Affordable Luxury

By G. L. Pease
Recently, the "market value" of some vintage, no longer produced blends seems to have skyrocketed to record-setting altitudes.
A 2oz tin of a once popular English tobacco was sold at auction for over $400, nearly twice its previous record-high, and not long before that, another often talked-about blend achieved similar levels. By my reckoning, $400 for two ounces of tobacco translates to about $20 per bowl. It’s a lot of money, but is it really as extravagant as it first appears? Perhaps not for the person who paid the money, but what about the rest of us? Let’s look a little more closely.

For about $20, the happy (we presume) and proud new owner of this relic of relative antiquity can spend close to an hour in blissful reveries, partaking of something from another time, evoking old memories, or perhaps just thinking about days gone by and the world as it once was. Maybe they take some pleasure in knowing they’re experiencing something truly rare, or perhaps they simply enjoy the smoke for what it is. They might share their bounty with their fortunate pipe loving friends, or they may enjoy it in the privacy of their own chambers. Whatever the circumstance, we should hope that they do enjoy it fully, and that their money has been well spent.

Unfortunately, not everyone greets news of this sort of exemplar of market forces with much grace. Some of the online forums were abuzz over this, with a few referring to the buyers by some rather unfortunate sobriquets, and that’s really a shame. Accusations of the worst sort of elitism were raised by those who insisted that there is no way the experience of the tobacco in those rare tins could possibly be worth that sort of money, or, for that matter, any better than a daily hamburger. Maybe these folks don’t know what they’re missing, and maybe they don’t care, but why dump sour grapes over the good fortune of others?

Most of us, I’m guessing, are not in the position to spend such astronomical prices for these rare and vintage tins, but for those who are so blessed, I say, "Bravo!" and can I be your friend?

I’ve had more than my share of opportunities to experience some of these old gems, mostly by the combined virtues of others’ generosity, and my obsessive hoarding. (I call it collecting, but a professional might extract some term out of the DSM V that ended with the word "disorder.") I’d love to claim that it was a prescient stroke of brilliance that induced me, when I first took up the pipe seriously, to "cellar" for aging the tobaccos that I enjoyed, but the only brilliance I can honestly claim is taking to heart some sage advice from someone far more knowledgeable than I who started me down that road, and as I’ve mentioned in previous columns, it has been a lesson well learned.

The point I’m orbiting here is that there is something truly special and wonderful about some of these old tobaccos. Whether it’s the tobacco itself, or something less tangible is an interesting question. Tobaccos do change dramatically over the years, with the most significant changes showing themselves at the five year mark, and many enjoy the added nuances found in older tins. And, a lot of those old brands are simply not available in any other form but old, having disappeared from the market years or even decades ago, or, through changes in manufacturer, have morphed into something unrecognizable as the original. Of course, there are those who feel that tobaccos, especially mixtures, are best enjoyed young, that latakia becomes flat, loses its charms after too many years in the tin, and that only virginias have legs long enough to survive the decades, while others enjoy longer aged mixtures precisely because of the mellowing effect of the years. (Much depends on the blend itself, but I have only rarely smoked an aged tin that I considered genuinely "over the hill.") Different horses for different courses, and whatever the force behind it, a lot of us love our old tins.

But, what about these prices? It’s likely that, for most of us, the sticker sting of these recent auctions is felt more sharply because of comparisons with contemporary pricing. A 2oz (or 50g) tin of even the most expensive pipe tobaccos today retails (in the U.S.) for less than the price of a single bowl from the record-setter, so, yes, it does seem a bit spendy. But, is $20 for a sublime bowl of vintage smoke really a such a high price to pay for a true indulgence? That same double-sawbuck could be spent, instead, on a couple martinis in a chic bar, or a decent bottle of wine. Dinner out, at least in most cities, would cost significantly more. And, every time I walk into the humidor of a local tobacconist, I’m surprised by how many cigars are brushing up against that ceiling, and by how many people happily open their wallets to pay the man behind the counter. The real difference here is that these are more or less repeatable events, whereas once that vintage tin is gone, it’s gone.

