Christmas in a Can

Christmas in a Can

Try as one may, getting caught up in the Dreaded Holiday Rush is inevitable. So many errands to run, plans to be made, commitments to extend, and lots of traveling to do, to and fro; the whooshing sound that deadlines make as they fly by. Fortunately, we pipe smokers have a secret weapon against the onslaught of anxiety that such times can induce: kicking back with a bowl and a favorite blend, and savoring our time. Such it is that I finally get around to this deadline-busting installment of tobacco reviews, discovering three new blends peculiar to the season: Pipe Force Episode VI, Cringle Flake Holiday Edition 2023, and Plum Pudding Christmas Spirit, all brought to us from the house of Sutliffe Tobacco. Santa, eat your heart out.

Pipe Force Episode VI

A woody, tangy mixture of select Virginia leaf is elevated with Stoved Katerini, adding dark berry and spice. Dark-Fired Kentucky and St. James Perique enrich the base with earthy notes, pepper, and a light smokiness. Episode VI is a savory, vinous evolution from the natural sweetness and dark flavor of the Virginia/Perique genre. Richness with nuance all the way down.

Pipe Force Episode VI
Pipe Force Episode VI (Photo © Brooke Jacobs)

A passion project collaboration with Sutliffe, the Pipe Force line of the Per Jensen Signature Series certainly speaks to sci-fi nerds of my ilk, both in concept and execution. Like the Birds of a Feather series preceding it, the conceptualization begins with ‘unique ingredients’ as the canvas on which to build; in this incarnation, a delightfully stoved Katerini is the star of the show, supported by the doo-wop duo of dark-fired and Perique singing backup over the baseline of Virginia. This is Per Jensen freestyling, Jackson Pollock-esque strokes thrown wildly against the canvas. Opening the tin, the bouquet of the tightly-pressed crumble cake is centered on rich fruit and a tart background, with more than a hint of furniture polish—a slightly vinegary, tannic note of light oak overlaid with lemony vanillin edges and beeswax. Once the blend acclimates to its unsealing, the vinegary aldehydes dissipate to leave familiar Virginia fruit-and-leather base notes with top-note aromas straddling sweet and savory. In its place is a rather complex melange of impressions: bitter and powdery baker’s chocolate, green wood, dried apricot, mesquite barbecue. In the smoke, the chocolate fades demurely to the background, upstaged by the tangy dryness in the Katerini and peppery piquancy of the Perique. The stoved Katerini imparts a particular voice as it steers the blend; in turns the meaty sweetness of a Medjool date, or earthy and a tad gamey like seared rabbit tips. It is not the rather floral and bright version of the leaf I am accustomed to, and carries itself differently in the company of the other constituents in this blend. The complexion of the smoke drifts and varies refreshingly—indeed, sometimes erratically—over the course of the bowl, giving it enough interest to recommend as a repeat visit to further explore the nuance of the novel ingredients. Overall the blend is every bit as chaotic and unexpected as the theme and tin art would suggest. As the blends are limited small-batch runs, they’re very much worth the effort to seek out and try.

Cringle Flake Holiday Edition 2023

Mark Ryan’s 2003 Vintage Perique leads the way again for this year’s Cringle Flake. Stoved Katerini has been added to the blend combined with decade old Red Virginias to create one of the most unique blends available today. The whole leaf is then pressed and sliced into broken flakes.

Cringle Flake Holiday Edition 2023
Cringle Flake Holiday Edition 2023 (Photo © Brooke Jacobs)

Continuing with the experimental treatment of the Katerini, Cringle Flake 2023 makes use of it to even greater effect in this year’s holiday release. Revealing the thickly-sliced loose flakes of gingerbread-brown tobacco, the initial bouquet is familiar VaPer territory, with just a little something extra—high dry wine notes, bright tart hops, mild astringent, pine soap, and incense fill out the bouquet. The fruit notes here are more pineberry than the usual stewed plum or raisin, with a light floral lilt that translates deliciously into the smoke. The flakes break effortlessly, and are at perfect straight-from-the-tin humidity. A brief nose of lemon-lime soda on the charring light segues to a bready croissant in the top bowl; the mid-bowl depth emerges with a rich umami, the condimental leafs coaxing sweet spice in the range of nutmeg, orange peel and rose hips that continues to a smooth finish, never getting too heavy. The Katerini is, for me, better expressed here than in the previous blend; in full disclosure of bias, VaPers with Orientals are very much to my smoking preference, and this is easily one of the most intriguing I’ve had the pleasure of packing in a bowl. It smokes clean and light after repeated bowls, almost effervescent; piquant, complex, and full of intrigue, with a wonderful nose on the retrohale and waft from the bowl—and all perfectly tempered from the well-aged constituents. For my money, this is an all-star blend.

Seattle Pipe Club Plum Pudding Christmas Spirit

Nothing says Christmas Spirit like Plum Pudding. The traditional centerpiece of holiday celebrations since the 17thcentury. America’s most popular Balkan, Christmas Spirit is Joe’s gift to luxury tobacco fans everywhere. Delight in our limited 2023 edition of Plum Pudding Special Reserve aged 30 days in charred oak Apple Brandy barrels, pressed and crumble plug cut. A chunk of the barrel rests in every tin. Merry Christmas from the Seattle Pipe Club.

Seattle Pipe Club Plum Pudding Christmas Spirit
Seattle Pipe Club Plum Pudding Christmas Spirit (Photo © Brooke Jacobs)

The original Plum Pudding is a towering achievement of a pipe blend, and I would have to agree with the assessment that it’s America’s most popular Balkan. This special holiday presentation, aged in apple brandy casks, manages to make perfection just a little bit better. The familiar is there, along with added highlights: strong oak campfire notes form the backbone, wrapped in parchment, grenache grape, Port wine, Lapsang souchong tea. The plug presentation is not as tightly compressed as others, so cutting portions off to crumble the darkly mottled leaf comes handily. The smoke is much lighter in weight than the pungency of the bouquet would suggest, and burns cool and facilely through the bowl with surprisingly few relights. My preference for this, as with most Balkans, is a fairly capacious pipe in the range of a bent billiard, prince, or tomato, allowing for longer smokes that fully explore all the territory a complex blend such as this can cover. The smoke brings notes of chestnut, lamp oil, cardamom and nutmeg, frequent bursts of bright lemony sweetness from the Virginia, and added tart tannic green crabapple notes further enhanced by the inclusion of the cask wood. More than a presentation gimmick, the little chunk of wood dials up the bouquet to 11 while more subtly influencing the flavor—it was gangbusters in the wonderful Stove-Aged 35 Ribbon from McClelland not so long ago, and is equally brilliant here. Aside from the high tannic notes, in expands the sharp campfire sting and meaty mid-tones in the mix, and manages to steer away from the duller clay-like notes of Cyprian Latakia that are often a detractor to my palate. If you were already a fan of Plum Pudding, this is a can’t miss incarnation.

Judging from these limited-run offerings from Sutliffe, 2023 is a banner year for holiday blends that will appeal to a wide range of tastes. Along with the general well-wishes of the season, may you all find the time to carve out those moments of respite that our hobby affords us.




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