E. Roberts & Kevin Godbee
The 2012 John Cotton Throwdown event just completed moments ago at Pheasant Run Resort at The Chicagoland Int’l Pipe & Tobacciana Show. The winner that came the closest to the original John Cotton’s blend, decided by the expert judges is Dick Silverman, Chief Catoonah and the winner of the "People’s Choice Awards", which is the blend with the most votes comparing the three contestant blends, is Leonard Wortzel, Lane Limited. The judging scores had the contestants placing as follows; 1st Place - Dick Silverman, 2nd Place - Steve Books, and 3rd Place - Leonard Wortzel.
The judges were Neill Archer Roan, Marty Pulvers, and Russ Ouellette. (Russ was absent due to illness, but Scott Bendett, the owner of PipesandCigars.com did a great job filling in for Russ.) The contest was presented by the Seattle Pipe Club and New York Pipe Club, and hosted by Chicagoland Pipe Collectors Club.
The 2012 John Cotton Throwdown was sponsored by Sutliff Tobacco Company.
As an extra bonus to this exclusive breaking news, Pipes Magazine also has the scoop with reviews of the three contestant blends. These are blind reviews, where Mr. Roberts only knew the tobaccos by their code letter. He did not know which blends came from which contestants. Let’s see how his reviews compare to the contest results. - Kevin Godbee
John Cotton Throwdown Contestant Blend Reviews - by E. Roberts
If you’ve ever met the Guss brothers, you know that they are like a force of nature. Not in a Lance Armstrong, Hurricane Katrina sort of way, though … no, being pipe men, they’re much more subtle; more like glaciers, or erosion. Thus it was that they wore down my resistance and convinced me to review the three entrants to this year’s John Cotton Throwdown. Despite my protests of not being a qualified English smoker, of never having tried the original John Cotton’s mixture, and of not knowing the style of the contestants, they insisted, and I acquiesced. Due to the limited amounts of the entry blends, I was only able to taste test approximately 5-6 grams of each sample over the course of a couple days. Normally I prefer to smoke through an ounce or twelve of a blend in a variety of pipes until I feel I really have a handle on it, as there are so many variables that affect the smoking experience. I am happy to report, though, that these samples were the next best thing to going to the Chicago show, and were wonderful smokes each in their own right.
My sample packets were labeled simply X, Y, and Z, and are the same packets that will be available to all attendants at the show for the people’s choice vote. Being that I have such clout in the pipe world’s inner circle, as it were, I was able to procure two packets of each blend. Membership certainly does have its privileges. To ensure I got a fair crack at each of them, my initial tastes were in briars for the all-important first impressions, followed by clay pipes to really look for the specific notes, and finally half-bowls in a meer to see how the flavor profiles tied together.
Again, I would not consider the following a full review of the blends; rather they are a narrative of my tasting notes over the course of a couple of days—the same experience the crowd at Chicago will have. As I’m writing this on the Sunday evening prior to the show, I will cast my vote as well, although I’ve been told that the article won’t be published until the votes have been tallied and the winners declared.
Blend X [Steve Books, House of Calabash]:
The darkest overall color of the three blends, and perhaps the most Latakia-forward. The pouch aroma is pungent but not overly so, and actually rather mild in comparison to the body of the smoke, with the familiar leathery tang of Latakia and a hint of old book being the main scents. Packs easily and lights with a single match. An impressive smoke from the char to the heel, really, with a sweet top note of a honey-like Virginia giving way to the Latakia mid-tones that dominate until the finish. Just a twinge of a peppery zing in the retrohale, and a certain musty note, hints at Perique in small measure. By mid-bowl the flavors really open up, with very rich mid-tones of an exceptional loamy, peaty character balanced with the sweet high notes of melon or sweet pumpkin and the low end notes of a flat chocolate stout. The room note is of that gloriously stinky Lat, unrepentant in its musky spice. A hearty blend that is rich and full in every aspect including the nicotine quotient, with an exceptional Latakia component.
Blend Y [Dick Silverman, Chief Catoonah]:
A more evenly mottled brown range, with smaller cuts than the others—although this may be due to the amount of handling it has received. The pouch aroma is of a sweet and savory barbeque-like range, which translates into the smoking as well. It’s a bit sharp on the light, and immediately very tasty with tangy, buttered popcorn notes. Overall this blend seems a bit more Virginia-forward of the three, and my guess is that there is some fine stoved in there lending caramel & maple syrup flavors, and even a hint of anise on one’s palate in the aftertaste. The room note is splendid, with the barbeque and buttery feeling translating through as well with its sweet and smoky character, and none of the sourness of more bitter Latakias. This does best in the clay, notably, and begs for repeated bowls, which I sadly do not have. The finish is lighter on the nicotine and body, yet fully flavorful.
Blend Z [Leonard Wortzel, Lane Limited]:
The lightest-colored mixture of the three, ranging largely in the caramel and milk chocolate spectrum mottled with black, and with more ribbon cuts. The pouch aroma is decidedly bready and loamy with the clay-like notes of the Latakia. This blend is the more Oriental-forward of the three, in fact, and its aroma translates into the room note with a delightful graham cracker scent. From the light through the heel, it evidences a pleasing sharpness, though not biting; the profile stays on the higher notes with a cola-like sweetness from the Virginia, and the burnt-sugar & cardamom spiciness of the Orientals dominating. It finishes with a subtle dénouement into a more rounded, toasty feel with some woody notes.
As you can see, it was well worth the sacrifice to clear out my Sunday, kick back with plenty of tea and water crackers and an old film (The Stunt Man), and make tasting notes as I whittled my way through these three wonderful blends. All were notable for their balance, and especially their distinctiveness within a common thread of flavor. Having never tried the original John Cotton’s mixture, I really haven’t the faintest idea of which one may be closest to emulating it. I do think that each of them displays a character that could make them a new classic, and despite being a confessed dabbler in the Latakia end of the spectrum, I look forward to these being available—I will add each to my cellar for sure, because each left me wanting one more bowl at the end. It’s terribly difficult to pick a favorite of the three, because with their differing forward notes they appeal to different moods. Overall, though, I found Blend X to be the most intriguing and complex, and the one that I tended to rate the others against. Its Latakia component was outstanding, perhaps especially so because I’m not a regular Lat smoker and this one really grabbed me. Ultimately, it had that certain unquantifiable something that equaled more than the sum of its parts. I would like to thank and congratulate the blenders in advance for their outstanding efforts in creating such exceptional blends, and wish them all the best of luck with the contest. I’m really looking forward to hearing what the results are, and consider them all to be winning blends in my book.