t been done before in tobacco history: The oriental varietals in the Grand Oriental Series, Cajun Black, and now, especially, Stave-Aged tobaccos. There are hundreds of Virginia and Latakia blends on the market, so why continue hammering out more of these? If I’m going to put energy into a blend that’s already been attempted repeatedly, it has to be something really special.

SB: How do you see the future of the world of pipe tobacco?

MM: Will we be hit by an asteroid or a comet? Will Bernacke raise interest rates? Will Jennifer Lopez call me and tell me she loves me? Will I think of something greater than stave-aging? In short, I don’t know. But look at all the famous blends that have disappeared or are now made by someone else. If a pipe smoker likes a blend, he should buy it now. If he loves the blend, he should buy more. I have seen incredible changes in 40 years—and, believe me, we will see more of them.

SB: What does McClelland have in store for us in 2014?

MM: I don’t know…well, I really do, but I’m not telling you yet. There is this process that no one has ever thought of using before…oops!

SB: When you’re testing a new blend, how can you tell if it’s going to be popular and people are going to enjoy it?

MM: We seek out the best leaf on the planet and we work really hard to develop ways to bring out the flavors. Using gut instinct and often aided by sheer dumb luck we come up with products we love, and we trust that others will enjoy them, too.

SB: What is the biggest challenge you’ve faced in building your company?

MM: There have been so many, and all of them were big to me. Yes, I am an alarmist! I’ve been very lucky. The help I’ve had from other people can’t be measured. Finding the best leaf has always been tough. Frankly, with all the challenges we’ve faced and met, I’m sometimes shocked that we’re still here after 35 years.

SB: What blend would you suggest for someone who’s never tried McClelland tobacco before?

MM: I would have to know what they are smoking and enjoying now. On the Virginia side, Stave-Aged 35 and Navy Cavendish; on the Latakia side, Frog Morton’s Cellar and Blue Mountain; on the aromatic side, Best of Show and Town Topic.

SB: Obviously tobacco is more than just a job/career for you, but do you have any non-tobacco related hobbies or other stuff you do in your spare time?

MM: First, could you explain to me the meaning of “spare time”? If I understand your question, I have to ask, “Are you crazy?” I used to be the director of UMKC’s Warkozewski Observatory. I did that for 20 years. Then light pollution grew and spare time diminished. I really need to make time for the stars once again, and my wife has some other ideas for me as well.

McClelland is all-absorbing. I worked day and night, seven days a week on the stave-aging project after dwelling on it on and off for 9 years. It has always been important to me to do my best, whether it’s creating new products or producing the ones we have. I’m always working at it.