Looking In Mirrors

G. L. Pease
Some years ago, a certain tobacco, one that was evidently quite popular,
highly regarded, and fairly readily available, routinely found its way into my pipes. I bought and smoked tin after tin, and stashed away more than a few in the "cellar" for aging. This is no shattering news, until the dropping of the other shoe. Wait for it …

Here it is. One day, I woke up to face a sudden bold self-admission that I didn’t actually like the stuff, and really never had. I’d wanted to, because so many others did. Maybe I had suffered from some sort of eternal optimism, just knowing that one day, it would all come together, and I’d have the smoke of my life, but this never happened.

It was a very good tobacco, carefully made from top-quality leaf, beautifully presented, and well-deserving of its excellent reputation, but it just was not for me, and never would be. I had certainly given it a fair shot, smoking it in pipes of different sizes and shapes, experimenting with different packing and smoking techniques. I’d smoked it right from a freshly opened tin, and I’d smoked it after giving it some air time. I’d smoked it moist and I’d smoked it dry. I’d tried everything I could think of to get this blend, but nothing really worked. It simply did not offer what I wanted, what I expected from it.

Finally, on that day of momentary enlightenment that came only after a couple of years of diligent effort, I managed to spontaneously suss out that we simply would never be friends, that it was time to part company, at least for the time being.

Apparently, I am sometimes a slow learner.

I also, apparently, forget stuff. Tonight, as I was preparing to write, my thoughts began aimlessly wandering, as they so often do when I’m in the middle of a good session of highly disciplined procrastination. I’d filled a large but comfortable bowl from a freshly opened, well aged tin of that very same tobacco, conveniently forgetting that I didn’t really care for it, and settled in for the work ahead. After the charring light, a page full of doodles, a quick phone call, the brewing of a pot of tea, relighting the bowl, playing tug-o-war with my dog, checking to see if the guitar was in tune, grabbing a little snack, another relight, thinking about ironing my socks — you get the picture — I’d really be ready to get to work.

Then, suddenly, those old memories returned, along with the realization that, even after quite a few years of additional age, both my own and the tobacco’s, we still just don’t get along. Sure, there’s a lot going on in the smoke. There’s complexity, there’s the smokiness of the Latakia, the tang of the orientals, and somewhere in the background, the backbone of virginias are doing what it can to hold it all upright; it’s still a fine tobacco, enduring time in its tin with grace, but it’s just not coming together for me.

I might as well get it out of the way now that I’m not going to reveal the identity of the blend, so don’t even ask. That’s really not the point, here. I’m sharing this tonight not to criticize or praise any specific tobacco, but in hope of finding a little camaraderie with others, of knowing that I’m not alone in this peculiar species of lunacy. I’m sure it happens to many of us. We read the reviews, bask in others’ enthusiasm, and jump at the opportunity to join such a delightful party. We internalize a parade of expectations, often unrealistic, and are then sometimes reluctant to admit, even to ourselves, that what seems to be bringing them so much joy just isn’t for us. Maybe a different pipe will fix it, next time, or a little breathing time, or waiting until the next dark moon to try it again.

Events along our journey with other tobaccos, other pipes, can sometimes turn up the dial on this phenomenon. Most of us, I’m sure, have had those moments when a tobacco that didn’t quite "work" for us initially ultimately became a favorite as we began to understand it. Further, just as there are those magically perfect pipe and tobacco pairings, there are the more sinister combinations where a tobacco brings out the worst in an otherwise wonderful briar, or vice versa. So, when we first try something new, all aglow with expectations and enthusiasm, our experiences reinforce the fact that, if things do happen to go sideways, it might just be one of those anomalous convergences of all the wrong things, and that we should press on with the exploration, cheerfully trusting that the next bowl, or maybe the one after that, will bathe us in the glorious light that so many others have witnessed. We must be doing something wrong, and with today’s instant reach to thousands of opinions, it’s easy to find reinforcement for this notion, forgetting that we’re each seeking our own benchmarks, and that while knowing more about the perceptions of others can serve to enhance our own experience, sometimes, that knowledge doesn’t define what we like or don’t like.

Different horses for different courses. It seems pretty obvious when reflected in the rear view mirror, but it can be easy enough to forget for those of us who’ve been around the briar patch for more than a few seasons, and even more so for the newer pipester who often turns to forums and reviews seeking guidance for how to get the most of this strange pastime of ours.

