Put that in Your Pipe

Customizing Your Favorite Blend

Russ Ouellette
It’s been said that your ideal blend is out there,
but I don’t necessarily believe that. I would rather say that your ideal blend is out there, but it may be in disguise. What I mean is that we all have tried a blend that is really close to what would be the perfect smoke, but just slightly misses the mark. Most people will simply enjoy the blend for what it is and will keep looking for their holy grail. For a relatively small and adventuresome group who can’t leave well enough alone, this is an invitation to try some home blending.

This is a task that has been done countless times with widely varying results. Even though I have a lot of components at my disposal, I still like certain blends with a little "tweak". Every so often I find the combination of Gawith, Hoggarth & Company’s Best Brown #4 (rubbed out) with a pinch of Cyprian Latakia to be just what the doctor ordered.

This kind of experimentation takes a number of forms. One of the most common forms of this is what I refer to as "corned beef hash" blends. In a lot of households, when there was a corned beef and cabbage dinner, it usually meant that hash would soon follow because the leftover beef and potatoes would be used, along with other items hanging around, like onions, and I’ve even had it with carrots. For a lot of people who hate to waste anything, all the tiny amounts at the bottom of the can or bag are routinely dumped into a container and mixed up, resulting in the home version of what smoke shops call the "Hoover Blend" or floor-sweepings. This, usually, doesn’t wind up becoming nirvana, however, and even if it did, the chances of recreating it are next to zero.

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The second kind of home blending comes from a similar kind of practicality. Just as combining the scraps and leftovers comes from a desire to not waste tobacco, this type is an attempt to save a blend that just didn’t ring the bell properly. We’ve all rolled the dice and bought a blend on a whim and smoked it later only to find that it missed the target, sometimes by a wide margin, so rather than wasting tobacco, we keep it around and will add a pinch to another blend as an extender, or mix in some quantity of other tobaccos to make it palatable. Either way, the result doesn’t often produce something that makes one hear choirs of seraphim singing an oratorio when the tobacco is lit.

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The type of home blending that will sometimes result in the perfect tobacco is when you try something new that’s just slightly off what you desire. Then with a pinch of this tobacco or a fistful of that blend, you discover the mixture that has all the elements you desire. If you’re fortunate, you kept notes or have the kind of memory that will retain the blend and you’ll have found what few people ever do- the ideal smoke.

Is there an approach that works well with this type of home blending? Yes, but it doesn’t work without being able to break down the flavors of the blend and knowledge of what different tobaccos bring to the table. It’s not necessary to be able to pinpoint specific flavor elements (like marshmallow or leather), but determining that a blend needs to be sweeter, spicier, smokier, etc. is mandatory. From there, it becomes a matter of being able to identify another blend that has the element that’s needed. The last step is finding the proper proportions to achieve the desired result.

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Sometimes, the blend you’re trying is so close to ideal that it will only require a small modification to get where you want to go. So understanding the fundamental qualities of different tobaccos is helpful. Here’s a brief rundown- Virginias tend to be sweet, with the lighter color indicating more sweetness due to higher sugar content. Red Virginias tend to have a more "bready" or toasty flavor. White Burley has a walnut-like flavor, while dark Burleys are earthy and a bit spicy. Orientals can have flavors that range from musty to buttery to floral. Latakia or dark-fired Kentucky add a smokiness, but care should be used with the Kentucky as it has a significant amount of Vitamin N. Cavendishes tend to have a sweetness, and most are flavored in some way, with unflavored black Cavendish having a distinct brown sugar aroma and flavor. Perique will add a stewed fruit and pepper note along with a decent nicotine hit.

The condimental tobaccos (the stronger flavored ones like Latakia, Perique and dark-fired Kentucky) should always be used conservatively, at first, as it’s difficult at best to cover it up when too much is used. Increase amounts gradually until the desired result is achieved. The lighter flavored tobaccos can be used a bit more liberally, as the influence is not as strong.

So, after all of your years of searching, you’ve found a blend that’s pretty close to what you’ve been looking for, and you start experimenting until you find just the right additive in just the right proportion, and you’ve finally landed upon your happy place. The next step is to make up a batch and enjoy. Your life is finally complete, and you’ll spend the rest of your life bathed in warm sunshine in a beautiful garden…right?