As vintage experiences go, this seems a relatively cheap one. I occasionally look at the auction prices of the sort of wines I can’t even think about buying, and am often smacked upside the head by the selling prices. You don’t even have to look to older bottles; futures of some of Bordeaux’s Premier Cru wines from the 2009 crop are seeking levels of upwards of $1000 per bottle, 20-30% higher than the last record vintage (2005). This is just the beginning, and, there are people paying it. Older vintages can be far worse, with bottles from great years selling at auction for ten, or even 100 times that amount. In comparison, that $400 for 20 bowls of bliss doesn’t seem so terribly extravagant. Okay, I admit it. I’m justifying, but even at these prices, and they are likely to increase for high-demand tins, pipe smoking appears to be a relative bargain.

Still, spending over $400 at one time for a tin of tobacco, even if it’s going to be enjoyed over a year’s time, is not something most of us can easily justify. So, we "resign ourselves" to smoking current offerings, and cellaring the blends we love so that, one day, after time has worked its magic, they may provide us with some of the same pleasure as the long-lost blends of yesteryear offer to those lucky enough to have or buy them today. Delayed gratification at its finest. Fortunately, it’s not really much of a hardship; there are some great tobaccos available, and we can enjoy them while building our cellars gradually.

I don’t smoke my old tins as regular fare, just as I don’t drink great wines with the daily supper. There are wonderful vin de tables that serve my bargain consciousness while also providing something delicious to enjoy with friends, and there are the better bottles for special occasions with special food. With tobaccos, too, there’s are my daily companions, and there are the dusty tins in the cellar for special treats. (Though, I do sometimes feel a little pang opening something that I could sell for hundreds of dollars, irrespective of the fact that I’d originally paid $3 for it.)

With that in mind, let’s look at the prices of contemporary blends. It cannot be ignored that the cost of our beloved leaf is higher today than it’s ever been, and, sadly, it has nowhere to go but up. Production costs and government graft have seen to that, and will continue to do so. But, we still have a panoply of choices, and even the most expensive are priced at well under $1 for a bowl that may last close to an hour, and there are plenty of options that will bring that cost down to under 20¢, one percent of the cost of the record setter. It’s a great time to be a pipe smoker, a partaker in one of life’s last truly affordable luxuries.

So, next time you’re shaking your head at the next record price for a tin of tobacco on an auction site, think about it a little. No matter how often or how much we may smoke, or whether our favored tobacco is a youthful bagged blend from the local shop, or an aged tin from our cellar, we’re all in it for the enjoyment it brings us. And, if not every time, we should all take an occasional moment to reflect, in the company of a well loved briar, on the long history of our gentle art, to appreciate more deeply what we have, what and who have come before us, and all those involved in making it possible for us to continue on our smoky journey.

Your turn.


Since 1999, Gregory L. Pease has been the principal alchemist behind the blends of G.L. Pease Artisanal Tobaccos. He’s been a passionate pipeman since his university days, having cut his pipe teeth at the now extinct Drucquer & Sons Tobacconist in Berkeley, California. Greg is also author of The Briar & Leaf Chronicles, a photographer, recovering computer scientist, sometimes chef, and creator of The Epicure’s Asylum.

See our interview with G. L. Pease here.

[Photos by Kevin Godbee from his personal collection]

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32 Responses

  • I love the picture of the “Baby’s Bottom” tin. Whilst the intended connotation is obviously smoothness anyone with children will be reminded of less salubrious aspects of that general area. As for the vintage baccy price nonsense. The wealthy or obsessed will always find ludicrous ways to spend their money. Ho hum.

  • Thank you Greg.
    Walk across the street, or step onto a balcony. Take a good look. Things always appear different when seen at from a new perspective.