Despite some of our frequent romantic reminiscences of the "Good Old Days," we’re actually very fortunate, today, to have such a wide array of choices so readily available. Some we’ll like, others we won’t. Navigating these waters can be daunting and confusing, especially to the newcomers; it takes time to learn to trust our own sometimes changing tastes, but the one lesson I wish I’d learned earlier is that I don’t have to like something just because the big kids do. I often receive email from someone asking if he’s "doing something wrong," because he doesn’t get on well with a blend that’s popularly regarded. Neophytes, veteran smokers, and tobacco blenders alike sometimes just need a little reminder that we’ve all got different tastes, and that it’s okay not to like what others do.

With this in mind, I’ll probably give this tobacco a few more tries. I may end up finishing this tin, or giving it to a friend who likes the stuff, or it may end up jarred to sit for another few years until I forget, again, only to discover it and enthusiastically repeat the same experience. Did I mention I can sometimes be a slow learner?

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.

21 Responses

  • I dare say that if you’re a pipe smoker some time in your experience this has happened with either a blend or certain pipe or both. I used to wonder what everybody else was getting that I wasn’t. Eventually, I realized that I didn’t care.

  • You may notice that the opening photo has the guy smoking the pipe with the stem upside-down.

    I chose that photo because I thought this guy represented what I refer to as the “cool kids in school”, who might not really be as cool as some think they are. That’s also why I chose the other photo of the guy in the robe.

  • Funny that you just wrote about an argument I literally JUST had with this self claimed tobacconist. He kept saying how with some blends (mainly Latakia blends) that he would smoke one pipe, be disgusted , and throw the rest of the tin on the compost pile. I answered back by telling him how wrong he was for doing that and on so many levels as well. For one, my all time favorite blend I actually hated it at first. This blend being Quiet Nights. It just didn’t taste right or seem to smoke right on my first few pipes. Either way I wasn’t about to throw away $15.50 of my hard earned cash . So I let it chill in the tin for about two months before I read several reviews about it. A lot of these reviews said almost the same as what I thought. At the time I was somewhat of a neophyte in the whole pipe game so what I read was new to me. A few articles spoke of breathing the tobacco and giving it alittle dry time. I knew about different pipes effecting the overall smoke but I didn’t see how exposure to air could change the taste of it to any extent. Well at any rate I decided what could it hurt to give it another go, and what happened after that forever changed my whole view of pipe smoking. After about smoking a quarter of the bowl I was astonished how just a month of breathing completely altered the flavor of my now #1 fav. The flavors were so much more rich and melded. It smoked easier with less lighting. Damn my mouth was watering,,,, this was until that point , the best pipe I ever smoked. I remember thinking to myself how many other blends did I just skip over because the first few bowls didn’t agree with my palate. Also the aging process is another factorhas also

  • Before I joined the forum I smoked what I like….even though it was a small sampling in respect to the immense tobacco world. Then after becoming active and reading others like and dislikes, I started buying tobacco at a near record clip……..I have 75 lbs cellared and 16 different blends in current rotation.
    Yesterday I jarred everything and opened a fresh tin and realized I am a wandering generality and decided to become a meaningful specific. I’ve since smoked 7 bowls of the same tobacco and SHAZAAM…….I’m finally able to figure out subtleties and nuances I never knew existed.
    My new mission it to smoke a blend one tin or two ounces if bulk, then move on to the next so I can better understand me, my tastes and likes.

  • Wonderful comments already rolling in…thanks!
    There was a guy who used to come in to the tobacconists where I was working, fill his bowl with whatever new thing there was on offer, smoke a few puffs, dump it out and proclaim, “It’s not for me.” I once suggested that, perhaps, he might want to give a blend a fair shot. “Look here, sonny, I’ve been smoking a pipe longer than you been livin’, and I can tell at an instant whether or not it’s any good.”
    What amazing talent, no? One day, I put his regular blend in a jar with a new name, and offered it to him. I don’t need to tell you what happened.
    I guess he was SO good, he could taste the difference in the glass jars…

  • As a new pipe smoker, it’s good to hear that there are well-regarded blends out there that some people just don’t like. I count myself fortunate that I came across this forum before I got too invested in thinking that I ought to like Tobacco X – so many people have told me “Smoke what you like” that I’ve taken that to heart. I do try to give a blend a fair shake (a sample ounce or two, or a tin that I’ve bought on a whim), but I don’t see the point in stocking up on something that I don’t care for.
    Thanks for the validation. 🙂

