By Adam J. Smith
I would like to start this column off by thanking both Mr. Kevin Godbee and PipesMagazine.com, and Mr. Gregory Pease for allowing me this once in a life-time opportunity. I have to say that I was quite pleased when Kevin contacted me to inform me of the re-release of this blend (and to inform me that I was to secure and smoke some for this column), but when Greg chimed in offering to not only send me a sample of the real McCoy from his cellar; but also throw his Meridian into the mix, I was ecstatic. Not only would I get a chance to smoke a re-creation of a hallowed blend, but I would also get a chance to smoke the real-thing; created before I was! And, as if the deal needed any sweetening, a chance to add Meridian into the experience!
I should also tell you that this article will take on a slightly different format than most of my reviews, as they have appeared in the past. I will not wax poetic about the environmental factors; nor will I use anecdotes to flesh out a review into an article. No, this time, I am left with so much information that I would end up writing a novel; so I have chosen a more simplified format. What follows is a full review on the Balkan Sobranie Re-Release as presented by Arrango Cigar and blended by the house of Germain; a succinct review on both the Original Balkan Sobranie as presented in the 1970’s by the House of Sobranie, a succinct review of G.L. Pease Meridian circa 2010, and finally, the results of my own little "comparison".
Without further ado….
Balkan Sobranie Re-Release Review
Upon receiving my tin of the re-release of this hallowed blend, the first thing that struck me was the label. While the re-creation of the original tin-art is decent, I can’t help but note a graininess; perhaps a pixilation if you will. I should also note that the addition of the text on the wagons does not seem to fit; rather this seems like a last-minute addition. Upon opening the tin, I was somewhat disappointed to discover that not only was the paper liner plain, but folded and crumpled under the doily. While I realize that this does not weigh on the smoking qualities of the tobacco, it does effect ones overall impression of the product, and I feel it should be mentioned.
Close inspection of the cut reveals a melange of fine-cut ribbons, interspersed with small chunks of broken flake and the occasional strand of rough-cut. Hues of tan, copper, khaki green, dark and chocolate brown abound; shot through with charcoal-black. The tin aroma is strong and oily, with notes of peaty camp-fire and an underlying fruitiness that is not at all unpleasant to a self-proclaimed Latakia lover.
With the charring light, the strong-peat like notes found on the tin are carried over, supported by strong sour flavours of the various Oriental leaf. There is an earthy nuttiness present, but lacking in the sweetness often found in Balkan style blends.
With the true light, the strong sour and oily Latakia notes remain in the foreground, while Earthy notes of soil, leather and leaves begin to blossom. A bold spiciness takes hold, while a slight sweetness begins to form on the back of the palate. One also notices the "rawness" of the blend at this point – while the leaf is certainly well aged, the blend itself would benefit from some time to allow the flavours to meld.
Through the mid-point of the bowl, I find the blend begins to take on an earthy, almost nutty sweetness, while losing some of its bold and spicy qualities. The big sour notes remain at the forefront, as does the rich, deep flavour of Latakia.
As I reached the heel of the bowl, the spicy bold notes come back with a vengeance, while the peaty-campfire flavours of the Latakia also ramp up. The sweetness rounds out some, with hints of earth and leather growing more prominent.
I should note that this blend left my mouth with a slightly "dirty" feeling.
The room-note on this blend is actually somewhat pleasant, despite the big, bold tin aroma and flavours. While it does deliver the camphoric peaty notes of the Latakia leaf, there is a sweet undertone that rounds out the smokiness wonderfully. While it probably wouldn’t win you any friends amongst the non-smokers, it very well could at a barbeque competition!
The nicotine level of this blend is on the high-side of medium – while it will satisfy all but the most nicotine crazed smoker; if you don’t handle the vitamin N well, take this blend slowly.
Balkan Sobranie Original Review
I should note that my sample of this blend was from a flat tin, circa 1970; blended by the House of Sobranie. My sample arrived quite dry, and required re-hydrating.
Inspection of this sacred blend reveals a very uniform fine-cut ribbon blend of chocolate and nut-browns, shot through with a charcoal black. Obviously, there was bloom evident, as one would expect with a 40 year old blend.
The tin aroma is quite mild; but provides one with hints of cedar-campfire over an almost honey-like sweetness.
From charring light to tipping ash, this blend is deserving of the accolades it receives. While the flavour profile remains somewhat subtle for a Balkan style blend, the nuances found in the wisps of blue smoke are blended so well that one cannot help but wonder at the high quality of leaf found in days gone by.
