The Nose Knows

Russ Ouellette
The olfactory sense is linked to memory more strongly than, perhaps, any of the other four.
As an example of what I mean, think about this- how many times have you seen someone and you’re sure that you know him or her, but the name, circumstances of your meeting, or even if you like or dislike the person eludes you. Now, walk through a mall food court and the smell of fried fish hits you. You may have pleasant or unpleasant recollections of the aroma (odor?), but it will probably bring back thoughts of situations and people that are incredibly vivid.

When I was much younger, I had an aunt with whom I was very close. She was a kind and very courageous person who had all kinds of physical issues, but never complained and was always more concerned about other people than she was in her own problems. She always wore the same perfume and she used to have a glass of port in the evening. I can be in a crowd of people, but I can identify that perfume instantaneously, and my first thought is of Aunt Henrietta. When I pull the cork out of a bottle of ruby port, I can practically see her face, even though she’s been gone for more than thirty years.

So, of course, I’m writing about aromas. In his later years, my father smoked Half & Half. This was before the blend changed, which was very apparent to me when it occurred. In recent years, Lane began making that iconic blend, and the aroma is much more the way I remember it, so it brings back memories of my dad.

When I started to create the Hearth & Home line (and I wonder if anyone caught the significance of the initials H&H), I still had memories of my father’s original favorite tobacco. It came from a shop in Albany which had long since closed, and was a blend of Burleys, a bit of Virginia, a small amount of Latakia, and deertongue. I started to play around with those components, and after a little bit of time, I had come up with something reasonably close; close enough that some of that shop’s old customers began buying it regularly. I called it Old Tartan, and it’s still part of our lineup.

Revisiting old blends and trying to come up with something similar is a topic that has been surprisingly controversial. Some folks believe that it’s an effort in futility because some of the components are no longer available Others seem to feel that it’s best to allow them to remain a memory, while some feel that it shows a lack of creativity.

Many more, however, are looking for replacements for their old favorites, and are constantly emailing and calling me to ask about doing just that. Frankly, I’ve gotten so many requests in recent years, that if I were to do all of them, I wouldn’t come up with anything else. So why do it at all? There are a number of reasons, but these are the main ones.

I think I work better when I’ve been challenged. When I was asked to make a bacon-flavored tobacco, jokingly, I came up with Vermont Meat Candy. No one seriously expected me to make a blend of that sort, but I enjoy being tested. What was interesting was how well it has sold. So when I am trying to do these "tribute" blends, the fun is in pushing myself. I’ve failed to accomplish my goals more than I’ve succeeded, but when I think that I’ve gotten one right, it’s a great feeling.

Making people happy is what this is all about. If I were doing this just for my own purposes, it would get old really quickly. But the reason for making these blends is for the enjoyment of our customers, so when I get positive feedback, it’s a very satisfying feeling. Even when the response isn’t as good, it’s helpful, and life is a learning experience. When someone says that one of these blends causes them to reminisce, that’s the best compliment I could receive.

It’s beneficial to have a goal. If I have a clear target in mind, it’s much easier for me to know when I’m approaching the finish line. Sometimes, these efforts haven’t taken very long, and that’s almost disappointing. The process, in most cases, is more enjoyable to me than the completed project. It makes me take a long, hard look at the properties of each component and how I can manipulate it, and I learn something new each time.

It forces me to think outside the box. I’m used to doing things my way, but if I stick with what I would normally do, I might not get the results I want. When I force myself to look at things from a different perspective, I grow in experience, and that’s, obviously, a good thing.

But that brings me back to aromas. In those times when I’ve tried to come close to an old blend, I’ve had a number of cases where the flavors were very similar, but they didn’t smell right, and without that, it’s not successful. In a few circumstances, it made me use something I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise to accomplish my goal. But when the stars align, and things work the way I hoped they would, the whiff of smoke will transport me to a different place and time, and the satisfaction is almost overwhelming.

I’m working on one such project right now. Just before the holidays, I tasted a sample that seemed pretty close to my memories of the original. As I approached the bottom of the bowl, I puffed a little more frequently to kick up a cloud of smoke and I left the room and closed the door, When I walked back in the room about twenty minutes later, I sniffed cautiously, with great hopes. A grin spread across my face as a reflex action, and it was a nice moment. A few other people have tried it since, and I got similar feedback from them, and, folks, that never grows old.


Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe and in Bethlehem, PA. 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 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


12 Responses

  • Great article, Russ. I too am amazed by the power of olfactory memories: they seem to evoke an emotional response to a greater degree — something more visceral — than sounds or mental recollections can produce.

  • Sometimes we make things more complicated than need be. It was interesting to read how one tool, your sense of smell is used to fine tune a blend. As a guy who has always had allergies, and frequently a stuffy nose, I wish my sense of smell was just a little bit keener.

  • Enjoyable article for sure.
    Many tobacco blends bring back memories of my father and other friends that have passed away. Also I remember many of so much of those of older relatives and their methods of enjoying tobacco.
    Thanks for sharing.

  • That sense of smell is what got me to start smoking a pipe to begin with, it reminded me of my Grandfather in his den playing the piano after dinner. Edgeworth Ready Rubbed was his tobacco and the smell of the Altadis match nearly floored me. I was instantly transported back almost 40 years to a young child listening in awe to the piano with a pipe constantly burning.

  • The old olfactory is SO where it’s at, while it is the most undervalued sense we have. It’s somewhat understandable when compared to sight and hearing, yet so many of us just love eating- and we so rarely associate the sense of smell going hand-in-hand with that of taste.
    Notice there is few appeals to smell in literature, but tuned-in writers do use it. BRDAVIDSON is lucky to have had his experience, and I totally relate, but I can’t recall what pipe tobacco my grandfather smoked. I do however remember the smell in the hall of that Old Victorian, but I could never tell you what it was. Likely it was a combination of many things, including paint, dust, tobacco and cleaning products. Every once in a while, I can enter another old building (usually in the summer) and catch a “glimpse” of it, but it’s a rare event.
    But I do recall sniffing the bowl of one those old pipes of his- it was wonderful, no matter that I might look “down my nose” on his blend now. Non-smokers who enjoy the smell of our smoke are probably people who keenly love aromas to begin with, and in that, we are surely sharing something. I know that the first time I smelled a jar of pure perique, I thought to myself that it was like something fermenting under a layer of straw in an old barn. Truly lovely.
    The smell a skunk has left behind (as long as its not too close) is also something I like. My lady, oddly enough likes it too. Maybe that’s how she puts up with me.

  • Terrific article, Russ! I can relate, there are some aromas that bring back the past like it was yesterday. It amazes me how people walk up and tell me that my pipe smoke reminds them of a long lost relative or occasion.

  • I liked the subject of blends..What if you try to blend with little amounts of dried thyme leaves and another blend with mint leaves and another with camomile leaves..but not a big amount..You should try them…Maybe th best is with Thyme….

  • I know someone who actually mixes in oregano with their cannabis to stretch it out. I know- it sounds like some old joke. Not being so inclined, I’ve never tried it, but it provides a rather odd aroma- a little like a pizza in a rope factory.
    Russ puts some herb called “deer tongue” in his Old Tartan blend- it’s not topping, but raw chunks that are visible in the mix. What we don’t know is if the mint, thyme, or what have you will provide the flavor in the taste of the smoke. Often in flavored blends something like “blackberry” only ever smells that way, and you’re lucky to just have a sweet flavor when all is said and done.

  • I just wish my nose could overpower my tongue! There are many aromatics out there that I have tried and loved the room note(the wife did too) but I can’t get past what aros do to my palate. Great article. The smell of fried fish brings back my Grandmother’s kitchen, hush puppies and all. A lit,unfiltered cigarette takes me back to my Grandfather’s truck to catch said fish!! Both bring tears to my eyes nearly everytime.

  • Olfactory memories can be enlightening and discouraging at the same time for myself.
    Recognizing the aroma itself that brings the enlightenment, and the discouragement due to the fact; that I can’t place where I experienced it at, because of how long ago it happened. Almost to the point that I want to bang my head against the wall, and at the same time screaming… where do I recognize that from?

  • For the last few years, Old Tartan hasn’t used deertongue, as it contains coumarin (a blood thinner), and may be questionable for use. We found an analogous flavoring with the coumarin removed, but it’s virtually identical in flavor and aroma.