The news is oft-repeated here on the forums and at pipe shows, in the NASPC newsletter, and at our pipe clubs—pipe smoking is on the upswing, it’s experiencing a renaissance, a new golden age has dawned. Classic blends of yesteryear are being brought back from the grave, and new blends are being introduced from the major players more frequently than ever, in keeping with the consumer’s fancy. Thus it was a shocking reality check when I received an email back in November telling me that one of the best blenders in the country was going to close shop for good.
Jack Peterson’s Sterling / 1776 Tobacco Co. has been lauded frequently, if somewhat quietly, right here on the PM forums. A cursory search for "Sterling Tobacco" on the forums will turn up dozens of threads singing his praises, and his blends are perennial favorites on the "What are you smoking?" monthly threads. The whole story, in a nutshell, is in itself a glimpse of the way commerce and pipe smoking have both changed so dramatically in the past half-century. Here is the story in brief, in Jack’s own words:
"It began in the 1940’s or 50’s when "Doc" Allan opened business as the Smoke Ring in Rock Falls, a sister city to Sterling. The Smoke Ring is a sports store (still in business) that also sold tobacco products. Doc sold the business and the new owner discontinued the tobacco part of the business. Since Doc had a non-compete clause in the sale, he could not start another business except when the new owner discontinued the tobacco. That’s when Doc started the pipe shop and called it Sterling Pipe Center."
Sterling / 1776, Illustration © 2014 Gordieh Nasseri, commissioned exclusively for PipesMagazine.com
"The store was a success and Doc began experimenting with blending tobacco. His first was "Bush Pilot", followed closely with "Double Eagle" and "Old Dominion", which he said was the first all-black tobacco in the nation.
Doc soon added to his collection of blends and hired reps to sell them east and west. While selling to other tobacco shops, he began selling to the 1776 tobacco shop in Pennsylvania and acquired their name and customer list when they went out of business. As smoking declined so did the ability to finance sales people.
In 1977 my brothers and I acquired the business and I began blending tobaccos too. Smoking continued to fall and the city wanted to renovate the downtown area so we closed the store. I bought the remaining business from my brothers and continued selling to our customers via mail order. Along came the Internet, which has helped me to renew the business, and so we come to today. So goes my tale."
From the days of traveling salesmen in the 50s to the slow but steady decline of pipe smoking through the subsequent decades, the business managed to soldier on due to one man’s passion for the art and science of hand-blending tobacco. Jack knew from the outset that it would never make him rich, but that it would surely keep him content. The past few years have seen mergers and acquisitions on the corporate level, but still an ever-waning voice for the true independents like him. So how could it be, during this great tobacco revival, that Jack was shutting down?
The main culprits are rising production costs and the increasingly negative attitude toward tobacco from our lawmakers, evidenced in punitive taxation and more restrictive legislation about when and where one may enjoy tobacco—for example, the embargo that Washington State has implemented. When Jack and his brothers purchased the Sterling Tobacco shop from Doc Allen in 1977, the decline of pipe smoking was already well underway. His old tobacco supplier was sold to another company, which then went out of business; the next supplier was substantially more expensive, and when they too went under the next supplier was again more costly. He also doesn’t deal in the volume that major blenders do, obviously, which accentuates the per-pound cost that he’s begrudgingly been forced to pass on to customers over the past few years. The Internet has enabled him to continue the business since closing the physical shop, and places like pipe forums have helped spread the word about his blends. Still, with the enormity of the World Wide Web it’s easy to be lost in the vast sea of information, as any digital entrepreneur can attest. It’s a full-time business just to keep the lights on and blinking, as it were.
Another difficulty Jack faces is the changing nature of the pipe tobacco consumer. His customers of old would tend to settle on one or a few blends that suited their tastes and they’d stay with them, ordering by the pound at regular intervals. The paradigm is different now, with today’s consumer being much more experimental and varied in their choices, preferring to purchase 2-ounces of many different blends. This is evidenced by the staggering number of blends available from the big blenders, which number in the hundreds in some cases. For this one-man operation, it has become an added hurdle to the economics of offering his blends commercially. Even Russ Ouellette has commented on this fact recently, in his article "Yet Somehow…", noting that, "The specialty tobacco industry is much smaller than it used to be, yet the market demands new products, constantly…the customer wants to choose from a broader selection of goods."
