The Stuff of Legend     February 1st, 2011

By G. L. Pease
Memory tells me it was the summer of 1977 or 1978. Giants game at the ‘Stick. I was in the bleachers with a friend who didn’t smoke a pipe, and his brother, who did. When he lit up, the air was perfumed with an intoxicatingly fascinating aroma. Prior to that day, with a few exceptions, I hadn’t paid much attention to pipes. In high school, one of my favorite teachers puffed Borkum Riff whenever he was in his office, and when I was still younger, a friend of the family, who had an impressive collection of meerschaums, smoked aromatic tobaccos by the pound, and was always willing to talk about his pipes. Then, there was an obnoxiously vicious uncle who manically stunk up my aunt’s house with a pipe he never cleaned, filled with some vile weed that was more brimstone than tobacco, and with whom I would no sooner choose to talk about pipes than jump feet first into a cholera epidemic. And, of course, there was the occasional fleeting scent of the pipes of passers by on the occasions when they actually did pass by. But, mostly, I didn’t think much about pipes, or about pipe tobacco.

This, though, the smoke from my friend’s brother’s pipe, was something different, something both new and ancient at the same time, something I related to in ways I couldn’t even comprehend. It conjured memories and feelings I’d only distantly been aware of. It was like a new chapter was writing itself in my mind, all from a whiff of that magnificent aroma. There was some distant connection forged, something profoundly mystical, almost religious in the exotic incense that danced gently to my inexperienced nose. "What is that you’re smoking?" He told me, showed me the tin, encouraged me to sniff its contents.

In late fall of 1979, I walked through the doors of Drucquer & Sons for the first time in my more or less adult life. As a kid, I’d been in the shop a couple times with my mum, buying cigars for a friend or an uncle, but never paying much attention. This time, though, I arrived with senses keened, readied for the road of discovery that lay ahead. I was in awe. There was the wonderful smell of latakia in the air, that aroma indelibly inscribed on my brain’s tablets at that ball game. There was a dazzling selection of beautiful pipes. And, then, the tobaccos.

Bengal Slices Pipe TobaccoThe shelves behind the counter were packed with many of the blends we speak wistfully of today: the Sullivan Powells, John Cottons, the Dunhill blends, the Capstans, Three Nuns and Bengal Slices, State Express, and, yes, the Balkan Sobranies. There, amongst all those beautiful, colorful tins was the stark but stately black and white label announcing the very tobacco that my friend’s brother had smoked that memorable day. There it was, surrounded by so many other now storied tins in a little Tobacco Hall of Fame.

 



Over time, I tried them all, of course, and all of Drucquer’s house blends, and many more that I’d find at other shops. There were so many great tobaccos. Each offered something special, something unique. Each had its own signature, and as my tastes developed, the Balkan Sobranie became one of the tobaccos that remained on my short list of regular smokes. It had its place and its time. Even when Dunhill’s London Mixture rose to the top of my list of faves, even after the Garfinkel’s Orient Express #11 had displaced London Mixture to become my personal holy grail (it still is), even as the list of tobaccos I couldn’t be without grew longer, the Sobranie was always there keeping company with the rest.

This was when Sobranie House was still manufacturing the stuff, before everything changed, before it disappeared once, twice, three times, finally for good, and the tobacco became the stuff of legends. Now, watch me as I crawl out onto the narrow end of a high limb, and utter words that will ring like heresy to some, and, hopefully, relief to others: There was a time when Balkan Sobranie was just another amongst many great tobaccos.

I started thinking about this when someone on a forum posed the question, "What’s going to be the next Balkan Sobranie?" [1] He wasn’t interested in knowing what would be the next blend to taste like the old fave, but what tobacco would likely be raised to a similar stratum in the annals of tobacciana. I thought it an interesting question, but to me, an even more interesting one came from it: "What would happen if Balkan Sobranie were to be introduced, for the first time, today?"

Two Sobranie blends, the original, and the black and gold labeled 759, are amongst the most mythic of the long-departed tobaccos of pipe smoking history. Yet, as good as those tobaccos were, and they really were, much of the ballyhoo that surrounds them today exists only because there was so much of the stuff made, and so little of it left. Many exquisite smaller production blends simply and silently fell into oblivion, and I’m sure their seventeed customers all cried when it happened, but not so, Balkan Sobranie. It was a mass-market tobacco, produced at a time when pipe smokers were far more plentiful than they are today, and one that found its way into pipes all over the world, so when it was over, the shouts were heard round the world. And, yes, it was good, even excellent, but so were many, many others.

