Ghost Busting

Ghost Busting

“O, begone ye ghosts of tobaccos past! Out, out, I say!” Obviously, I’m not talking about treasured memories of long-gone blends, but of the sometimes everlasting impressions left in the briar after years of smoking particular tobaccos. I feel like I’ve written a bazillion words about this. It’s somewhat fewer than that, but it’s something I’ve prattled on about many times, in columns, in articles, on forum posts. Years ago, I published an article about a drastic, but fairly effective way of exorcising smelly poltergeists from estate pipes using activated charcoal and the heat of an oven. It works, but carries some risks, and can’t be used on pipes with any sort of decorative application, so I have been reluctant to apply it to any pipe that was somehow special. I’ve talked about salt and alcohol, about boiling high proof spirits and using retorts to thoroughly cleanse a bowl. Hell, for all I know, I may have briefly mentioned engaging the services of  a young priest and an old one to perform certain arcane rites. 

The fact remains, however, that for years, I’ve been pretty steadfast in my opinion that once a briar has been tainted with strongly aromatic tobaccos, there’s little hope of ever fully redeeming it, that it will always taint the smoke in a way that I would find objectionable. Have I changed my spots? Maybe a little. But, it has more to do with me, my expanding smoking tastes, and perhaps a tendency for greater acceptance than it does with the very long persistence of memory that pipes seem to possess. 

My prejudice against aromatics started pretty early. The goopy, syrupy blends that were so popular at the local mall tobacconist just didn’t do it for me. Sure, they smelled okay, even kind of nice in the jars, or when someone else was smoking them, but to me, they delivered nothing beyond hot air and frustration with keeping them lit. I tried a lot of them with no real joy to be found, ultimately growing to almost loathe the stuff.

When I ultimately cut my “adult” teeth on things like Dunhill’s Standard Mixture, Balkan Sobranie and Garfinkel’s fabled Orient Express #11, quite a few of my attitudes about what works for my tastes and what doesn’t were cast in mental concrete, nearly as persistent as the ghosts that haunt some of those old briars. So, for many years, I smoked almost exclusively Latakia mixtures, and when I encountered one of those aromatic-ghosted pipes, I’d recoil in horror. To my palate, the combination of heavy, cookie factory aromatic remnants and latakia is just wrong. Unpalatably so. Sure, there are excellent blends designed from the go with Latakia and some sort of topping, but cookie dough aromatics and classic mixtures work as well together as strawberry preserves on a fine steak. I love strawberry preserves. I love steak. I just don’t want them on the same plate. 

My early relationship to Latakia felt almost like an arcane initiation into a secret society that would exile me if it was discovered that I’d strayed from the proscribed orthodoxy. I was not alone. Many of the cadre of pipe folk I socialized with at the time were equally dedicated to the smoky stuff. Sure, there were others who tried in vain to convert me to follow their ways, to lead me astray from my chosen path, but I remained steadfast, a knight of the cause. I was a Latakiaphile. 

Admittedly, once in a while, I’d sneak a bowl or three of some VA blend, enjoying the interplay of the latent Latakia aromas and flavors from my pipe as they mingled with the sweetness of the Virginias, but I’d always return to my comfort zone before the smoke cleared. This went on for years. Had I saved all my old tins, those that once contained a Latakia mixture would outnumber everything else by a factor of hundreds. 

When I finally began more studious exploration (largely fueled by developing my own blends—it’s hard to believe it’s been 25 years), digging my teeth into a broader palette of different blend styles, not to mention the pleasures to be found in so many non-Latakia vintage tobaccos, I slowly began to emerge from my rut, even taking real pleasure in other styles: Virginias, virginia/perique blends, burley blends, even some aromatics.

The diversity and range available became somehow important to my pipe smoking journey, and diving deeper into those waters, I found these blends ticking boxes that I hadn’t even realized I’d missed. As the chains of Latakia mixtures loosened, I was exploring with a much more open mind, perhaps some epistemic humility, and ultimately enjoying the ride. I’ve even developed some aromatics blends. One thing that has not changed, mostly, is my opinion on aromatic ghosts, at least with respect to latakia mixtures. I still do not want strawberry preserves on my steak. Mostly.

Going through some old, dusty boxes recently, I came across a lovely old Pierre Morel “Fleur” that I’d got years ago. Uncovering this gem, hoping for a nice bowl of some smoky goodness, I was immediately reminded of why it had been sequestered in that box in the first place. I recalled the hot summer day the pipe arrived, and my excitement when I opened the parcel to reveal my new treasure. The heat from being in the post truck liberated a scent that rose from the open box without warning. Years of strongly flavored aromatic tobaccos had left an indelible mark. Undaunted, I went to work, reaming it to the walls, cleaning the shank thoroughly with many pipe cleaners and 95% ethanol from the lab, followed by not one but three cycles of a 24 hour treatment of salt/alcohol. There was some improvement, but the ghosts still rattled their chains loudly, and even after quite a few smokes, it was still intense enough that I put the pipe in that now dusty box, and forgot about it.

But, things are somewhat different today, chez moi. First, as I mentioned above, I’ve made some peace with aromatics. Admittedly, they’re still not my top choice, but I do enjoy them on occasion. Second, the palette of “natural” tobaccos that I enjoy has many more colors than it once did. Would it be possible to revisit this pipe, and rather than fretting so much over exorcising the spectre, find some way to coexist in harmony with it? Certainly, I wouldn’t fill it with a rare and ancient Balkan mixture. Steak, after all. But maybe a ripe Virginia would play nice with those latent aromas. I chose a slightly aged VA/perique flake with a rich, full profile and plenty of natural sweetness, rubbed out a bowl’s worth, filled the pipe, and applied a tentative light. The first few puffs were all about the tobacco, but a little further into the bowl, there it was; the creaking doors, the rattling chains, even a little howling.

“I know you’re there. You can pack up the haunted house special effects. Halloween is months away. Just hang out quietly while I enjoy this smoke, or I’m calling in the priests.” 

It worked. The smoke was certainly different from what I expect from this tobacco, but the augmented flavors were actually quite pleasant. Yep. Old dog, new tricks. I won’t say that I’ll be regularly inviting the ghosts in for tea, but if they happen to wander in, I might be in a bit less of a hurry to give them the boot. 


Genod "Modern" Freehand Pipe
Genod “Modern” Freehand Pipe Photo: G.L. Pease

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