I’ve been blessed to have a number of good friends in the business of premium tobacco, pipes and accessories. I get to see many of them regularly at pipe shows, while others are normally contacted by phone, but our relationships are good enough to consider them friends. Of course, it’s easier to become friendly with people who share a common interest, and that’s how all of these begin. After some time, they become less about shared goals and more about the people themselves. One of my best friendships to come out of my livelihood has been with Mark Ryan, the owner of Daughters & Ryan Tobacco and L.A. Poche, the company responsible for all the commercially available Perique being processed today. All friendships start with something that two people have in common, and Mark and I are tobacco geeks.
Let me explain – there’s a big difference between people who enjoy premium tobacco, people who are knowledgeable about tobacco, and geeks. When I visit Mark’s facility in North Carolina, I’m overcome with the aroma of freshly-cut leaf. When I stopped by earlier this year, after Mark greeted me, we walked by one of the machines that was processing some golden Virginia prior to packaging and I just had to grab a handful and smell it. The fresh hay-like aroma is always enjoyable to me, but when the leaf is exceptionally good, you can tell just by giving it a sniff.
Mark’s the same way when it comes to tobacco. He has a great eye for acquiring superior quality leaf. That’s why I made the trip. Mark usually has small quantities of rare, unusual and vintage tobaccos that he can’t make use of, because his is a higher volume company. He also knows that because Hearth & Home is a “boutique” product line, I can do something with a small amount of tobacco, so he’ll offer to make them available to me. So on this trip, he showed me some almost impossible to find Orientals, and some that are more readily available, but the quality of what he has is extremely high. We went through bale after bale and pulled out handfuls of leaf which we put into bags to rehydrate. Later in the day we checked the tobacco, and the aromas were absolutely amazing. We hand cut some of the leaf and made some small blends to try the tobacco. To say that they were astoundingly good would be a crass understatement. He said that I could get what I needed to do some limited edition runs, and that was great news. I’ve been working on some blends which will be available in the upcoming months.
As we spent time talking later in the day, Mark told me about something that sounded intriguing. Every year when they process Perique, they bring in tobacco from four different sections of the “Golden Triangle” in St. James Parish and they mix the leaf together before putting it into barrels. Mark had the idea a few years ago to make barrels of Perique using tobacco from the individual regions, rather than mixing it, just to see what the differences were. He told me that he was surprised at how different the tobacco smelled and tasted, even though the amount of land that Perique is grown on is rather small and close together. He said that he had no particular plans for it, he just wanted to experiment. I guess he could tell how intrigued I was, probably because my eyes lit up as he was talking.
He said, “You know what? I’m not going to be able to do much with them, but you might. I’m going down to Louisiana next week and I’ll grab some of each and send it along to you to see what you can do.” The following week a large carton arrived in my office containing big bags of uncut Perique. They were marked Belmont, Paulina, Grand Point and South Vacherie. I opened the bags and all of us in the room took turns smelling the contents. Each one was distinctly different. One smelled of chocolate, another smelled like dried fruit, one had a coffee-like aroma and one had a scent like brined olives. Beside my excitement of having access to this leaf, Mark had sent me enough to do limited releases. I’ll be doing four blends using the same Virginia base, with each having the same amount of the four different Periques so people will be able to compare the difference in flavor. Then I’ll do four blends that I’ll put together to highlight the qualities of each varietal.
Now, today no one uses straight St. James Perique. The crops are too small and volatile, so straight St. James would be too expensive to use. What they’ve done for the last 40 years or so is to process the Perique and then blend it with one-sucker Burley that has been processed the same way as Perique. All the commercially sold Perique is this mixture, called Acadian Perique. What will make these blends so singular is that not only will they be 100% St. James, but they’ll be varietal St. James. blends, so they’ll be unlike anything available, and, unfortunately, they’ll never be seen again.
When we went to the Chicagoland Pipe and Tobacciana Show in the beginning of the month, I brought along some small samples of a couple of the blends to let people try. While some of the folks were smoking them, Mark came by. He told the people that were gathered around the table that he gave me the tobacco because he felt that I was the only person who would do them justice, I was tremendously flattered by the statement, but a bit embarrassed at the same time. I’ve never had a high opinion of myself, so this kind of public statement took me aback.
Out of a common passion for tobacco, Mark and I have become good friends, and out of that friendship has come the opportunity to do something momentous, at least within the tiny community of pipe smoking. When you’ve been given such a high compliment, and you only have one shot to get it right, it amounts to the most daunting task I’ve undertaken, but the potential upside will be amazing. Beside the Perique project, I still have blends to make using the Orientals. I’ve said it before and will say it again – it’s good to have friends.