G. L. Pease
It’s a fact. I’m no historian. This is clearly evidenced anytime someone asks me a question like, "When did Balkan Sobranie disappear from the US market?" I know it happened within the last decade, but that’s about as specific as my memory gets. A historian would remember when things like this occur, accompanied by the context of the event, important influences that led up to it, and the event’s aftermath, and could paint a fairly elaborate picture of the mechanisms behind it all, the whys and hows and whens of the event.
Certainly, something as important to the pipe world as the disappearance of a justifiably celebrated tobacco blend is a subject that I, as someone in the business, should be able to recall in an instant, and perhaps even expand upon with some windy, byzantine tale, told in hushed and reverent tones, replete with florid language, a colorful parade of adjectives and an archaic vocabulary. I cannot do this. I can scarcely remember when my own brands appeared or disappeared, or, for that matter, what I had for breakfast last Tuesday. I am, and always have been, a little historically challenged.
So, when thinking about a column on some of the changes that have befallen this celebrated tobacco throughout the years, I had to rely on research, and on reputable industry sources whose memories are better than mine, in order to attempt to assemble a credible picture of even some small part of the brand’s colorful history. What I quickly discovered is that I am not alone in having a somewhat fuzzy view, at least on this topic. It seems there is a nearly impenetrable veil of mystery shrouding the venerable Balkan Sobranie – perhaps more so than any other brand in the relatively short life of packaged pipe tobaccos. Of course, that sort of thing, that misty past, is part of the romance of our wonderful pastime, and it does tend to make for great stories, at least for those of us who enjoy the mystique, but it also makes sticking pins in the map challenging, and, worse, leads to a fair amount of misinformation blindly finding itself leaping from the "Idle Speculation" box to the one labeled "Absolute Fact."
It’s impossible to provide, in such a short article, the complete story of a brand with as much history as this one, so there are certainly some rather large holes to be filled in what follows, and I’m certain that some amongst my readers will have useful information to add. Please do!
With the current amplification of interest in the marque, possibly kick-started by the newly released revisitation of the original blend, it might be interesting to look at its past through a somewhat different lens. This is certainly not intended to be some windy exegesis on the religious history of the company or the brand – lord knows, enough have trampled that topic – though some wandering through those gardens may be inevitable, if necessary to tell the story of some of the blend’s and the brand’s transformations over the decades.
I realize I’ve written on some of this before, and I’ll probably write about much of it again; there’s certainly a great deal of fertile and interesting ground to plow, but it seems that certain facts continue to go missing whenever the poetic waxing over this legendary tobacco begins. Let’s see if we can assemble a little picture that might be somewhat more coherent than the mythologies often presented, starting with a look towards the blend’s beginnings.
It’s difficult to fix a precise point in time when Balkan Sobranie Smoking Mixture first appeared, either for home trade in the UK, or for the export market. Those who romanticize the brand speak of it as though it has been around forever, or at least forever as it applies to modern pipe smoking, and some even allude to the fact that it existed as early as the 1920s. I’ve found no credible support for this claim, though the cigarettes bearing the name were certainly produced as early as 1897, and much of the earliest literature in which Balkan Sobranie is mentioned is, in fact, referring to those. In fact, the earliest reliable mention of the smoking mixture that I could find was an advert in a 1949 issue of The Strand (vol. 118), wherein it was stated, "For this is a tobacco that is not just a smoke but a way of living, not just another fill but another outlook, not just another brand but a bond that links you and your pipe forever to the surname Balkan Sobranie;" a wonderfully romantic image, and little wonder that some mystique exists to this day.
It’s likely that the tobacco was on market well before this date, but how long before is hard to say. A reliable source reports that it appeared sometime before WWII, and I’m continuing the research in this area. Whenever it began, this original Balkan Sobranie of olde was certainly quite different from the Balkan Sobranie of more recent memory. In fact, the tobacco has, since its inception, gone through more than a few changes, some necessitated by tobacco availability, others driven by other, less predictable motives. Probably, the most infamous of the more recent changes would have come about in the period starting ca. 1960, when the Syrian government initiated a moratorium on the country’s production of Latakia. World demand for the smoky treasure, at the time, was sufficient that Syria’s limited forests of the oak and stone pine woods used in the fumigation process were threatened with complete disappearance, so, manufacturers were forced into using its Cypriot cousin, produced from a different leaf, and smoked over a different blend of woods. While these tobaccos do share many traits, and both can be used to good effect in a mixture, they are, nonetheless, as different from one another as they are similar. Syrian has a vibrancy, and an almost fino sherry-like delicacy, along with resinous, spicy overtones and a very focused brightness. The Cyprian form is more leathery, smokier, heavier and more assertive, with a subtle background sweetness, and any mixture using it would be necessarily different.
