The year’s come and gone, as they always somehow do. World events have been both bitter and sweet, as have personal ones. We’ve raised a bowl to a few broken pipes this year, sadly, but have seen many new pipers take up the mantle. The pipe world stands its ground against encroachment from taxes and regulation, not to mention the flux of social mores, and still we thrive, evidenced by the unprecedented addition of artisans, blends, and new blood to the hobby. One is reminded that the more things change, the more they stay the same. For this holiday respite, we’ll look at a blend that changes every year, yet remains of the highest quality.
After my exploration of Craftmans Edition, and enjoying many social events accompanied by that crowd-pleaser, the impending turn of the calendar found me in a more ruminant frame of mind. Selecting a tobacco to chaperon my soul through the finale of 2016, I withdrew from my cellar a selection from holidays past: McClelland’s Christmas Cheer from the 2011 vintage. While my mandate with these reviews is limited to blends in current production and widely available, the Christmas Cheer line offers an interesting loophole in that it’s made annually and expressly intended for cellaring and ageing. For those who are unfamiliar, McClelland produces a limited run each year of a single-harvest pure Virginia; the 2011 release captures “ripe, orange-red, flue-cured” from a 2007 crop grown near Wilson, North Carolina. To my estimation, reviewing a fresh 2015 tin would be a disservice to its intent; rather, a moderately aged tin is a more accurate representative of McClelland’s design. I know this intimately, as my own Cheer collection began in 2010, and while I enjoyed those tins while green, I learned the deeper appreciation of aged vintages too late. Hence, my existing cellar begins with 2011. I think a solid four years in the tin is a good milestone for tasting, when the blend has fully embraced its profile.
If a typical blend is a panoramic vista of flavors, then Christmas Cheer is a telescopic zoom into the heart of what makes Virginia tobacco so damn good, and so essential to the blender’s palette. Popping the tin, already bulging with internal pressure, the trademark sweet tang discharges loudly in a whooshing elegance generally reserved for women in velvet evening gowns. While resplendent with the ketchupy sweetness McClelland is known for, this vintage is not overwhelmed by it; vying for equal olfactory measure are metallic tones, burnt sugar edges, and a more pronounced earthy cast that one normally finds with dryer bright Virginia-burley blends. After a day of off-gassing and acclimation, the ketchup is subsumed into a more leathery, earthy bouquet that retains tartly sweet overtones. The flakes themselves are luscious and chocolate-hued, weighty and marbled and dense; in fact, they exhibit much reluctance in breaking apart, speaking to their extended stay in the presses. After a good rub and nominal drying time, my pipe loaded and tamped, I begin my note-taking and general rumination on the year.
The weather, normally my nemesis at this point, has been uncharacteristically mild; all the better to tease out a Virginia blend. Typical of hard-pressed flakes, Cheer takes some attention and tending both in preparation and execution. Once lit, the flavor sings here, truly sings. The aroma in the tin transforms completely, the ketchup giving way to high notes of citrus peel that call to mind the clove-studded oranges of holiday feasts. For a straight Virginia, it isn’t bitey or sharp in the least; it insinuates its brighter flavors in concert with the underlying body effortlessly. I recount from my notes that a freshly opened tin back in 2011 was, “somewhat lacking in flavor and direction, exceedingly mild…still smooth and lovely, a little sting, not enough body or range.” Time has certainly worked its magic here, as the midrange balance is extraordinary, full of the salty timbre of driftwood and nutmeg’s piquant savor, with vanilla smoothness enveloping the bitter cocoa and leathery low end of the spectrum. Sidestream smoke is charming, ethereal, and spicy: the room note speaks of the parchment of old books, and memories of Christmas dinner around an open hearth.
Seeking a companionable beverage to pair with the pipe, I uncork a Laphroaig PX Cask single malt to exhilarating effect. If ever there were kindred spirits, they are these. Taken with sensible dilution of a couple of ice cubes, it shares many of the same flavor notes with the tobacco, adding its own smokiness from the splendid Islay peat. The whisky’s finishing in sherry casks provides the bright sweetness that mirrors the rich stewed fruit flavors of the tobacco; sips taken in turns begin to confuse the brain whether one is taken from the glass or the bowl.
For many the new year is a time to reflect on the physical—lose weight, get in shape, make more money—but heed this reminder not to neglect the mind and soul: for those of us accustomed to the briar, it pays to flex the muscle of introspection with a pipe. Would cellar and time allow it, a vertical tasting of several years’ tins of Christmas Cheer would truly be an exercise in tobacco decadence. It is my own habit to tuck three or so tins of Cheer away each year, to be enjoyed at unknown dates in the future, and it’s worthwhile advice to recommend the same for you who love truly singular Virginias.