There is a silver lining to the story, thankfully. When Jack sent out that email in November, his fans took notice. The story of fabled, favorite blends being discontinued is unfortunately a fact of the business, from the legendary Balkan Sobranie to more recent announcements from no less than Mac Baren, who has abandoned a number of blends, including one of my personal favorites, Burley London Blend. No matter how much we want a blend to be there forever, if it can’t turn a profit then there will be no one to make it. Thanks to his sterling reputation (pun certainly intended) and amazing blends, we convinced him to keep blending if just for a while longer. He offers 47 different mixtures on his site as well as the "Bargain Blend" of table scraps, representing a wide variety of Latakia, Virginia, burley and aromatic styles, of which I’ll review a few of my favorites here. So, without further ado, the tobaccos—with a composite score followed by their respective (presentation / draw & burn / flavor + aroma) numbers, and [ingredients].
Royal London Dock 90 (11 / 33 / 46) [Cav/Bur/Per/Lat/Or]
I’ll always think of this as the blend that really turned me on to Latakia. Plenty of Oriental spice up front that sets the stage for the smoky complexity of the Latakia, a draw and burn that are practically effortless with the slightly nutty burley, and the very definition of an all-day smoke. It presents a balanced mixture of light caramel-colored and dark leaf in a coarse and ribbon cut, though with a somewhat deceptively bland bouquet; a bit like a fresh box of pencils with its woody Oriental note. The light releases the tang of burley, backed with the floral and woody tones of the Orientals. By mid-bowl it has developed fully, with a brilliantly medium earthy flavor—think Portobello steak with a touch of hoisin sauce; it also consistently hits an oak-beech nut smokiness that reminds me of Scouting campfires Upstate. Puffing too fast will release some astringency, but on the whole it’s easy to sip slowly. With a slight tannic aftertaste that pairs superbly with black teas, it shines in both small bowls and large, changing character to suit. The room note displays a bit more of the Latakia pungency than one tastes directly—it smells a much heavier blend than it is; it’s best enjoyed around smokers. Note to self: buy more.
Chairman of the Board 88 (12 / 30 / 46) [VA/Bur/Lat/Or]
A light English style blend, using choice Orientals—Dubek and Mahala (Basma varieties) as well as Yenidje—this one is as classy as it sounds, and I could definitely see Ol’ Blue Eyes filling his pipe with this one. Lighter mahogany, caramel and dun colored leaf sprinkled through with black Latakia combine to magnificent effect. The aroma has hints of floral sweetness mingled in with a graham cracker bready note. Repeated bowls call to mind white chocolate s’mores, in a tobacco sort of way of course. It can burn a bit hot, though I tend to blame this on my propensity to push it while chasing the delicious flavor and complexity of the Basma leaf. Interestingly, this blend contains the same ingredient list as the recently reviewed Lane Crown Achievement, touted as one of the most expensive blends to produce, yet definitely stands apart as its own finished product and at a very comfortable price point.
Sweet Briar 93 (13 / 33 / 47) [Aromatic-Bur/VA]
Touted as his best-selling aromatic, with an aroma that ladies love, this is a study in restraint. It’s a light blonde mélange of mainly coarse cut & cubed burley with just a pinch of Virginia bright leaf and a hint of aromatic flavoring. In the jar, once settled, it builds up a lovely honeysuckle bouquet that, quite honestly, does smell remarkably like briar wood lightly sweetened. The flavor of the smoke is solidly tobacco-centric, with just enough of a crisp edge and creamy body, while the room note is sweet and slightly floral, with a hint of butterscotch, honey and vanilla, yet so light that I almost want to shy away from calling it an aromatic—and it absolutely is a crowd pleaser. It is, in many ways, a paradigm of a classic sweet tobacco profile that could appeal to smokers of all genres. On top of that, it burns cleanly and leaves only a faint hint of its passing, not gooping up or ghosting a pipe in the least—in fact I could recommend it as a great breaking-in smoke for your new briars unreservedly. I place it easily in my top 5 aromatics of all time.
Country Store Georgia Peach 80 (12 / 28 / 40) [Aromatic-Bur/VA/Cav]
If you follow my by-line you know I’m a fan of aromatics, and there’s really nothing better to chase the winter blues away than a bowl redolent with the warming sweet aroma of fresh summer peaches. Arriving with a bit more moisture than most of his blends, it displays its top dressing of peach brandy admirably in the mix, mainly cubed cut with a dose of ribbon and loose sprinkled in. There are no fireworks with this understated blend, just a solid performer with pure tobacco flavor enhanced, not hidden, by the aromatic flavoring.