It’s probable that when the moratorium was first in effect, brokers and manufacturers warehoused as much of the Syrian leaf as they could find, and slowly, over the period of years, phased it out, replacing it incrementally with increasing amounts of Cypriot leaf. Depending on the percentage of Latakia in the blend, and the amount of Syrian leaf in stock, this might have taken a year or a decade. Certainly, by sometime well before 1980, there was no Syrian Latakia to be found in the blend in any quantity.
The year, 1980, further represents the start of another significant chapter in the Sobranie story, as this was the year when Gallaher acquired the brand in toto. There’s some reason to believe Gallaher had been manufacturing the blends under contract to Sobranie House for some time, and they were certainly manufacturing the cigarettes since some point in the early 1960s, but it’s clear from several sources that after 1980, the brand became Gallaher’s property, and they were free to do what they would with it. This is the point where things really began to change, as a so-called "rationalization" process commenced, taking place over the course of the following decade.
The most obvious of the changes was a drastic reduction of the Latakia content of the blend. As indicated by the chart in fig. 1, in 1980, the blend contained 50% Latakia by weight; by late 1982, this had been reduced to 35%. (Interestingly, during this period, the percentage of Latakia in the 759 mixture was also reduced, though from a high of 60% in 1980, see fig. 2, to a low of 35%, whilst the percentage in the Virginia #10 remained constant at 16%.) But, Latakia content does not tell the whole story, and other changes to the blend’s formulation were made, including the addition of blackened virginias, to minimize the visual and taste impact of this reduction, but it was, nevertheless, noticeable by those who were paying attention. (I still remember the conversations around the tobacco counter at Drucquer’s during this period. "It’s just not the same," was often repeated by those for whom the mixture had become a staple smoke.)
[Editor’s note: The above and below charts are actual company documents from Gallaher obtained from confidential industry sources, and are now in the PipesMagazine.com Archives. We have pixelated out information that is not relevant to this article. An easy to read larger version is viewable by clicking the above.]
What’s less apparent is that the original formulation contained some 17 to 19 separate and discrete component tobaccos, making it a difficult and expensive mixture to produce, so the first phase of the rationalization process was put into effect, using oleos of orientals, darks, brights and so on – mini blends, in a sense – that could be used in other products they manufactured as well. Thus, the "new" mixture became something akin to a blend of blends, losing some of its character, and most notably, eliminating the specific oriental varietals, such as the long lauded Yenidje tobacco to which the original mixture owed much of its distinction. Additionally, during this period, the aging of the individual components prior to blending, as well as the aging of the blend itself prior to tinning, was reduced or eliminated.
Towards the end of this chapter, the packaging changed dramatically. The beautiful large, hermetically sealed tins, were replaced by tobacco in foil bags, stuffed into a less reliable screw-top metal container, and the small tins yielding to more economical, if far less elegant pouches. In short, by the time the blend disappeared from the US market, it bore little resemblance to what had been available prior to 1980. (During the 1990s, Isadore Redstone worked with another manufacturer, in concert with the distributorship of James B. Russell, to create Balkan Sasieni to a recipe and methodology more closely resembling the original – another story.) Gallaher pulled Balkan Sobranie off the US market in 1996, and finally discontinued it entirely in ca. 2005.
Even from this brief look into some of the changes that befell this singular mixture, it’s easy to find ourselves floundering in a sort of conundrum when discussion of this classic tobacco ensues. It seems that no other tobacco has been the basis for so much comparison to newer ones, or more widely "copied" than Balkan Sobranie, and therein we find ourselves in a pit of snakes. Never mind the fact that recreating a mixture based on an aged sample of it is nearly, if not completely unlikely, we further have to wonder, which version is being represented by the attempt? And, worse, it’s clear that when veteran pipe smokers talk about the Balkan Sobranie in reverent tones, it’s all but impossible to know, reliably, what they’re talking about. Two smokers, sharing stories of their experiences in different years with the stuff, might be talking about very different tobaccos.
In closing, I’ll add that I am not in a position to discuss the recent reintroduction of this venerable brand, as I have no knowledge of its current composition or manufacturing processes, but my limited experience with it leads me to guess that its genesis is not likely in the pre-1980 version of the formula – nor could it be, as leaf sources are different – but in one of the later versions, so it is best to judge it solely for what it is, rather than compare it with what it is not. I’ve smoked Balkan Sobranie on and off over the past 30 years, having had examples from every period. Experientially, that the profound presence of Latakia is still evidenced in some abundance in very old tins of Sobranie is telling of the fact that it did, in fact, contain a higher percentage of the smoky stuff, but time alone will tell what this new release will become.
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.