Charring light reveals the mild, beautifully blended, slightly sour herbal notes of the Oriental leaf, which, as alluded to, are so wonderfully balanced that no one flavour leaps to the forefront of the profile. A deep and rich nutty sweetness balances out the slightly salty and cedary flavour of the Latakia. I find that this flavour profile remains somewhat mono-chromatic through the first third of the bowl; but that is by no means a bad thing!
As one progresses through the mid-point of the bowl, earthy notes of leather and soil take hold, rounding out the rich sweetness and mild smoky herbal flavours; while a slight spiciness begins to form on the back of the palate.
As one reaches the heel, the spiciness grows suddenly bolder; while the sweetness all but disappears into the background, allowing the earthy notes of soil, leather and musty leaves to blossom into the forefront of the profile.
One interesting side note; I found that this blend left a honey-sweet note on my tongue for a good half an hour after finishing, with an effect not unlike licking ones lips after smoking a rum dipped cigar.
For those who are wondering; the nicotine level on this blend was somewhat lacking; I would classify it as low to medium.
G.L. Pease Meridian Review
My sample of this blend was from August 2010; and arrived at the perfect humidity to smoke. Inspection of this blend reveals a "medium" cut ribbon (1mm+), with rich chocolate and mocha browns, charcoal blacks and coppery bronzes. While there was bloom evident to the naked eye, of the three blends I compared, Meridian showed the least. The tin aroma abounds with the slightly camphoric note of Cyprian Latakia supported on a honeyed sweetness.
Charring light brings a surprise; at least to my palate. Given the strength of the Latakia notes in the tin aroma, I expected a big hit of wet-campfire; but while the Latakia is certainly there, Greg has managed to find a wonderful balance with the sour and herbal flavours of the various "Oriental" leaf which actually emulates the cedar-like flavour of the Syrian leaf of old.
With true light, the first thing I notice about this blend is how well it highlights the sour flavours of the Oriental leaf, while underpinning said sourness with an almost citrusy sweetness. The cedar-campfire notes of the Latakia are evident (however not overpowering by any-means), while a bold and brash spiciness takes hold. I did note that through the first third of the bowl, I experienced a mouth sensation not unlike smoking a menthol cigarette (note: I did not taste menthol).
As the bowl passes through the halfway point, the sweet citrus notes grow yet more bold, moving to the forefront of the flavour profile. The "mid-range" notes continue to highlight the sour Oriental leaf, and the wonderful interplay with Cyprian Latakia (which continues to eschew the brash peatiness of Cyprian in favour of the more subtle cedar flavours of Syrian somehow…). Earthy notes of soil and leather begin to take hold on the back of the palate.
Towards the end of the bowl, the earthy notes grow even more prevalent, with bold flavours of leaves, leather and wet soil. In addition, the Latakia grows stronger, for the first time revealing the brashness I typically associate with Cyprian leaf. I find that the last half-a-dozen odd puffs of this blend bring with them a honey-sweetness that is simply amazing – a great way to cap off a bowl and leave the palate feeling light and refreshed after smoking rather heavy blend.
I should note that this blend left my mouth, and palate, with the cleanest feeling of all three of these blends. In addition, I found the nicotine level was somewhat lacking, definitely falling on the mild side of the spectrum.
Balkan Sobranie Comparison / Challenge
Before I get into the meat of this portion of my article, I should tell you how I compared these blends. First, I selected five pipes (Meerschaum, conical-bowled briar, two rounded-bowled briar, and corncob); with all three pieces of briar having recently undergone a reaming and cotton-ball/alcohol treatment. Each blend was smoked once per pipe over a period of four days. I left myself a minimum of one-hour between bowls, and utilized Tetley brand Orange Pekoe tea both during and post smoke to cleanse my palate. Each blend was smoked a minimum of once in the morning, during the afternoon, and in the evening.
In choosing my criteria for scoring, I decided that I would ignore room-note for two reasons. Firstly, these are three Latakia forward blends. Let’s face it, none of them smell all that wonderful to anyone but a Latakia smoker. Secondly, the three blends offer up such a similar aroma that I never would have been able to differentiate between what is latent stale smoke and what is emanating from my bowl.
I chose four main criteria on which to rate these blends against my sample of the Original Balkan Sobranie; these are: Appearance, Tin Aroma, Flavour, and Burning Quality. I broke flavour down into an additional four criteria, being charring light, top 1/3, mid-point, and heel; the cumulative winner of which will take the category overall.