  • A big part of the enjoyment in revisiting those old blends are the precious associations that come with them. It’s like hearing an oldie on the radio and reliving a walk in the park with a long lost sweetheart. Their taste and aroma can revive forgotten emotions and memories as dusty as the tins they come in. So the experience is only meaningful, and perhaps worth the price, if you have a history with that long lost blend. Otherwise you’re just sampling something “new” (to you) and scarce. It might be darned good, but as you said, there are contemporary blends that are darned good too, and a lot less pricey.

  • It’s funny how we fail to compare expenditure across different ranges of purchases. Here, in UK, I fill my Jeep with fuel at a cost of $150 -and this every week. Why then should I cavil at the cost of a real pleasure?
    Of course I can’t afford vintage tobacco all the time but, as Greg says, I can’t afford fine wines every day; that doesn’t mean I’ll ignore the chance for a real treat once in a while.
    So much in life is now Lowest Common Denominator; surely far better to get a few good things than a plethora of poor things?
    Fortunately the choice is not as stark with baccy; plenty of good stuff about – budget for every day, top modern blends for best and a real treat of the exquisite for high days and holidays.
    BTW the costs quoted above at $20 a bowl are much less than a Cohiba cigar in UK.

  • I got “the jump” on ebay a little while back and won a few packs of Edgeworth Ready Rubbed. One of these days I’ll make up a little bowl. I’ve always wanted to sample this venerable weed. Have a tin of McCranies Red (1980’s vintage) coming in soon. Also an ebay item. I have my regulars but love to sample. Here’s to our pastime.

  • Greg,
    I remember when Neil Murray was publishing the Agricultural and Mechanical Gazette, and each issue contained an episode of the Dirigible Pirates. In your own neck of the woods, Belmont, CA has closed its doors to the noble weed. I’m afraid in our lifetimes all tins of tobacco will be precious and dear to obtain. Its truly sad 🙁

  • Once again, great read. And this pretty much lines up with my view of the situation. I love cigars. I love expensive cigars too. But, I love pipes and tobaccos more. So, I always feel like its fantastic that for $10 I get about 20 times the payoff, and that’s for just a $10 cigar, I’ve been known to smoke $25 cigars. I’ve never had a $400 tin of tobacco, but, I do believe that it is a fair price for some.
    As to the attitudes of the detractors on the forums, well, I certainly do understand the strong reaction. Paying $400 for something you’re used to paying $8 for seems at first blush to be like a $400 hamburger. Or a half a million dollar couch. I can’t say that calling names over it is quite understandable, however.
    Thanks for the considered perspective.

  • Super article, Greg, and needed. I recently watched in disquiet as a favorite pipe blogger had to defend himself after acquiring some special and expensive blends. As for me, while my cellar isn’t massive by some standards, I have enough for several lifetimes of enjoyment of my favorite blends. And yet, I will always try and have a supply of Balkan Sobranie in there, despite what I must pay for it. To me, it’s just that wonderful, and worthwhile. This doesn’t make me a PT snob. It allows me, on special occasions, to thoroughly luxuriate for an hour.

  • Thanks for the refreshingly lucid approach to this topic,
    which has indeed been the subject of much discussion lately….

  • Having rather limited finances I doubt that I will ever enjoy one of the fine old classic blends. Given though that today is really the golden age of innovative blenders like Greg and Russ I am happy to let others enjoy those fine and very expensive old blends.

  • @Comparadun – “Nice advertising piece for sellers of these blends.”

    Seriously?!? That’s all you got out of it?
    My wow moment was right in the first paragraph. $20 for an hour of pleasure. That really puts it all into perspective. Even the $400 tin is still pretty darn cheap when you start comparing it to other things.

    As soon as I read the first paragraph, I knew this was going to be a great article. Thanks Greg.

  • Thank you, Greg. Phrases like “well loved briar” and “gentle art” remind us all of the simplicity offered by the enjoyment of our pipes. Beyond this, it reminds me once again of the reason I am so consistently drawn to the company of the true gentlemen with whom I share in that pleasure.

