When I first started blending tobacco, there was a lot of trial and error until I met some people with a lot of experience who were willing to share their knowledge with me. For a long time, I soaked up whatever information I could gather, and in time I learned how to recognize what little tidbits were inaccurate.
One of the problems with low self-esteem (something I have been a victim of for eons) is that you tend not to trust your instincts and always believe that the next person knows more than you do. For that reason, I incorporated a lot of shaky info into my work. It wasn’t until I started creating the Hearth & Home brand that I went back to the drawing board, assessed what I thought I knew and started weeding out the misinformation. Almost immediately, I became more pleased with the results I was getting.
Over time, I began to learn whose knowledge I could trust and I began to absorb proper facts and good opinions. Fortunately, I’ve met a number of really bright people who were very open with me and shared a great deal. I knew little to nothing about casings and top-dressings until I got to know Carl McAllister, who recently retired as the master blender for Sutliff. He spent a lot of time working with me so I could get the hang of flavoring tobaccos for some of the aromatic and semi-aromatic offerings for H&H.
Another person I got to know along the way is Mark Ryan of Daughters & Ryan and L.A. Poche, the company responsible for just about all the commercial Perique available. Mark and I have become good friends because, as he put it, we’re both "tobacco geeks." I love going to his place in North Carolina, grabbing handfuls of freshly-cut leaf and smelling it. Because of our shared love of tobacco, we’ve spent a lot of time talking, and Mark has some rather rare varietals hanging around that he doesn’t have enough of to use in his high-volume blends. He graciously offered me access to some of them that I can use in limited-edition blends, so they’ll work perfectly for my small-batch RO Series offerings.
We waded through bales of Yenidje, Basma, Bursa, Macedonian and some unique Bulgarian Orientals. We rehydrated some and checked out their qualities, and I immediately started thinking of what I could do with them. We had a great time sampling the tobaccos and talking about what might finally arise from these varietals.
Toward the end of my visit with him, he said, "You know what? I have something you might find really interesting." Of course, that got my curiosity flowing, so I listened to him talk about the Perique operation. He said that he did something a few years ago on a whim, and that I could probably do something special with his experiment.
There are four distinct growing areas in St. James Parish where Perique is cultivated—Belmont, Paulina, Grand Point and South Vacherie. Normally, the tobacco is harvested, mixed together, and processed to make St. James Perique, which is usually cut with one-sucker Burley processed in the same manner, for commercial sale. This one year, though, he made one barrel of straight St. James with just the leaf from each one of the regions, in essence, varietal Perique. He told me that he would send me some of each to play around with.
Mark Ryan, owner of L.A. Poche Perique Tobacco inspects a "torquette"
When it arrived, I was astounded at how different each one smelled. One was, as you might expect, very fruity, like prunes. One had a hint of coffee in the aroma. One smelled of brined olives, while the last was deeply chocolaty. I began to mix up small samples and was astounded by the variation of flavor. So the next step was to figure out just how to use them. I finally settled on doing two blends with each type. There will be four blends using the exact same Virginia base, so the smoker will be able to taste the distinctiveness of each Perique varietal. Then, I’ll make a blend with each to take advantage of its singular character. These will be part of a collection that I’ll be calling the "Golden Triangle Series", as that’s the nickname for the area Perique is grown in.
I feel really great about the kind of friendship and respect Mark and I have for each other, and I’m humbled by the fact that he’s entrusting me with this project. From my early results, these should be pretty amazing blends and I look forward to bringing them to you very soon.
Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe and www.pipesandcigars.com in Bethlehem, PA. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at email@example.com or by calling 1-800-494-9144 on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 am to 5 pm and Friday from 1 pm to 5 pm.