This is what I found.
Appearance Winner: G.L. Pease Meridian
While the cut of the Arango re-release of Balkan Sobranie does indeed resemble the fine-cut shag of the blend as produced by the House of Sobranie; I found that the colours of the Meridian more closely resembled the component leaf the original.
Tin Aroma Winner: G.L. Pease Meridian
This category was extremely close, however the Arango re-release lacked the marked honeyed sweetness found in the Original.
Flavour Winner: G.L. Pease Meridian
As I noted above, I broke this down into four categories; and I should tell you that Meridian took three of them. While I did find that the Arango re-release more closely matched the flavour profile of the Original at the heel, I found both the Latakia and the sour Orientals too far too bold; and the blend lacking the sweetness that characterizes the Original. I suspect this is by in large due to the Original having 40 years of aging to allow the flavour profile to meld and round out, while the re-release does have a rawness about it, due to being blended "yesterday" as it were. However, I wasn’t asked to compare how this blend would stack up in 40 years; so I have to go with my guts…er…tastebuds.
Burning Quality: Arango re-release Balkan Sobranie Original Blend
While I found that all three of these blends burned very well, I found the fine-cut ribbon of the Arango re-release actually burns the best…yes, blasphemy, I know. I am sorry folks, I would like to tell you that the Original lit itself, and didn’t require any tamping or relights, but that just isn’t the case (however, I am the only person in my household currently not laid up with a flu – I like to think that this is due to the Original Blend being the cure for the common-cold.).
Overall Winner: G.L. Pease Meridian
While the Arango re-release of the Balkan Sobranie blend is a wonderful tobacco in its own right, and given time to age, may even become as sought after as its namesake. However, if you want to try something that resembles the real McCoy, the Original Balkan Sobranie Original Blend, you would be better served with Gregory Pease’s Meridian. While not an exact clone, Greg has outdone himself on this one, not only recreating a hallowed blend of past (whether intentional or not!), but even managing to emulate the distinct subtle and complex flavour of Syrian Latakia through blending alchemy, and prime Oriental and Cyprian leaf.
Now if you are looking Now if you are looking to try a bold and brash Balkan blend that will grab a hold of your tastebuds and take no prisoners, the Arango re-release blend is going to be right up your alley. While it does lack in the sweetness found in the Original blend and in Meridian, it more than makes up for it in bold and brash spiciness; and is certainly a quality blend. It’s just not the Original Blend as was produced by the house of Sobranie to my palate.
Still; I highly recommend it – and if I get the chance, I plan to cellar more than a few tins of this new blend, along with a few tins of Greg’s Meridian.
– Adam J. Smith
Epilogue – G.L. Pease
When Kevin told me he was asking Adam to review the recently revived Balkan Sobranie, and figuring that Adam hadn’t been on the pipe smoking planet long enough to have experienced the original Balkan Sobranie Smoking Mixture, I decided to sweeten things up a little with a mid-1970s sample from a 1-oz tin I’d recently opened. (You can be jealous, now.) Of course, we all know it’s unfair, if not impossible, to compare a newly produced tobacco to one with 40 years under its belt, but I thought it would be fun for Adam to at least have the experience of smoking the old stuff, and that it might broaden the base of experience he could draw from when writing his review. The tobacco was a bit on the dry side, but was still smoking beautifully, and hadn’t really lost anything, so I bagged up a few grammes to send him, and didn’t bother with rehydrating.
I also had a recently opened tin of the first-production run of my own Meridian, with about a year behind it. I’d received a few emails from people suggesting that they found it similar in character, in some ways, to the old Sobranie, so I figured he might enjoy some of that, too. I bagged up bit, and sent it on its way to the Great White North along with the original Sobranie.
I did label the bags’ contents, but said nothing more to Adam about them, other than what they were and the fact that they were on their way, and that I looked forward to reading his review of the Sobranie re-release.
It was certainly not my intention for his his review to turn into some sort of "comparison," with all the awkwardness that entails, so I was pleasantly surprised by his choice to add reviews of the other two blends, bringing some interesting perspective to the picture. In retrospect, it might have been better to send him the tobaccos blind, but that would have been something quite different. I’m thrilled with his reaction to Meridian, of course. Now, if I could just get the stuff into Canada without having to disguise it as illicit drugs, which sail through customs far more efficiently than tobacco.
In the future, we may do more of these multi-tobacco reviews, if the readers like them, and our resident reviewers are game.