Interview With Master Blender Russ Ouellette – Part 3

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By Bob Tate


This is the conclusion to our Russ Ouellette (Blendtobac) interview. So far in our interview with Russ Ouellette, we have talked about how he got started blending pipe tobacco blends, Perique tobacco, some of the challenges that he faces obtaining certain tobacco components, how he created Larry’s Blend, and many other things. Here, we are picking up the interview where we left off in Part 2:

PipesMagazine (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?

Russ: Yeah, we’ve had a number of guys under 30 [years of age] who have stopped in to visit or join our pipe club and we’re seeing more and more of it. Some of it is kind of a trendy thing; a group of local college students, or whatever, will decide that they want to get together and smoke pipes. And because, I think, we do a very good job at our retail store of helping the new pipe smoker get started and give them the information that they need to stay with it, they tend to gravitate towards our store and they start hanging out on a regular basis because we have a lounge.

They like to get together and they’ll sit there around the card table and smoke their pipes. Our customers are such a great bunch of people that the older lawyers, doctors, and business people don’t look down their nose at these 24 year old kids sitting there smoking pipes. It’s a very comfortable environment and we’re doing what we can for the people who’ve made the decision that they want to smoke a pipe and we’re going to make it as enjoyable as possible for them. 

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 Habana Premium Cigar Shop

 Pipes on Display


PM: That’s great to hear. Now I have something that is a little bit more on a serious note.
With the recent flavored tobacco ban placed in New York City and the more recent rumors that they are trying to expand the ban to a state wide level, as well as all of the new smoking bans and anti-tobacco legislation being introduced and implemented, there has to be quite a bit of concern in the store.

Russ: Sure. There’s always going to be when any part of the population is targeting you. You know the old line, ‘Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you’. There’s definitely a lot of concern. But my particular feeling on it is; if you take a look at the general climate of popular opinion out there, the needle is starting to flicker a little bit back in the other direction.

PM: Yes. We’ve noticed that as well. On our site, we try to keep up on as much tobacco legislation as we can. On our petition that we started opposing the H.R. 4439 bill (Stop the Pipe Tobacco Tax), we’ve seen in some of the comments on it that even some non-smokers have signed and are saying “Enough is enough with the taxes” and that people do have the right to smoke if it is a legal substance. I have seen the pendulum starting to move, ever so slightly, back towards a more common sense way of thinking.

Russ: Yeah, and by the way kudos on your efforts. The last time I checked you had over 10,000?

PM: So far we’ve had about 5,000 people sign it and have sent out about 11,000 letters. Hopefully we will have more people continue to sign it and send letters to their representatives.

Russ: My compliments on your efforts. People are starting to look at it and shake their heads and go, “What are we doing here? We’re pinpointing certain groups of people and we’re attacking”. They’re looking at, to me, the most ridiculous and draconian thing which is a blanket smoking ban. If I like the food at a restaurant and they say no smoking, I’m still going to go there to eat. I’m not going to drop to my knees ‘jonesing’ for a pipe or cigar in the time that it take me to go and have a meal and a couple of drinks with friends. If I like the food, I’ll go to the place if they say no smoking. Would I enjoy it more if I could sit down after the meal and load my pipe up and light it while sitting at the table? Sure, but it’s not vital to me to be able to.

The problem I have is; why is the government telling an individual business owner that they can’t allow that? Yes, it’s for the employees etc, etc, etc.; but what about the guy who is the sole proprietor of a bar and restaurant? He’s the only guy working there, he makes the sandwiches and he pours the drinks. He’s the only one and he’s OK with it.

PM: We agree. The government should not interject themselves and tell a private establishment what they should and should not be able to do. That’s not how it works in a democratic, free society.

Russ: Absolutely! As far as employees go; if somebody comes in to interview at my restaurant and I’m going to allow smoking, one of the first things I’m going to ask them is “Do you have a problem with tobacco smoke?” If they say, “Yes I do” then I would have to say at that point, “Well, our establishment allows smoking. I’m sorry, but if we happen to go in a different direction, I’ll keep your application on file and give you a call”. But business owners aren’t given that option.