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Not so fast, because, as with most things in life, there are no guarantees. For example, your tastes can change. Recently I spoke with a gentleman who had a pretty bad motorcycle accident and during his recovery he discovered that there were foods that he liked that he no longer cared for and he began to enjoy others that he previously disliked. This will happen to almost everyone, but in a much less drastic manner. I mean, after all, it gets a little boring to eat pepperoni pizza for breakfast everyday.

Additionally, blends will change (hopefully, modestly) from year to year, which, of course, will also change your blend. But, in this case, a minor adjustment should solve the problem.

If you decide to give this a try, I wish you the best and really hope that you finally come up with something that makes every day a bit nicer for you. If you don’t, there are a number of blenders out there who are always coming up with new tobaccos, one of which might be your new favorite. Anyway, the enjoyment’s not always at the destination, it’s often the journey.

 

Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe and www.pipesandcigars.com in Albany, NY. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at russo@pipesandcigars.com or by calling 1-800-494-9144 on Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 9 am to 5 pm and Friday from 1 pm to 5 pm.

See our interview with Russ Ouellette Here

 

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Between your posts here and also at TALKINGTOBACCO.COM, I'm getting as fine an education as I could ever expect ... without it being in-person and my providing the single-malt, that is. Much appreciated as always. I'm new around here at PIPESMAGAZINE, but I couldn't be more grateful for the wealth of online resources available for pipe and cigar enthusiasts. Russ, is there a book in your future? It was be great to have your perspectives and teaching gathered all together.
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    Brewshooter
  • May 1, 2012
I've taken a few OTC blends that I just wasn't smoking much and concoted a sort of house blend which turned out to be quite enjoyable. What is it with us pipe smokers and always wanting to meddle?!!? :)
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    Pipe Novelist
  • May 1, 2012
I found this article to be a very enjoyable read and might actually consider trying this in the near future. Thanks Russ!
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    rigmedic1
  • May 2, 2012
I fall into the "I dont like it" category, so when I get a tobacco I dont like, I find something to mix it with that will help it. Thanks for the tips, Russ! And yes, I do keep notes.
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    Chuck
  • May 2, 2012
I have come up with some off the wall stuff.Like the Squad leader that was dried out and I mixed it granger turned out fantastic.Try Gawaith Navy flake and Prince Albert another treat.
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    waznyf
  • May 4, 2012
Have yet to come up with my ideal tobacco blend due to the fact that I am still in the beginner stage of trying well known common pipe tobaccos.
I do hope that one day I'll be able to accomplish this goal and have my desired tobacco.
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    jameral
  • May 4, 2012
This article is what I needed to try to tweak some of my not so great blends that I have stored. Thanks for the tips Russ.
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    Charles Funn
  • May 6, 2012
Sounds like you're trying to get the "blending hook" into some folks...Is this how you got started??? As per usual a fantastic read Russ...
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    lazydog
  • May 6, 2012
my tweaked blend, called Ottoman, is proper english with a touch of a VAPER (Virginia/Perique), and a slight touch of Turkish Izmir. I'm always looking to add a little haylike taste. Gotta be careful with the Turkish Izmir, or it will start to really dominate.
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    romeowood
  • May 13, 2012
If only our home experiments all turned out as well as Russ's!
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    3xbbb
  • May 27, 2012
Russ, as I mentioned in a previous post, I was somewhat disappointed with the H&H Vapers, which I found lacked the penetrating influence of Perique as you find it in f. ex. Haddo's Delight (admittedly I'm a Perique addict, so I may need stronger doses than other folks). I used to smoke Charles Fairmorn Custom Blend Mixture No 242, bit it was discontinued some 20 years ago. I then created a substitute from McConnell tobaccos (Virginias, Maduro and Perigue) and later on I experimented for more than a year with Paul Olson's My Own Blend before a more satisfactory substitute was ready. But it's still not there!
I wonder if you happen to have known the Charles Fairmorn? Ingredients are 3/10 mature red Virginia, 3/10 mild English Cavendish, 1/10 Louisiana Perique, and then the secret ingredient 3/10 other choice specially matured tobaccos. Do you have a recommendation to recreate this sour-sweet, peppery and easy burning tobacco (some of the ashes had a bronze color)
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