It started out like any other day, then the world changed. I woke up, made my morning espresso, waited for the fog to clear, and set about my affairs. Part of my morning routine usually involves a pipe, of course, so I trundled into the office, chose a pipe, and grabbed the tin of tobacco I’d been enjoying for the past few days. I’m not normally a creature of habit when it comes to what I fill my pipe with, but for some reason, I’ve found myself exploring this blend exclusively since popping its top. I filled my pipe with the same haphazard disregard I always employ, sat down to check the morning’s email, and struck a light.
This tobacco has been consistently great, just as it has been when I’ve smoked it in the past. I don’t tend to smoke blends that don’t make me happy, so there’s nothing unusual in that. As I took the first puffs, everything was as expected. Rich flavors from the Virginia leaf took center stage, the Latakia, orientals and Perique playing harmoniously on my palate, doing the same joyous dance I’ve come to expect from this blend.
A gentle tamp of the ash dome, another kiss of flame, and BOOM, a Spinal Tap moment, like someone had just turned the amplifiers to eleven. It wasn’t sweeter, or cooler, or brighter, or more complex, or more of any of the usual descriptors we might apply to a great smoke; it was just more. It was huge. It was delicious. I was tasting things from the tobacco that I’d never fully noticed before, so much so that I put the morning tasks on hold so I could just sit and do nothing but enjoy the incredible experience.
My friend Fred Hanna has written about the Magic Pipe that is so good it makes every tobacco taste great. This ain’t that. The pipe is a rather modest sandblast billiard that I’ve smoked many times. It’s well broken-in, has always been a fine smoker, and I expected nothing more or less from it this time. Predictable and reliable.
Too, I’ve occasionally posited, in jest, that there are Magic Tobaccos that taste great in any pipe, no matter the pedigree. This ain’t that, either. This tobacco is not some rare, vintage blend with decades of age under its unobtainium cap. It’s just a solid performer that, while being somewhat sensitive to technique and to a lesser extent the geometry and flow characteristics of the pipe, has always been, like the pipe, predictable and reliable.
This was different, though. The synergy between this tobacco and this pipe cast some sort of spell that could not be ignored. There are things that might help to explain this phenomenon. Most notably, perhaps, is that every time we smoke a pipe, the results sit on the shoulders of every previous smoke.
Objectively, today’s smoke will always be influenced by yesterday’s tobaccos. All tobaccos leave their spirits behind to haunt future bowls. How dramatically these phantasms haunt the current smoke depends on many factors, but one of the most significant influences is how different the style of the current tobacco is from the lingering ghosts of tobaccos past. I’ve had really interesting results when switching a dedicated Latakia pipe over to Virginias. The decreasing, subtle contribution of the Latakia’s smoky tastes can make the first few bowls more complex, and definitely interesting. Conversely, I’ve often used several bowls of Virginias to “sweeten” one of my Latakia pipes that has gone a bit flat. (Try it. You might like it.) To paraphrase Heraclitus, no one ever smokes the same pipe twice.
More subjectively, though, our expectations can play a role when we choose a pipe. We subconsciously remember the last few times we’ve smoked it, and can enter the experience with a bit of bias, a sort of sensory anchoring heuristic. My old friend Duke used to say, “If you think it will smoke well, it will.” There might well be some nugget of truth in his optimistic aphorism.
I remember one evening at a pipe dinner, I smoked a bowl of very well aged Drucquer Red Lion in a beautiful Barling Quaint belonging to my friend Brian. I could not talk him out of the pipe, no matter what I offered up in trade. I shared the tobacco with him, he granted me the booby prize of letting me smoke his Barling. It was thirty years ago, but the memory is as fresh in my mind as if it was yesterday. Duke’s Law at work? I’ll never know for sure, but the smoke was transcendent, and certainly memorable.
So, always seeking increased understanding, I waited a couple days, lathered, rinsed and repeated, tailoring my rather tatty, moth-eaten cloak of objectivity as best I could to make it fit, but still hoping for the same experience, even while half-expecting a more typical result.
And, there it was. Amps on eleven. Smoking bliss writ large. I haven’t had the nerve to try it again, fearing that these two data points, while certainly establishing a line, may still be anomalous. Even my dedication to inquiry has its limits, and the fear of disappointment looms in the fragrant clouds of yesterday’s exquisite smoke.
What remains is to decide whether to further the experiment, and possibly dedicate this pipe to one blend, and one blend only, or to just cherish this matched pair of memories, as I do the reminiscence of Brian’s Barling, carrying on along the Magical Mystery Tour of pipe smoking while chasing the next occurrence of synergy, silently hoping that it doesn’t take another thirty years. Meanwhile, the pipe patiently rests…
Photos by G.L. Pease