This cellar-diving kick is really paying off, considering the time and effort that went into stocking the coffers with tobacco meant to be enjoyed with some age on its side. This month’s candidate for review is a tin of JackKnife Plug dated 6th April 2011, among the first production runs of this blend from the New World Collection. Having done a release review for it and its fraternal twin JackKnife Ready Rubbed back in 2012, and seeing as this tin is just reaching its eleventeenth birthday, it seems a fitting time to revisit what Mr. Pease hath wrought.
Opening the tin with no small amount of anticipation, one can really appreciate the way patience can pay off with tobacco. The aromatics release with a whoosh of pressure, itself an immensely satisfying sound while peeling back the lid. The scents fill the air immediately, strong and sweet tones that flood the entire room: up front, the rich bitter sweetness of a Terry’s Dark Chocolate Orange, baker’s chocolate; developing over some time with nuances like rich mulched earth, brand new leather shoes, a phenolic tinge reminiscent of Dettol or pine tar, and an underlying meatiness of a lightly-charred steak. Over the course of a couple of weeks making my way through the tin, the aroma tempers down to a more familiar chocolate-covered cherry cordial with layers of parchment and a briney umami saltiness like soy or Worcestershire sauce. It’s tempting, with all this chocolaty aroma, to take a bite out of the brownie-like bar of tobacco, a feeling I’m surely not alone in contemplating. The presentation does however invite closer inspection of the tobacco, such a tangible thing when in bar form. This 11-year-old plug is only lightly dusted with the whitish ‘sugar crystals’ often found on aged Virginia blends, and peering into the layers from outermost to innermost there is a general uniformity of color and texture all the way through—again, and not to belabor the point, but the color is a rich, bitter dark chocolate-brown that perfectly mirrors the aromas.
The composition of this blend is clearly no accident, no haphazard mashing together of leaf. Greg clearly set out with a goal in mind: exploring the breadth and depth of the character that could be created when working with the darling of the pipe tobacco world at the time, dark-fired Kentucky. Dark-fired enjoyed a bit of a heyday with the release of these GLP offerings, as well as a host of others such as MacBaren’s HH Old Dark Fired. Speaking on the composition of JK Plug versus Ready-Rubbed, he notes:
The blend is identical, with one small exception. The plug is constructed with a core of brights, and the darker tobaccos surrounding it. This allows the brights, theoretically, to express themselves with more purity in the blend. They’re not under as great an influence from the fire-cured and red tobaccos. Doing this with the [Ready Rubbed] wouldn’t work well, because of the way the tobacco clumps, so the blocks are not stratified in this way. The same tobaccos in the same measures are just layered and pressed for the same length of time, then the blocks are sliced and tumbled. It’s the same technique used for the Old London mixtures.
It was also clearly intended with aging in mind; again, in Greg’s own words:
When I first designed the stuff, I had no idea what the future would bring. There was certainly no reason to think it would do anything but age wonderfully, but you never know. The plug form causes internal anaerobic fermentation, while the outer layers are still exposed to plenty of air. The other night, I opened an 8-month old tin of the final prototype. The aroma was intoxicating, and the smoke was HUGE. I think it’s safe to say it’s going to age really, really nicely. And quickly. I would have believed the tobacco in that tin to have been 5 years old already.
With more than a decade under the hood waiting to prove or disprove this theory, the bar was sliced thin and thick, folded, rubbed, and stuffed into a variety of bowl geometries to tease out its flavors, and the results are resoundingly positive.
The verdict? JackKnife Plug has the character and complexion of the heartiest of English blends, while being completely absent of Latakia or Oriental leaf. It ages like a peaty single-malt of the finest provenance, developing layers and depth that belie the relative simplicity of its ingredients. I quickly gravitated toward a wider, open-chambered pipe for tasting, one that I would generally use for English blends, as it naturally accommodated the finer nuances of the smoke—and the smoke is certainly huge. The top of the bowl starts with a piccolo-like overture from the Virginia-Perique nexus, with a peppery nose prominently laying the groundwork for what’s to come—think Shostakovich’s 6th, first movement (in fact, this piece is a good parallel overall; perhaps without quite as much of the bombast of later movements). The sweetness is surprisingly underplayed, however—the Perique quickly becomes a background spice, lending sour notes while falling in step with the harmony of the Virginia’s more leathery tones. The sharp edges are all well-rounded over here; far from being able to bite, this smoke develops a thick, steak-dinner mouthfeel almost immediately, one which lingers for a good while after the pipe is finished. By mid-bowl the full composition really comes together, with the darker smokiness of the Kentucky burley stepping center stage even while some of the sweetness sneaks back in. In fact, for beverage pairings I favor an extra-sweet iced tea or soft drink as personal preference. The umami of mid-bowl builds and builds through to the heel, as the chocolaty and nutty tones segue into barbecue woods and steak char, with a touch of Worcestershire still interwoven from the Perique’s spice. Somewhat surprisingly for such a stout blend, the nicotine does not overwhelm—it’s a solid medium-plus, though, best enjoyed after a meal.
While my preference with the plug is to slice relatively thin, then rub thoroughly for the gorgeous aroma, the flavors do, in fact, transmit differently than the ready-rubbed version here. I’ve not yet opened an equally-aged tin of JK Ready-Rubbed to do a direct comparison, but thanks to my tasting notebooks I can draw the lines on where the flavors diverge in their nuances. Looking back over the years, I find a previous dalliance with a couple of 5-year-old tins of Plugin 2017, and many of the same notes were hit, though perhaps with not as much of the basso continuo evidenced in this older sample. The New World Collection also marks a return to tobacco which we had been missing on this side of the pond for the most part—hard-pressed plugs. You’d certainly be hard-pressed to find a better smoke to stock in your cellar.