Out of the Ashes

Ghost Busting

G. L. Pease
I’m often asked why I don’t try to recreate some of the lost blends of yesterday, and, more pointedly, what I think of others’ attempts to do so.
For all the obvious reasons, and a few less so, this is a subject steeped in considerable controversy, and I’ve always been candid with my opinions, but referring back to last month’s column, Balkan Sobriety, taking that one storied blend as an exemplar for further discussion, we can see the first of several problems in the task of our proposed forgery, outlined in rather stark relief.

That article showed that one of the significant components of this single brand varied over a few year period from a high of 50% of the blend’s makeup to a low of 35%. This far from insubstantial change is one that would be immediately noticeable to anyone who smoked two of these "versions" side-by-side, though perhaps would be less apparent if the change was introduced over time to a routine smoker of the brand, allowing him to adapt to the changes incrementally.

Bringing this single, rather dramatic change to light, however, doesn’t begin to address other differences that necessarily took place to the remaining ingredients over a similar time frame. So, if we want to attempt to "recreate" a mixture with such an "interesting" history, which version would serve as our blueprint? For our purposes here, we’ll choose a sample produced in 1979, one which would have contained 50% Latakia. (Please bear in mind, this is being used only as one example. Any blend could have been chosen for this exposition, with similar development.)

If, hypothetically, we magically gained access to identical leaf and identical processes, and were able to precisely recreate the formula of our prototypical sample, then one smoker with intimate familiarity with our historic mixture, coupled with exemplary sensory memory, might taste our new creation and remark that it does, indeed, remind them very much of what they remember smoking 33 years ago. Another smoker, on the other hand, might have become accustomed to one of the later versions, perhaps the final one, and in that case, they may find our attempt noble, but our result somewhat feeble, and quite unlike their own wistful, and equally acute memories. Two smokers; two very different experiences, without even taking into consideration the fallibility of memory.

But, what about the rest of us who may have taken up the pipe more recently? Any sample of this storied blend this group may have tasted is, by definition, old, and that brings a whole new kettle of worms to the party. Turn up the music; it’s time to dance.

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Two tins of the same tobacco, produced at the same time, will rapidly begin changing, a fact well known and enjoyed by those who enjoy aged mixtures. What’s probably somewhat less obvious is that the respective storage conditions under which those two tins are kept will play a sometimes dramatic role in what we experience when we finally open them. I recently had the opportunity to see just how significant this could be when a friend sent me a sample of one of my own blends, one that he’d aged for several years, and I compared it with another sample of the same vintage that had been kept in my own "cellar." The difference was remarkable, and quite surprising; if I hadn’t known what they were, I would not have thought them the same blend. It’s conceivable that, given sufficient time, these two tins would have ultimately converged on something rather more similar to one another, that they would simply have taken different roads to the same destination, but given the complexity of the biological and chemical changes that take place during aging processes, and my own 30 years of experience with aged and aging tobaccos, I don’t find this speculation particularly convincing.

So far, it seems like any attempt to accurately recreate the past is pretty much doomed to failure, and our task begins to look increasingly like a fool’s errand. Since we don’t have a time machine, we cannot, today, have a fresh experience of something that hasn’t been made for 33 years, and our memories, if they exist at all, are neither infallible nor immutable. What we’re left with is the project of trying to recreate something new to simulate something old when it was new, without regard for how it might have been stored during its long life, thus presenting us with a rather daunting set of challenges.

Even if it was possible to make something today that tastes very much like something with over 30 years of age behind it, what will a comparison of the two yield five years in the future? Tinned tobaccos age quite rapidly at first, but once they hit the five year or the decade mark, further changes occur much more slowly, until, ultimately, the blend hits its peak, stabilizes for a time, and begins its inevitable crawl towards a slow decline. When we return to revisit our two samples in a few years, the younger one will have developed from infant to adolescent, while the older example will simply be that much closer to its ultimate decrepitude.

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So, if we’re going to reach for a result that is at all faithful to the original, we’d have to somehow "subtract" the effects of age from our sample in an attempt to understand what it might have been when it was youthful, or "add" the effects of time to our youngster in the hopes of predicting its future, or some combination of both. Having spent a great deal of time and research learning how tobaccos change over time, I’ve reached the conclusion that this is much easier to talk about than to actually accomplish. But, we can experiment and make blends, and put them away to see what happens, and at the end of our exploration, if we’ve done well, we’ll have something we can at least enjoy. We can tell others about its genesis, and share the stories of what we’ve learned along the way. It might even be reminiscent, to some, of what we were originally aiming towards, a nice benefit of our efforts, perhaps. If replicating our classic tobacco was the only goal we had when we set out, the success or failure of our adventure would be determined by the experiences, past and present, of those who judge it. It really wouldn’t be sensible to take it all too seriously, and hear is where I begin to grasp for my final points.

The challenge of developing blends is, or should be its own reward, and new and wonderful things often can be found along the way towards what we’re striving to achieve. I’ve certainly been roused sufficiently by the experience of some vintage tins to create new blends of my own. Both Blackpoint andAbingdon, very different tobaccos, were inspired by the old 759 (see below). Piccadilly was sparked by an old Benson & Hedges mixture. Key Largo was inspired by a very old tin of Virginia #10. Triple Play was certainly not an attempt to recapture the spirit of Three Nuns, but was lured into existence in part by that fabled blend’s siren call. The list goes on. Creation of anything new is most often informed by that which has come before it, and tobacco blends are no different; even the most innovative have roots anchored deeply in the ground of the past.

To me, being inspired by something is a wildly different thing from attempting a forgery of it. I could spend my life trying to reproduce Boticelli’s Birth of Venus, and all that would ever come of the exercise would be the vague suggestion of a naked woman climbing out of a sea shell. A gifted painter might make a credible copy, but if that painter was in possession of such brilliant skills, wouldn’t they be better applied towards the creation of something new? Though I might enjoy a reproduction print of a famous painting on my wall, it would be silly to claim it to be "just like the real thing." So it is with tobacco blends.

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So, why is it so tempting to chase after the past, even knowing that we can’t likely achieve what we set out to? Nostalgia, primarily, a longing for the past, the warm glow that comes from recalling the "good old days," whether or not we were there to enjoy them. This is part of what draws many people to the pipe in the first place, so it seems to follow that chasing ancient spectres is somehow almost inevitable, and it’s probably been a popular pastime for many during much of the past century; even when today’s celebrated legends were commonly available, there were others that had come and gone before them, equally mystical in their pull to smokers of the time. It’s certainly fun to ghost hunt, but it’s important to maintain a perspective that’s more firmly-grounded in the present. We have perhaps the widest assortment of tobacco blends available at any time in pipe smoking’s history. Many of them are certainly as good as anything that has come before them, and some will likely even become the legends of tomorrow. We should seek out those old, vintage tins when we can, if we want the experience, but we should also take time to celebrate the great mixtures of today, and stop worrying whether or not they are "just like" something they’re not.

Your turn.
– glp


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.


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