By Bob Tate
In part 1 of our interview with Russ Ouellette (Blendtobac), we talked about some of the things he has done before he got heavily involved in the tobacco industry. We also talked about how he got started blending pipe tobacco blends, how he maintains the consistency of his blends, some of the problems that he has acquiring certain tobacco components, and a few other things. Here, we pick up the interview where we left off in Part 1:
PipesMagazine (PM): What are some of the major changes that you have seen in the pipe industry over the years that you have been involved?
Russ: Certainly from the pipe end of things, some of the old brands are not quite what they used to be, but there are still a lot of wonderful pipes out there. I think one of the best things to happen is that we’re seeing more individual carvers around the world. There weren’t that many individual artisans in the US in the 70’s even though the market was pretty strong. It was mostly mass manufactured, even though a lot of those brands produced wonderful quality pipes. But now we’re seeing a lot more one-of-a-kind freehand pipes by very, very talented carvers.
In terms of tobaccos though, it’s radically in the other direction where the European cigarette companies have snapped up a lot of the Oriental tobaccos that used to be available for pipe blends and some of those tobaccos that I mentioned to you before just aren’t available. Mike McNeil [McClelland Tobacco] was able to acquire a number of different Orientals because he has a friend in the cigarette business. Unfortunately, I don’t have a contact like that; that would allow me that kind of access. And a lot of the old blends have disappeared; the current versions aren’t the same as what they used to be. The one thing that I think a lot of people don’t understand is the subtle complexities of the tobacco leaf, and they shouldn’t have to. Unless you’re dealing with it, you won’t recognize it unless you’re doing it all the time. One of the problems that I have seen in recent years is that a blend will become unavailable and I’ll get phone call after phone call, you know “Can you reproduce it?” Some people say that they can and they make an attempt, and sometimes they do a great job of it.
When people tell me that they would like me to do that, I generally tell them that I can’t and the reason is pretty straight forward. There are so many variables that it’s virtually impossible even if they handed you the same exact tobacco from the same batch to make up a blend. All you have to do is change one step in the process and the tobacco changes. Even with a recipe, even with the components given to you, the chances of you being able to reproduce a blend exactly are nil. I’ve talked to Greg Pease about it and he agrees. So when people ask me about something like that, I tell them that I can try to come up with something that will capture the flavor profile or the spirit of that particular blend, but it’s not going to be that blend. And as long as people are comfortable with that, sure, I’ve done a number of custom blends. Some of them wind up in the product line; Sunjammer is my tribute to 965, Daybreak is my take on Early Morning Pipe. Ambassadors Blend, which is a new one, isn’t trying to recreate Standard Mixture or London Mixture, but is a tobacco that I think that someone who enjoyed those blends would enjoy.
PM: Since you are talking about some of your newer, for lack of a better term, reproduction type blends; I’ve noticed that there are 3 new blends in the Hearth & Home Series that you have recently came out with. Two of which you’ve already mentioned; Ambassadors Blend, Daybreak, and Classic Burley Kake. Are there any new blends in the works that might be released in 2010?
Russ: Yes. Very, very shortly we’ll have on the site a blend called Stogie. It’s going to be a Burley based mixture using a fair amount of dark fired Kentucky. It will also have some Cigar leaf in it, but it will contain Perique and some Green River Black Cavendish, unsweetened. It’s going to be a blend that will satisfy a cigar smoker because we’ve gotten a number of people in the past year or so since the S-CHIP tax who have said “Cigars are getting too expensive and I’m thinking of switching to a pipe”. Although I think that eventually they’ll settle in on Aromatic, English, or Virginia blends, this would be a great way to transition them into a pipe by giving them a more familiar flavor; and then let them develop their own palate as they go along. The one thing that I will say about it is; it definitely will give you a bit of a kick in the back teeth. The nicotine content of the blend is fairly high.
PM: That sounds like a pretty interesting blend. I smoke quite a few cigars and even though I love my pipes, I do like the taste of a good cigar every now and then. That sounds like a blend that I’ll have to try.
Russ: Yeah. I think a lot of people who occasionally smoke a cigar will still try it and enjoy it as a change of pace smoke. And then there will be another one coming out called Steamroller. It’s another blend that is leaning more on Burley, but this one is going to contain some Latakia and other components and this one is also going to have a bit of a nicotine kick to it as well.
You know it’s funny. We’ve got over 30 blends and I thought we had touched on pretty much the entire gambit of what people are looking for in pipe tobacco. Then I started getting a number of requests of, “Make something with a little more nicotine”. Well you know there are certain tobaccos that you know are going to have more nicotine; the dark fired Burleys, some of the Black Cavendish’s depending on what the base tobacco is, Perique certainly has a slightly higher nicotine level. So trying to put together a blend that is going to give people that wallop that they want, but will also work on the level of the flavors blending properly is kind of tricky. Because generally tobaccos that are high in nicotine have a tendency to be very prominently flavored as well and trying to play with percentages and make everything work together with some of those tobaccos is not easy.
PM: I think that it might have to do with so many people lately trying to make the switch from cigarettes to pipes.
Russ: I’m sure that’s true.
PM: I think that where they probably want the higher nicotine kick to come in is because you don’t get as much of the nicotine absorption through the glands in your mouth as you do from inhaling the smoke.
