Heat Waves

Heat Waves
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I do not like hot weather. When the mercury pushes close to body temperature, my icy heart begins to melt, and when it reaches the point where I break out in a sweat as a result of the strenuous act of sitting upright, I consider calling around to see if I can book time in one of the refrigerated drawers at a local morgue. Heat and I just don’t get along well. We never have. Indulge my rambling, if you will; this really is about pipes and tobaccos.

During the cooler months, I’m most often drawn towards fuller mixtures, rich with latakia, redolent of those wonderful aromas of campfires and leather and the smells of classic British sport cars and motorbikes that occupied so much of my youth. Seriously. 

It’s not the spice of orientals alone that brings comfort, but the warm blanket of latakia itself. These fuller mixtures recall some of my fondest smoking memories. I’m reminded of walks in the woods on cool, misty days, when the smoke would hang in the air, chilled by the moisture, its perfumed clouds delighting my senses, or evenings by the fire, accompanied by a wee dram of a fine malt, a comfortable chair and a good book.

When the weather is all “hotting up,” though, I find latakia, in more than gentle seasoning proportions, to be too much of a good thing, almost overwhelming, so I turn to lighter mixtures and especially virginia blends, with or without perique. It’s something I’ve always found interesting, if occasionally vexing. Is it the temperature? The humidity? The pressure of the air molecules as they dance around, mingling with the tobacco’s smoke? Cosmic rays? Is it a subtle change in body chemistry that results from seasonal changes in diet? Set and setting? Or, is it some confluence of all these factors, and others not noted, that has such a profound influence on my smoking pleasure?

I know I’m not completely alone; over the years, I’ve had conversations with pipe smokers who experience similar changes in tastes as the weather shifts. Interestingly, others insist that I’m delusional, that climate has no influence at all upon their choice of tobacco, and that they smoke the same tobaccos year round. Perhaps they live in relatively constant climates, or choose tobaccos with smoking characteristics that are less influenced by climate. Sometimes, I’m a little jealous of them; having my choices limited by something as intractable as the weather can be challenging to my inner control freak. But, the influence of climate on smoking can be subtle or alarming, and no amount of note-taking has led me to anything resembling actual understanding. Hold that thought.

I first became aware of this phenomenon one cool autumn evening while waiting with some friends for a table at a popular restaurant. I had with me a lovely smooth Drucquer/LaCroix apple, one of my finest smokers at the time, and a tin of my recently discovered Benson & Hedges Finest Smoking Mixture[1]The B&H was a beautiful mixture,  produced by Gallaher, Ltd, and it came in a beautiful red and gold tin. Virginias, with a bit of latakia and perique, and it was this blend that inspired my … Continue reading.

Knowing that we’d have at least a 45 minute wait, I had time for a bowl. That smoke was one of those memorable ones that always brings a smile when recalled. (How many remember when you could smoke a pipe in public without a torch and pitchfork brigade instantly forming a circle, insisting you are killing babies not yet conceived and chanting demands for your head? How far we’ve fallen in so few years.) It wasn’t the first time I’d smoked that tobacco in that pipe, but it was somehow different. It led me down a path of wonder just how much environmental factors can influence the enjoyment we take from burning a bowl of shredded leaves.

One of the most dramatic examples of this that I can recall happened in August of 2002, while visiting friends in Denmark. There is a certain tabac, a Virginia flake loved by many, but one that I generally find tortuous; smoking it has always seemed to me to be the pipe smoking equivalent to sucking on the business end of a plasma cutter. I figured it was just a body chemistry thing. But when a friend offered a fill of this hell-spawned leaf, his regular smoke, I graciously accepted, rubbed out a flake, tamped it into the smallest pipe I had with me, and was astonished by the experience of a cool and enjoyable smoke. What? Figuring there must be some difference between the “home trade” tobacco sold in Denmark, and what was exported to the US, I bought a couple tins for further exploration. During my visit, I smoked through most of the first tin, enjoying every bowl, but when I returned to California, that very same tobacco, in the very same pipes, reignited my fear and loathing of the stuff. The temperatures at home and in Copenhagen at the time were not much different, so clearly something else was at play. If I were to throw a dart at the guess board, it would be that humidity was a factor. Another, albeit somewhat embarrassing anecdote might put a bit of meat to the bones of this hypothesis.