  • I think we all have had that same experience, as well as the reverse. I never smoked the OTC blends, because after a bad I counter with a certain cherry blend, I decided that all drugstore tobacco was inferior. Recently, I tried Walnut, and Sugar Barrel. Now I decry the fact that they are being discontinued, because they were both very good. We may never see their like again.
    I, too, am reticent about tossing a blend that I absolutely don’t like. And I, too have been suckered into buying blends that were the next big thing, or the great old stuff, because of popular opinion. These days though, if I absolutely don’t like a blend after resting it a year, I will cheerfully donate it to others, rather than toss it on the woodpile. Unless I can mix it with something else. 🙂

  • Greg,
    Although a pipe smoker of decades I am an even slower learner. A few months back I bought a flake, Germain’s dark flake said to be very similar to Stonehaven, out of curiosity. Fine so far. I then tried it and did not finish the bowl. Repeated a week later. And then again and again about once a week. Bought another few ounces to keep this going but still have’nt actually finished a bowl. Usually I give up on a blend that does not suit fairly quickly although I have learned to give tobaccos a second chance after weeks of airing. Obviously can not quite accept that this tobacco, which is so well regarded, is just not for me. Having had the pattern so masterfully analysed will I now stop? Perhaps, but I just as likely I may go round the merry go round a few times yet before rationality reasserts itself.

  • One might take knowing that you don’t like a blend as a blessing, especially if it’s a particularly popular blend in high demand with little rarely available. Not liking it could be a relief, in the knowledge that you don’t need to keep a vigilant eye out for the rare tin of it.
    There are always more blends to try on the list!
    Thought provoking article

  • It’s good to hear that the Greg Pease that I thought I knew, bullet-proof and master blender/pipe critic, suffers, at least at times, from the same malady that we all do: human error.

  • Great article and certainly I have fallen to the mass hysteria of the ‘one blend that you must have’ routine.
    What I find confusing is how certain blends can be a favorite on one day and really be distasteful or not enjoyable on another?
    Ah, the fickleness of the palate.

  • I think we’re all prey to the unobtania blends that are more hype than substance.
    There is a great difference between blends that really do take a bit of work to learn to appreciate and those that are just well touted – the problem is to find the difference!

  • Before i got to the stage where i now smoke two tobaccos exclusively (bar the odd treat pouch of a different tobacco).
    Tried marlin flake it had everything in it that i loved (virginia perique cavendish, it has very favourable reviews, top qaulity tobacco and well made.
    But i found i just didnt care for it, im not saying its a bad tobacco its just not for me.
    Like gregg said in his article i tried numerous different techniques and it just didnt work.
    The best way i can describe it is that although it was smoking it just didnt let me into the nuances and that little bit of smoking experience that makes something click inside that makes you want more.
    I guess it is just one of them things for some people its instant jackpot for others it isnt i know there is people out there that adore this tobacco and thats good and i respect that.
    To me it was a very big learbing curve (and costly due to british tobacco prices) just because something has brilliant reviews it doesnt mean it is going to be just as brilliant for me.

  • Well pout Greg. I still recall to others the conversation we had at the Richmond show, several ” season ” back,
    where you suggested that my body Ph and yours were far apart on the scale. Thus, it was easy to understand why
    our choices were divergent.
    Kudos for an entertaining and thoughtful exposition on this subject!
    Best Regards,

  • It must be quit common to fall in love with a new blend only to become disenchanted with it after the second tin. Maybe this can be explained by how and why our sense of taste becomes inured: when the novel becomes the familiar.

  • Hmmm Greg. Moi? I’m far too rational for that – heh. Though I must confess that I am extremely susceptible to suggestion, I usually find that blends tend to grow on me. However, the converse also happens, where past favorites lose their standing, presumably as my fickle palate mutates. There have been highly regarded blends that I find myself trying to like more than I am actually enjoying. But the sheer variation in my personal response to a given blend/pipe pairing plus the real variations that the pairing itself induces makes my spreadsheet cataloging (sp?) each bowl full of statistical noise. Even when I am mindful of your advice as to the effects of time of day, specific foods and drink, the blend history in a given pipe, and weather, I see a lot of almost random experiencing which tends to lend a spirit of adventure to each new bowlful. Soooo… I dunno..