  • Now that you mention it, Comparadun, you make a good a point. IF I had a healthy supply of some of the more popular old blends, I could make a killing on ebay by serving as a sort of “Stock Promoter.” Sadly, I don’t, so I can’t. If, however, any sellers of these rare and vintage tins finds that my article drives slightly greater bidding frenzy into the auction hall, please contact me, and I’ll tell you where to send my commission cheque. Thanks!
    To the rest of you, thanks for the thoughtful comments, experiences and kind words.

  • Well, now that the subject has been broached…
    Mr. Pease, which of your storied blends do you think will: (1) age the best, and (2) be most in demand in the year 2030.

  • Another great article, Greg!
    I, too, have several older blends aging away and I have no real intenetion of opening them. Just yet.
    but my coming retirement will bring the golden opportunity to sit back, relax and enjoy these old blends and remember those long gone but not forgotten.

  • Age best? That’s hard to say. Any of the virginia dominated ones will do well for many, many years, and the really big Latakia blends will mellow over time. I’ve smoked Samarra approaching ten years old, and it was wonderful. Union Square has long legs, as does Embarcadero. Heck, I think most of them will age well, and some will be stellar. Time will tell, of course. I’ve got seriously high hopes for Chelsea Morning and Meridian.
    Most demand in 2030? I wonder if there will still be a few tins of Bohemian Scandal floating about then, and if people still make a fuss over it. Or Stonehenge. Then again, who knows what will have gone into or out of production by then?

  • I will pose a slightly different question. Are these prices being paid because of the rarity value or, for the potential taste?
    The wine analogy illustrates this. Most people can tell the difference between a £5 bottle of wine and a £50 bottle. The difference between a £50 bottle and a £200 bottle is probably marginal for most people, I think the same argument holds true for vintage tobaccos.

  • I read this whilst smoking a bowl of 2004 GLP Bohemian Scandal. My only reservation is, we have so many high quality blends available now, to pay extortianate amounts for discontinued blends seems silly when for the price of one tin of a vintage one can buy 10 tins of in production tobacco. I aquired my Bohemian Scandal through a good friend, we split the tin, cost & content. Its a fantastic blend!! Sadly once its gone its gone forever. Many lament Balkan Sobraine, recently there was a tin on a price auction site, it went for mega money!! Yes, I like most miss Balkan Sobraine but that yearning would never have me digging into my hard-earned savings!! Its gone and will never return. A touch of “The King is dead – God save the King”

  • As Mr. Pease said, if a person can afford to pay such, “Bravo!” These tins are worth whatever someone is willing to pay. IF $400 is out your price range (as it is certainly out of mine)then so be it. In such instances, I look to my own cellar of fine C&D’s, GLP’s, old Gawiths, remember how truly good The Almighty has been to me, and move on.

  • You said it all with;”Bravo!” and can I be your friend?
    I’ll never own a $700 pipe or a $400 tin of fine tobacco, but at the St. Louis Pipe show I was treated to a bowlful of 60 year old Edgworth RR that tasted remarkable. (Anyone who doesn’t think Burleys can age would have learned a lot from that bowl of tobacco)I hereby register my profound thanks to the gentleman who shared a bit of that prize with me.

  • Great thoughts on a subject that tends to get more attention (the wrong kind that is) than it really deserves. As my grandfather used to say, “I don’t earn that other mans money, so I got nothing to say about how he spends it.”
    I try to remember that when I’m feeling vulnerable to the critical comment on someone elses spending habits. I wish more folks could do the same. Once again, great effort at peace making in the pipe community. Balance in todays world seems ever harder to reach.

  • Thanks for a fine article Greg. Your observations are spot on. I neither would nor could spend $400 on a tin of tobacco, but had a $15 martini the other night (didn’t know the price until after I drank it). Been to the movies lately? $10 for the movie, $10 popcorn, $5 soda X2 with the wife. Nothing’s cheap anymore. I say it’s your money spend it as you wish and the more power to those that have. If this economy keeps going like it is, someday a loaf of bread will cost $400! Methinks a lot of the negative speak comes down to jelousy, and as a wise man once said “Jelousy is attractive only in a Younger Person, of the Opposite sex”.

