The Nose Knows     February 3rd, 2014

Russ Ouellette
The olfactory sense is linked to memory more strongly than, perhaps, any of the other four.
As an example of what I mean, think about this- how many times have you seen someone and you’re sure that you know him or her, but the name, circumstances of your meeting, or even if you like or dislike the person eludes you. Now, walk through a mall food court and the smell of fried fish hits you. You may have pleasant or unpleasant recollections of the aroma (odor?), but it will probably bring back thoughts of situations and people that are incredibly vivid.

When I was much younger, I had an aunt with whom I was very close. She was a kind and very courageous person who had all kinds of physical issues, but never complained and was always more concerned about other people than she was in her own problems. She always wore the same perfume and she used to have a glass of port in the evening. I can be in a crowd of people, but I can identify that perfume instantaneously, and my first thought is of Aunt Henrietta. When I pull the cork out of a bottle of ruby port, I can practically see her face, even though she’s been gone for more than thirty years.

So, of course, I’m writing about aromas. In his later years, my father smoked Half & Half. This was before the blend changed, which was very apparent to me when it occurred. In recent years, Lane began making that iconic blend, and the aroma is much more the way I remember it, so it brings back memories of my dad.

When I started to create the Hearth & Home line (and I wonder if anyone caught the significance of the initials H&H), I still had memories of my father’s original favorite tobacco. It came from a shop in Albany which had long since closed, and was a blend of Burleys, a bit of Virginia, a small amount of Latakia, and deertongue. I started to play around with those components, and after a little bit of time, I had come up with something reasonably close; close enough that some of that shop’s old customers began buying it regularly. I called it Old Tartan, and it’s still part of our lineup.

Revisiting old blends and trying to come up with something similar is a topic that has been surprisingly controversial. Some folks believe that it’s an effort in futility because some of the components are no longer available Others seem to feel that it’s best to allow them to remain a memory, while some feel that it shows a lack of creativity.

 



Many more, however, are looking for replacements for their old favorites, and are constantly emailing and calling me to ask about doing just that. Frankly, I’ve gotten so many requests in recent years, that if I were to do all of them, I wouldn’t come up with anything else. So why do it at all? There are a number of reasons, but these are the main ones.

I think I work better when I’ve been challenged. When I was asked to make a bacon-flavored tobacco, jokingly, I came up with Vermont Meat Candy. No one seriously expected me to make a blend of that sort, but I enjoy being tested. What was interesting was how well it has sold. So when I am trying to do these "tribute" blends, the fun is in pushing myself. I’ve failed to accomplish my goals more than I’ve succeeded, but when I think that I’ve gotten one right, it’s a great feeling.

Making people happy is what this is all about. If I were doing this just for my own purposes, it would get old really quickly. But the reason for making these blends is for the enjoyment of our customers, so when I get positive feedback, it’s a very satisfying feeling. Even when the response isn’t as good, it’s helpful, and life is a learning experience. When someone says that one of these blends causes them to reminisce, that’s the best compliment I could receive.

It’s beneficial to have a goal. If I have a clear target in mind, it’s much easier for me to know when I’m approaching the finish line. Sometimes, these efforts haven’t taken very long, and that’s almost disappointing. The process, in most cases, is more enjoyable to me than the completed project. It makes me take a long, hard look at the properties of each component and how I can manipulate it, and I learn something new each time.

It forces me to think outside the box. I’m used to doing things my way, but if I stick with what I would normally do, I might not get the results I want. When I force myself to look at things from a different perspective, I grow in experience, and that’s, obviously, a good thing.

But that brings me back to aromas. In those times when I’ve tried to come close to an old blend, I’ve had a number of cases where the flavors were very similar, but they didn’t smell right, and without that, it’s not successful. In a few circumstances, it made me use something I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise to accomplish my goal. But when the stars align, and things work the way I hoped they would, the whiff of smoke will transport me to a different place and time, and the satisfaction is almost overwhelming.

I’m working on one such project right now. Just before the holidays, I tasted a sample that seemed pretty close to my memories of the original. As I approached the bottom of the bowl, I puffed a little more frequently to kick up a cloud of smoke and I left the room and closed the door, When I walked back in the room about twenty minutes later, I sniffed cautiously, with great hopes. A grin spread across my face as a reflex action, and it was a nice moment. A few other people have tried it since, and I got similar feedback from them, and, folks, that never grows old.

 

Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe and 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 on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 am to 5 pm and Friday from 1 pm to 5 pm.

See our interview with Russ Ouellette Here

 

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