Russ: Oh, absolutely true and that’s why brands like Five Brothers have jumped. That is a tobacco that’s been around for a long time, but it kind of sat in the background and then in the past few years we’ve seen that particular blend really take off. I’m sure that to a great degree it is former cigarette smokers that are looking for the higher kick. But you know, your kind of walking a tight rope because this will give them what they want in that regard, but if it doesn’t taste good, how long are they going to want to stick with it.
PM: I also smoke cigarettes and I love tobacco in general. Each form of tobacco fits into its own category. When I smoke pipes, I don’t expect to get the nicotine hit that comes from cigarettes. I smoke my pipes for relaxation and the great taste. I have cut back on cigarettes and I think what other cigarette smokers who are picking up the pipe are going to do is; once they start weaning themselves off of the larger doses of nicotine that comes from cigarettes, they are going to start experiencing the finer points of pipe smoking and stick with it.
Russ: Yeah. It’s funny that every form of tobacco use has its own unique set of processes and everything else and it’s all coming out of one basic plant. It’s amazing, the variety. On kind of a side note; a number of years back one of the cigarette companies thought that it would be a heck of a lot cheaper if we were to grow Turkish and Oriental tobaccos in the US. So they got seeds from a lot of the varietals, brought it back to the US and planted it and what they wound up with was Burley. It was indistinguishable from some of the other Burley plants, but because of the climatic and soil conditions over there, that seed produced a tobacco that was very different. It was very fragrant, more aromatic, and fuller flavored. But when it was brought over here, it turned out to be a high oil, low sugar, pretty straight forward Burley type tobacco. The variety and the things you can do with tobacco are pretty amazing.
PM: On average, how long does it take you to create a new blend?
Russ: That’s an interesting question. Anywhere from 15 minutes to 2 years and I’m being completely honest. When I came up with Larry’s Blend it was because I had created the first six blends in the line and brought them to our pipe club for the guys to try. We have one gentleman who is a retired lawyer, Larry Loerzel, and he is a real Latakia-phile. I tell people that Larry has a Hookah on his night stand loaded with Latakia and he just puts the hose in his mouth at night so he doesn’t have to go the whole night without Latakia. He really does love it and he tried the Ten to Midnight which is a pressed Balkan and it’s medium-full, but it has brighter Macedonian style Orientals in it so it’s got a very clean bright flavor.
He tried it and said “It’s good tobacco but…”
I said “Well, what’s the but?”
he said “I like that darker, warmer flavor like the old Dunhill’s used to have.”
Well I knew that the primary reason why it didn’t suit his profile was because of the Orientals. So, all I did was; I got up, stepped out of the room and went to my blending area. I took the Ten to Midnight formula and took the bright Virginias and made them red and I took the Macedonian Orientals and swapped it for Smyrna and I increased the Latakia a bit and went from a long cut to a granulated cut Latakia to get more of the Latakia flavor out. I walked back in with the baggie and I handed it to him and said “Tell me what you think”. He loaded up a pipe, lit it, sat there, looked up at me, smiled, nodded his head and said “You got it”. And that was Larry’s Blend. Larry’s Blend took me 15 minutes to create and that’s our most popular English or Balkan.
Classic Burley Kake took 2 years because I had made myself a promise that I wasn’t going to release another Aromatic unless I could get it to taste the way it smells.
PM: That seems to happen with a lot of Aromatics. The tin aroma will be amazing and make you just want to eat the tin of tobacco, but as soon as you light it, there’s no flavor exchange to the smoke at all.
Russ: Yeah, and that’s because the machinery that they use accelerates the process quite a bit, but the flavoring doesn’t get into the leaf really. It still winds up being, more or less, on the surface of the leaf so it comes through in the aroma, but it doesn’t come through in the flavor. I tried 32 different batches over a two year period and I was just about ready to forget the idea of coming out with anymore Aromatics. I got kind of close with one batch and I thought to myself, “What have I got to do to get the flavor in the tobacco so that you can taste it when you’re smoking it?” Then it occurred to me to try heating it up and pressing it to see if the heat opening up the pores of the tobacco, the pressure pushing it into the leaf, maybe it would work. I went ahead and did it, came up with the samples, and we had people who don’t like Aromatics try it and go “Wow, this is good!”
PM: An Aromatic, when done properly, can be one of the finest pipe smoking experiences ever.
Russ: Yup. Frankly, other than the Classic Burley Kake there’s only one Aromatic that I tend to smoke with any frequency at all and that’s Cornell & Diehl’s Autumn Evening.
PM: That’s a really good one. They really captured the essence in that blend.
Russ: And for the same reason that I enjoy the Burley Kake, you can taste the maple while you smoke the Autumn Evening and that’s what I’m looking for. If I’m opening a tin and it smells like maple, I want it to taste like maple.
Russ: That’s why I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of Aromatics out of us because that’s going to be something that I need to see if I’m going to come up with one. But there are a lot of different options too so, who know? Maybe I will do some more going forward, but right now I’m not planning on doing anymore Aromatics.
PM: We have heard from quite a few people in the industry and have seen for ourselves that a lot of younger people are starting to get into pipes. Have you noticed this as well and have you seen a resurgence in pipes and pipe smoking?
See Russ’ answer to this question, what pipe shows he may be attending, and many others in Part 3 (the conclusion) of our interview with Russ Ouellette!