  • An excellent article Greg! You did a great job in comparing the per bowl cost to other things that people may buy without even questioning the cost of those items.

    Something that I would like to add is that memories are priceless. Sometimes people buy these things to remember a particular time, place, or event that has taken place in their life. Smell and taste strongly evokes memories, and $20 for an hour of pure happiness of remembering a truly happy time in your life is dirt cheap in my opinion.

    The sad part about this article is that it had to be written. There should not even be any type of discussion or debate about how much someone paid for a tin of tobacco, or anything else for that matter. It is their money and they can spend it as they wish. As others have stated, I believe that the people who have negative things to say about it are just jealous.

    The only thing that worries me about how much these rare and aged blends are now selling for is that it makes them harder for me to obtain when they do come up for sale, :-).
    Can I afford $400 for a tin of tobacco right now?
    Heck NO! Not if I want to eat or keep a roof over my head, but believe me; if I could afford them, I would be buying them. I don’t begrudge those who can afford them when I can’t.

    While we do not allow snobbery here, (do not confuse snobbery with buying expensive things), because we think it hurts the hobby, the vehemently anti-snobs hurt the hobby just as much and we do not allow that here either. We all need to just enjoy the part of the hobby that we can enjoy individually without getting jealous about how others are able to enjoy it.

    Buying expensive tobaccos and pipes does not make one a snob, nor does choosing NOT to buy them make one a vehement anti-snob. It is the way that one chooses to act, and the words that they choose to use, that determines if someone is or isn’t one.

    Every one needs to just sit back, light up a pipe, and relax. Stop worrying so much about what others do and enjoy life to the best of YOUR ability. Life is too short to worry about things that don’t affect you at all. Worrying all of the time about things that you don’t have will make you miss out on all of the things that you DO have.

  • Nice article Greg. I like the comparison to wine in regards to pipe tobacco. I normally don’t buy expensive tobacco and I usually keep my wine purchases under $40.00 a bottle. But if I had the extra income or it was a special occaassion I would certainly spend a few hundred on some nice tobacco or wine..or both.

  • Very interesting angle – I think I can now justify (to myself anyway) spending the money for some of the legendary Balkan Sobranie next time I run across an old sealed tin?? I’ve smoked cigars that cost more than $20 on many occasions and in fact it’s one of the main reasons why I came back to pipes, because I can have 10-20 amazing smokes for the cost of one average cigar (forget about what I’ve spent on pipes), and I can only confess my sin’s with the grape to my pastor. Thanks for a great article and I really enjoy this site as my first and only foray into the social media universe.

  • As an ex-cigar smoker spending 100 dollars on an old tin of tobacco to get 15 smokes out of is still a steal. 10, 15 dollar cigars adds up quick, so spending 100 on an old tin really is not that bad.

  • Not to be too much of a fanboy but my favourite blend is JackKnife plug, I’m buying lots. 🙂

  • Greg: I read your article when it first appeared with great interest. Thank you for bringing light on this new phenomenon. Given the fact that tobacco products can’t be sold on eBay, what auction(s) were you alluding to in the second sentence of the first paragraph? Are there any online auctions or are these “estate” tobaccos confined to live auctions? Thanks for any assistance in pointing me in the right direction. Stan Wolcott

  • Stan, tins are often sold on auction sites for their value as collectibles, not for their contents, so a search for your faves may turn up something.

  • I think it may be the fact that when I drank I drank good liquor that would easily go for 20 dollars a glass or maybe because I started my love for fine tobacco with cigars or its because I love a good steak but 20 dollars for a hour or so of blissful joy does not seem that bad to me its seems normal. I can see how people might think about the original price and think that high prices would be crazy but these are people who dont under stand supply and demand and how the market sets the price of a product its only worth what someone will pay for it. I guess the biggest thing is why tell someone else how to spend there money it is not yours so dont worry about it