VP (Virginia and Perique) 94 (13 / 33 / 48) [VA/Per]
One of the most recent additions to Jack’s oeuvre, this toasted Virginia and Perique blend is, in a word, amazing. VaPer blends are my favorites, so I’m flagrantly biased; that being said, it’s a genre with a glut of incremental variations on the theme yet very few standouts—and this is definitely one. For starters, it’s a dark and dangerous looking brew of deep black leaf with a mere smattering of bright ribbons sprinkled in. The aroma is correspondingly deep, pungent and earthy…and with a note that comes across as a whisper of Latakia, though none is in the blend. Here is the magic of the blender’s art, using the toasted Virginia and Perique in such proportion as to give the effect of another leaf entirely. It dances with the Perique, serving to accentuate opposing ends of the flavor spectrum: drawing a strawberry jam-like sweetness out at the top, while adding definition to the earthy truffle-ish bottom notes. The toasted Virginia further offers a sweet and savory component to this hearty blend, with the proviso that it can turn a bit ashy when pushed. GLP Fillmore is of the same ilk, though the VA component in this sets it apart. Highly recommended for fans of the genre.
1776 Briar Creek Natural 81 (11 / 30 / 40) [VA/Bur/Or]
Many of Jack’s blends have an inherent old-timey flavor profile that is hard to define: they smell like the memory of pipe smoke as much as anything, perhaps drawn from the collective unconscious. This is one of the most appealing facets of his estimable talents as a blender, and what makes his blends unlike any other. Briar Creek Natural is perhaps one of the blends that best exemplify his trademark flavor. Presenting a slightly vegetal "tin" aroma and a fairly even-colored composition, the true delight is in the smoke, which although it can veer toward burning a bit hot is delightful from char to heel. Red and lemon Virginias forward, superb burley for the backbone, and a painter’s touch with the Orientals to highlight the mixture’s sweet and savory balance describe the flavor profile. Try a bowl after a meal of baked lemon-pepper sole and marvel at the pairing. No, really—this blend nails the lemony sweetness of the Virginias with the peppery sharpness of the Orientals, carried in the creamy nuttiness of burley. This is what many OTC blends strive to be yet fall short on delivering.
American Patriot 87 (12 / 33 / 42) [Lat/VA/Or]
In keeping with the PipesMagazine connection, the last blend reviewed is American Patriot, a blend inspired by Penzance and concocted at the behest of forum member Marty Tannen ("mjtannen"). Not a clone of the Esoterica product, but inspired by it, American Patriot is a hearty English blend that should definitely appeal to adherents of that hard-to-find delicacy. Visually it’s a delight, a perfectly even mix of jet-black leaf and bright flue-cured and Oriental ribbon, packed loose and dry as opposed to Penzance’s moist wet flakes. In this lies its strength, as it lights, burns and draws infinitely better than that flake—often reaching the heel with a single light in fact—and delivers a decided Lat-bomb of flavor. The balance, like all of Jack’s efforts, is really quite perfect for the blend, and this should satisfy Latakiaphiles of all sorts, particularly those biding their time between Esoterica shipments.
Jack is still content to do business more or less the old-fashioned way: go to his website, SterlingTobaccoCo.com, make your selections, and pay him by check/money order, or shoot him an email and pay him via PayPal. Also worth noting is that his blends come perfectly ready to smoke, and are on the dry side; they’re all natural mixtures free of humectants or mold inhibitors, simply pure tobacco and occasionally lightly topped with flavoring. For small quantities they’re in baggies, and larger quantities warrant plastic tubs, and the shipping charge is minimal. He’s always more than happy to help beginning or experienced pipe smokers in selecting blends based on what they like, and that his catalogue offers a compelling price alternative for such boutique products is certainly an added bonus. While he doesn’t often take on the task of custom blending, he can be convinced every once in a blue moon, and I for one hope to see new blends appear on the page from time to time. Perhaps a few more pipe smokers getting turned on to his product can inspire him. I’ll leave you with a few words of his advice to new pipe enthusiasts:
"Learn how to pack for each tobacco. Start out with corncobs; if it sticks, get more pipes. And keep your pipes clean." Words to live by.