One morning, some years ago, while still brain-fogged by insufficient sleep following a late night gig, I found myself coming to barely-waking consciousness whilst in the shower. Nothing odd there. But, the pipe clenched between my teeth at the time might have a different tale to tell. Apparently, I’d begun my morning routine with a bowl of some full latakia-laden mixture, and mindlessly ambled into the bathroom, started the shower, and hopped in without paying any attention to the pipe. Before fully waking to the ridiculousness of the situation, I slowly became aware of deeply enjoying one of the most exquisite smokes I’d ever had. The flavors were full and rich, the smoke cool and delightful.

What about the damnable heat of summer, and its effect on my smoking pleasure? The other day, having mostly recovered from the dreaded Wuhan plague, I found myself thinking that it was unreasonably hot before realizing that as the summer solstice was well behind us, the yearly torment was actually right on schedule. After a week of abstinence, I was in the mood for a good pipe, and went through the usual summer machinations of choosing the right tobacco to rejoin the smoking world. (Yes, I know. First world problems.) It would have to be a Virginia blend.

Maybe thinking about where tobacco blends were first developed could be illuminating. Latakia mixtures first came to popularity in the cool, misty British climate, burley-based aromatics in the American south, while Virginia blends seem to find their home everywhere tobaccos are produced. And cigars? Hot, humid weather seems to prevail there. (In fact, this was the inspiration behind my own Robusto in 2002, when a vicious heat wave engulfed the western US, and later Key Largo in 2008, both blends containing a significant measure of cigar leaf.) 

On the surface, this seems to make a little sense. While I can enjoy virginias year-round, my deeper craving for the smoky stuff can only be fully satisfied when the weather is cool, and that just drives me crazy. But, I know people living in very hot, and often dry places who enjoy full latakia mixtures year round. So much for another loosely formed hypothesis.

While this has always been fun to ponder, it remains one of pipe smoking’s many mysteries. If you’ve stayed with me this far waiting for the answer, I’m sorry. I got nothing but more questions. I hope it was at least a little entertaining. But, I’d love to know your experiences. Does climate influence your tobacco choices, or do you just smoke whatever you want whenever you want? Do you have blends that are as reliable year round as an old farm tractor, or do you find your taste changing with the seasons? Leave a comment, if you like. Maybe something will emerge from a greater body of collected tales. If nothing else, it’ll be fun to read them.

Benson & Hedges Pipe Tobacco and Drucquer & Sons Pipe
Benson & Hedges Pipe Tobacco and Drucquer & Sons Pipe (Photo: G.L. Pease)


1 The B&H was a beautiful mixture,  produced by Gallaher, Ltd, and it came in a beautiful red and gold tin. Virginias, with a bit of latakia and perique, and it was this blend that inspired my own Piccadilly. Tonight, as I scribbled my final paragraphs, the weather was cool, breezy, and felt like rain might be coming; rumor has it there’s a storm developing off the coast. I’m enjoying that very combination that I enjoyed so much that evening so long ago. We’re all quite a few years older, tobacco, pipe and smoker, but the experience is no less superb, and the memories kindled, equally so.

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2 Responses

  • It’s tough being from the Bay Area of California where the temp can go from 95 in the early afternoon to 55 by the late afternoon. Least it did the one time I went to a baseball game at Candlestick. Anyway I don’t suffer from the need to change tobaccos due to seasonal changes. But I know a hell of a lot of people who are just like you. They have the exact same reaction to the seasons as you have.

    • You got that right about Bay Area weather. The microclimates here, too, can be insane. The coffee place I frequent is a four block walk from my house. The temperature between there and home can differ by 10˚F on some days. Not dramatic enough? One day, my neighbor across the street asked if I could give him a hand with something. At my place, it was hot, and not a hint of motion in the air. As I crossed the street, the temperature dropped noticeably, and the breeze blew my cap off. Unfortunately, he’s not a pipe smoker, or I could just go to his place to enjoy a bowl on the hot ones.