PM: That’s the way that it should be. I don’t believe a lot of the second hand smoke propaganda, but every job has a risk to it. If you’re an auto mechanic, you have the risk of a car falling off of the lift and crushing you or whatever and if you’re working in a smoking environment, there is a risk that you may, and I want to emphasize the word may, be affected by that. So that’s your choice whether you want to work in that type of environment or find a different avenue to work in.

Russ: Yeah. What makes more sense? If you have 100 customers in a building who have all agreed that smoking doesn’t bother them and they want to go to that establishment so they can have a meal, have a drink, and enjoy a smoke with friends. You have all of these people who are in accord and then you wind up hiring one person and you have to tell these 100 people that “I’m sorry, but we can’t allow you to enjoy what you normally have in this establishment because we now have one employee that can’t stand tobacco smoke so nobody can smoke”.

PM: It’s funny how the minority rules on a situation like that, but us as smokers being a minority have no say and we just keep getting trampled on.

Russ: Yes. It’s so ridiculously over the top. You know, our government for the last 30 to 40 years, it seems like the motto is ‘If it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing’.

PM: Yup. OK, back to things a little more enjoyable to think about.
Do you plan on attending any pipe shows this year and if so, which ones will they be?

Russ: Right now, I believe we’re on for Chicago [Pipe Show]. It’s going to depend on a couple of things as to whether we’ll be at Columbus [Pipe Show] or Richmond [Pipe Show]. I’m hoping that we can do more of the shows. Since my position has kind of changed a bit, I used to be more heavily involved on the retail floor, but now I’m being transitioned more to this informational type position; and as such, if I were to attend more of the shows, it would probably be less disruptive to the flow of business than it would have been in the past. We also have to take a look at the economic climate and we’ll take it from there. I would love to go to about a half dozen of the shows every year, but it’s got to make economic sense to do so.

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 HPCS Pipe Tobacco Bar

 HPCS Pipe Tobacco Weigh Station








PM: What are some of your favorite things about going to pipe shows?

Russ: Getting to see old friends, re-new acquaintances, and meeting new people because the people as a whole in the pipe smoking world are just great, very easy going people. We can have long conversations and they can get rather intense or we can sit there and not say a word for a half of an hour and think that we’ve had a great night. I really do enjoy it. The thing that’s hardest for me at the shows is when people come up and they’re just so complimentary. I just stand there and I actually get embarrassed because people will come up and they’ll say something about one of the tobaccos and they’ll get a little over the top about it and I can actually feel myself blushing. Certainly I appreciate the fact that they feel that way, but I don’t have a big ego about this stuff.

I had spoken to somebody about a year and a half ago in an interview and they asked me; “When that happens, how do you not let it get to your head?” I said that it’s real simple. At the end of the day, I have tobacco all over my work bench and I’ll sweep it into a bag and get rid of it. Somewhere in this world, somebody will take that bag, load up a bowl and claim it the best tobacco that they’ve ever smoked. So if somebody can, by accident, find a tobacco just from odds and ends that they think is incredible, then really how much should you take it to heart that a particular blend is phenomenal? Because it’s just an educated action is all it is.

PM: That’s a very down to earth way of thinking about it.

Russ: Well, it is what it is. It’s very straight forward to me. The only difference between being successful at this and being unsuccessful is a matter of guessing better. Obviously if you have knowledge, it gives you a basis to start with so you’re less prone to making the horrible mistake. But the bottom line is; there’s a lot of luck in it too. You may have put this particular blend together with the proportions that you’ve chosen six months earlier and nobody would really care for it because maybe the base tobacco you were using for the tobacco six months ago wasn’t the same as it is today. That’s the reason why it’s hard to get too egotistical about it because a lot of the factors are out of your own hands.

PM: Is there anything else that you would like to say to our readers?

Russ: The only thing that I would like to say is that I really enjoy the pipe smoking community and I love going to the shows. If any of the readers are going to be attending the Chicago Pipe Show, please find a few minutes to swing by and say hi. I love talking to people and I’ll have some new stuff at the show. We’re planning on doing a really strong increase this year and hopefully that will include some more new products down the road. So if you’re in Chicago, stop by and see us.

PM: Russ, thank you for your time. It was a pleasure talking with you and I hope to see you at the Chicago Pipe Show.


Click Here to read Part 1 of the Russ Ouellette Interview

Click here to read Part 2 of the Russ Oullette Interview

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