When Sobranie House sold the rights to produce their blends to Gallahers, changes started to occur. I’m convinced that some of the toasting techniques that gave the original part of its unique character didn’t survive the transfer of ownership. Too, the Latakia content was reduced over the period of a few years from about 50% to about 35%, and the rare and famous Yenidje leaf once bragged about on the label was replaced by more generic Orientals, even before the text disappeared from the tin art. Additives ultimately found their way into the formula, and the cut was changed to meet the demands of broader mass-production. It was a different product. [2]

Then, finally, those lovely flat 50g tins were replaced by dreadful little pouches. Again, it was a different product, but the name remained, and so did some faction of the loyal following the blend had developed. It’s understandable. If a company makes changes incrementally over a sufficiently long period of time, most people won’t notice, and some who do notice won’t care, as long as they still like the product, and they’ll all just continue on as happy customers, a choir of praise-singers.

And, so it was. In the end, though, after the long arc of the brand’s trajectory, when the tobacco finally hit ground and disappeared from the retailers’ shelves forever, what had come in those ridiculous pouches was so unlike the original, at least to my taste, it hardly warranted wearing the same livery. Yet, the fairy story is told as though it is had only a single protagonist, one unchanging blend that was universally loved, and is now universally missed. And, that mystique coupled with the blend’s current rarity, results in it being unobtainable to all but those with vast cellars, or the very patient, or those with money to burn when those old tins are found selling for astronomical prices at auction. Interesting, the tricks our collective minds can play.

But, this isn’t quite the ring I’m reaching for, and I don’t mean to single out one tobacco or one company specifically; the same thing has happened time and time again to other blends. This one serves my point so well because of its thick chapter in the story book. So, I’ll take a step back to my original question: What would happen if this very tobacco were to be introduced, for the first time, today?

If someone could recreate the best version of the original exactly, including identical leaf, the same toasting and processing techniques, the same cut, the same production and packaging methods, and sell it today under a different name without any allusion to its antecedent, it would certainly draw some attention; it was a delicious blend. But, this new introduction, without benefit of the brand recognition of the original, would lack the original’s cachet, and would have to struggle to find its place amongst the many other excellent blends available to the contemporary pipeman, just as its predecessor had to do in its own early days. It would be just another good blend amongst many.

The legends have more to do with us than with the tobacco, because we tend to subconsciously amplify the prestige of the unavailable, at least the better ones. If we could get them easily, the lack and the longing wouldn’t be there. And, that’s actually a little sad. I’ve thought of this more than once in the context of my own lost Bohemian Scandal. If I could recreate it, today, I’m not sure I would. The reality of it might not live up to the hype and the expectation bias of collective memory.

It’s challenging to leave behind the gray and gloomy landscape of things long since vanished, to give up our mourning over the passing of what we once enjoyed, but if we do, maybe we can instead bask in the sunshine of what we have, informed by those memories, those legends, rather than being imprisoned by them. There are so many wonderful blends available today, just as there have always been. And, as the changes to Balkan Sobranie over the years demonstrates, nothing can be counted on to stay the same forever. Grasping for the experiences of the past often yields only disappointment; embracing what we have in the present can be the start of a brilliant journey. In some ways, maybe the newcomer to the pipe is more fortunate than we old guys are, since they have fewer lost loves to shackle them.

-glp

NOTES:

1. The original original question was posed: What would be the next Balkan Sobranie? It would have to be something with wide distribution and broad appeal, something that goes through numerous changes throughout its life and then becomes unavailable. People would then have to lament its passing, sing songs of its greatness, pay astronomical prices for the few tins that profiteers are willing to withdraw from their own collections, all in order just to rekindle some fond memories of an old flame, and elevate the brand to near-biblical stature.

I hope it’s not one of mine. At least, not while I’m still walking this earth.

2. When someone asks if I could make something that replicates the old Balkan Sobranie, I usually ask, "which vintage?" It’s not a glib question, but a valid one. I’ve tasted hundreds of samples over the years, and was a regular smoker of the blend when it was widely available, and finding more than one binding thread - the presence of Latakia, virginias, orientals, and the various contributions of time’s passage - to tie them all together almost impossible.
 

Since 1999, Gregory L. Pease has been the principal alchemist behind the blends of G.L. Pease Artisanal Tobaccos. He’s been a passionate pipeman since his university days, having cut his pipe teeth at the now extinct Drucquer & Sons Tobacconist in Berkeley, California. Greg is also author of The Briar & Leaf Chronicles, a photographer, recovering computer scientist, sometimes chef, and creator of The Epicure’s Asylum.

See our interview with G. L. Pease here.

 

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