"Do not seek to follow in the footsteps of the wise; seek what they sought." Matsuo Basho, for the uninitiated, is one of the Great Writers of any genre or language or time period. His particular claim to fame lies in his style-defining haiku, written in his short fifty-year lifetime at the dawn of the Edo period in Japan. That his authorship has come to us through a century and a half speaks to his clarity of insight into the human condition, into the universal truths of our shared experience. And shared experience is what draws us pipe smokers together, in a culture of instant camaraderie for our pastime of thoughtful enjoyment. Tsuge Pipe, in collaboration with Drew Estate, drew on Basho as inspiration for their Four Seasons line of aromatic blends debuted at last year’s IPCPR tradeshow in Las Vegas. I recalled being intrigued back then, and recently decided to try two of the seasons so that I could round out a recent order from SmokingPipes: First Days of Spring, a Virginia-burley-Cav with a dash of Perique & a berry topping, and Summer Daydream, a Virginia-burley-Cav enhanced with vanilla.
I like to wash / the dust of this world / In the droplets of dew
Presentation is our first experience of a tobacco, and here the Tsuge line excels. The tin art on the Four Seasons line is sublime, each depicting a seasonally appropriate view of Mount Fuji in the ukiyo-ye style. The images are deliciously colored, with the Tsuge name scrolled down on the right side in red. The back of the tin eschews descriptive text in favor of a Basho haiku; here I would prefer it accompany rather than replace a blend detail. A minor quibble, considering that the power of the Interwebs reveals quickly enough the blend ingredients. Opening the tins reveals delicate aromas that indeed align with the tin art fittingly—Spring’s fine ribbon produces a charming chocolate-covered cherry bouquet (though no impression of Perique), while Summer’s rougher cut brings notes of sweet clover and hay.
For a lovely bowl / let us arrange these flowers / for there is no rice
Unfortunately, that is where the blends’ high marks end. Despite the intimation of pleasantly rich flavors in the aromas, the smokes themselves prove relatively insubstantial. While far from unpleasant, I find the flavors simply … washed out, to the point of being rather uninteresting. Sampled over the course of two months in every possible combination of pipe and setting, I returned again and again hoping to find the sweet spot, to no avail. Everything seems to be in order—decent manufacture, a restrained hand with the flavorings, a quality brand—but it just doesn’t seem to come together for these blends. Again, though, they’re not bad by any real measure, and seem utterly without bite, so the recommendation here is that they’re "driving smokes"—good for when you need to puff on something unobtrusive while your attention is focused elsewhere.
Royal Challenge: red & gold Virginias, fire-cured & steamed black Cavendish, rum, and seasoned with cinnamon and nutmeg.
For some reason, the Age of Discovery always finds its way into my tobacco travels. Another recent and rather under-the-radar release are three blends from the East India Trading Company brand, a marque from the makers of none other than the venerable Gurkha Cigars. Unlike the ultra-luxury angle that Kaizad Hansotia’s cigar venture took, the EITC imprint enters the pipe market at a comfortable price point, and with surprisingly conservative packaging at that. Under the hood, though, the blends prove to be distinctive and engagingly rich, and leave me looking forward to future iterations. Available from Pipes & Cigars in a "Rum Punch Sampler", all three blends are based on—you guessed it—a rum-infused Cavendish base.
Cellar Reserve: burley, Virginia and Cavendish with Añejo rum & a touch of Perique.
The three tobaccos are a wonderfully thematic presentation, noting rum and tobacco as playing a major role in the growth of the EITC, a topic near and dear to me. The tin art echoes the subject with old-fashioned lettering and clip art motifs that resemble antique crate labels or liquor bottles. Though they appear quite plain at first glance, there are layers of detail to be uncovered, such as the half-toned ledger sheets in the background. But we don’t smoke the tins—the tobacco inside is the real star, and each of these mixtures really outshines the unostentatious packaging, and likewise provides layers to uncover in their flavors. Though all three are rum Cavendish mixes, they each offer some distinct voicing.
Officer’s Club: mellow burley, Virginia, and slow-steamed Cavendish with white rum and creamy vanilla.
Royal Challenge is the mildest of the blends, with red & golden Virginia and some sweet spices rounding it out. Softer on the flavoring and the nicotine than the others, as well as in the visibly lighter mahogany-brown ribbon, it makes a good morning smoke with a coffee, precisely as recommended on the label. The Cellar Reserve mixes burley into the Virginia and Cavendish along with a pinch of Perique for body and spice. Noticeably stronger in flavor and tone, and darker in texture with the rougher ribbon cut, it really is a hearty mouthful of a smoke. The Perique here is merely a background player, enhancing the earthy fruit color. I reckon it as the tobacco equivalent of having thick Belgian ale for lunch, chased down with some Black Forest cake—simply delicious, if a bit decadent. Officer’s Club is the most heavily spiced of the blends, a rich dinner dessert tobacco if ever there was one, its paper rosette actually soaked brown with the topping. Of the three it’s the sweetest, with a clear vanilla custard profile that puts a New York deli flan to shame. Make no mistake, these are the dreaded heavy aromatics your crusty old pipe club friends warned you about—but they’re the Ivy League versions, with good solid natural ingredients in the recipe, great draw & burn characteristics, and lacking in bite and goop. Unsurprisingly, the blends also provide top-notch room notes that should elicit smiles and inquiries from anyone in the proximity. All three really take the seemingly pedestrian Cavendish genre to the next level, and are recommended must-tries for aromatic fans.