Taking One (or Many) for the Team

When I go to a pipe show, or when I get emails and phone calls, a common comment is “You have a great job, getting to try all the new tobaccos and cigars.” I most definitely agree with the first part of that statement, but as to the second part…well, it depends.

The department to which I’m attached is responsible for building and supporting brands, selecting and buying the products we sell and developing the way we present the products. Because of that, we’re the ones who also test the new items to determine which ones are worth carrying, plus companies are always sending us samples of cigars and tobaccos that they would like to make for us exclusively. Every week we have a departmental meeting, and while we cover other business, we try the samples and give our feedback. We receive products from some of the biggest names in the premium tobacco business, along with smaller companies who are trying to get their foot in the door. As a result, the variety of the samples run the gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Yesterday was a great example. We received some cigars from two well-known makers. The two from the smaller company were very nice in flavor, even though the construction was a bit off. To be fair, when they make samples, they rarely have time to age them properly, and they might be a little too moist, or the moisture hasn’t had time to even out, and that will cause a cigar to burn oddly. The flavor of both cigars was outstanding, and I grabbed an extra of each one to see if the burn issues were because of that. I left them out overnight and tried them today and they burned flawlessly. If we decide to bring these cigars on board, I’ll most definitely buy some for my humidor.

The other samples were a conundrum. They all came from the same company, designed for the same project and had similar contents. One was a good cigar, but didn’t have quite enough flavor for what we had in mind. One was rich, smooth and had good spice, making it almost ideal for the project. The last one, though, was a disaster. As soon as I lit it, it had a chemical flavor and aroma, and I couldn’t smoke more than an inch before letting it go out. It was harsh and, frankly, nasty. It was bad enough that I had to eat my lunch immediately afterward to get the taste out of my mouth before I could try a different sample.

I was at the Richmond Pipe Expo over the last weekend, and one of our vendors was there. He gave Eric some cigars that he wanted us to try. We were sitting in the rear of the venue with a number of people, and Eric decided to light up. He took two puffs, had a painful expression on his face and held the cigar over in my direction so I could get the aroma. The smell of ammonia that hit my nose was so strong that it stung my nose and made me cough. He immediately put it in the ashtray, but it took ten to fifteen minutes to go out. In the meantime, we had to smell that foul stogie.

I’m my own worst enemy in this regard. When I’m experimenting with a new blend, I often miss the mark by a wide enough margin that I can’t even get through the bowl. On average, I’d say that the typical new blend will go through four to five iterations before I’m reasonably happy, but occasionally, I’m so far away from the target that I have to start from scratch.

A good parallel would be to envy a used car manager at a dealership, because they get to test drive all the trade-ins. I worked at a Porsche dealer as a used car manager about 25 years ago and got to appraise Lotuses, Maseratis and BMWs. While that was fun, I also had to appraise Chevettes with the bumpers falling off. In other words, it ain’t all fun and games.

Sometimes the samples are so bad that I have to wonder if they even tried one at the factory before sending them out. I can’t imagine doing something like that and expecting a potential buyer to purchase them, but if they had tried them, they never would have shipped them out. On the flip side, I’ve had the chance to try some absolutely wonderful products well before the public gets the opportunity. Because of the horrible ones that find their way to me, maybe I should start carrying some mouthwash on me.

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.