The Other Side of the Table

Russ Ouellette
Last year,
I had the good fortune to be asked to be a participant in the inaugural Throwdown blending competition, sponsored by the Seattle and New York Pipe Clubs, which called upon myself, Mike and Mary McNeil of McClelland and Carl McAlister of Altadis to try to make a blend as close as possible to the revered Balkan Sobranie 759. Our BlackHouse was selected as the Grand Prize winner, and the aftermath, including the very successful commercial launch of the blend, has been uniquely satisfying.
A while back, I received a call from Matt Guss, the president of the Seattle Pipe Club, and one of masterminds of the throw down, asking me for some feedback. After a little chat, he said that the clubs wanted to invite 3 different blenders to be involved with the 2012 Throwdown to keep it fresh and vital, and I agreed that it would be wise to do so. At that point, however, I also felt a little deflated as I had enjoyed being included in the event. After our exchange, Matt asked me if I would be one of the judges for this year’s contest. I immediately agreed.

I’m not unaccustomed to evaluating tobacco products as I’m constantly scrutinizing my own work, and I also do cigar reviews for our sister publication, Cigar, but this task carries quite a bit more weight than a cigar review as there’s a competition involved, so I’m putting my serious hat on to be as focused as possible to make a difficult selection.
My methodology, to this point, has been to try the original blend (John Cotton’s #1 & 2 Medium, one of my old favorites) and then one of the entries in a double-fired porcelain pipe, made for me by Rolando Negoita. Since it’s a non-absorbent material, a good wipe of a cloth and a couple of pipe cleaners and it is clean and ghost-free. The initial results have been pretty surprising, but I won’t reveal any details here.
The next time through, I try the blend in a briar that has been thoroughly cleaned and I dedicate the pipe to that blend until I’m finished. Between puffs on the pipe, I sip seltzer and have some water crackers and mild cheese, which are often served at wine tasting and during the judging of various food competitions. I also try to change up the time of day, as that will also impact how the tobacco tastes.
We are tasked with judging the blends based upon appearance, smoking qualities, flavor and aroma, and what I’ve discovered during the process is that even though each blend is a bit different, they all, to this point, have captured some element of the original, so the final judgment is going to be really interesting, and, I would guess, quite close.

Throwdown Logo Designed by Neill Archer Roan
The bottom line for you should be that there just might be three great new blends for you to try, if all the blenders decide to bring their entries to market. I have noted some excellent qualities in all three of the blends, and I write notes as I smoke, that is, if I can see properly because of the tears in my eyes after smoking the original, which I haven’t done in some 25+ years.
I’m having an inordinate amount of fun with this, so far, but I always feel a little uncomfortable passing judgment on other people’s work. That said, based on my experiences so far, this has been one of the tastiest challenges of my life, and I’ll have a lot more to say after May 5th. Let’s get ready to rumble!
2012 John Cotton Throwdown
3 talented blenders compete using their skills to match the legendary John Cotton 1&2
Neill Archer Roan
Marty Pulvers
Russ Ouellette
Steve Books, House of Calabash
Dick Silverman, Chief Catoonah
Leonard Wortzel, Lane Limited

Steve Books, House of Calabash
Leonard Wortzel, Brand Manager Pipe and RYO, Lane Limited
Dick Silverman, Chief Catoonah

LIVE Throwdown Judging & Award Ceremony
Saturday May 5th, 5:00pm
The Smoking Tent at the Chicago Pipe Show
Sponsored by Sutliff Tobacco Company
Presented by the Seattle Pipe Club and New York Pipe Club

15 Responses

  • Exciting! I can’t wait to hear what everyone has to say about the 3 blends. I really like this kind of stuff. No Picture of Dick Silverman, Chief Catoonah? Is he a ghost? I’m gonna make a prediction and say Leonard W. takes the cake!

  • Seeing the blenders involved, I think we are in for three wonderful new tobacco blends.
    Hooray for us

  • I never smoked the John Cotton blends in the days of yore, but am looking forward to trying any of the winners that are made commercially available. I have smoked,and enjoyed, both Black Mountain and Blue House, from McClelland.

  • I can’t wait for the results. That was my favorite in the 1960s. The graphics on the can were white background and black lettering as I recall. Not as shown here! A friend used to smoke their Smyrna. Man was that a strong room note.

  • Well, if you visit steve Books “House of Calabash” and read up about him, he should be able to blend the exact original Balkan Sobranie 759 blend..”no tobacco is safe in his hands”. Just saying. Put your money where your mouth is, and by the way,,,this is constructive critism..not bashing.

  • Hello Spartan and all.. I just checked. I’m not a ghost yet. (LOL) So now you have a small pic of me. Developing a blend for the John Cotton Throwdown 2012 competition was an awesome and fun undertaking. I’m eager to try the other two submissions.

  • Spartan is giving this blending rookie waaaaay too much credit. I had tremendous fun trying to recreate the blend. I learned more about smoking, tasting and appreciating the process in those two weeks than I had in the last twenty years.

  • Sounds like it was a challenging event, if it went about over two weeks.
    I will also make it a point to try these blends should they become available, and good luck to the blenders.

  • I think kudos are definitely warranted for all three contestants. This is no small undertaking and is certainly going to bring some serious scrutiny to their work.

  • I’d like to second kcghost’s comment about kudos to the contestants. We’re all lucky to have three such talented blenders willing to enter the John Cotton Throwdown. Yes, it’s all in good fun. But it’s also a contest, and my hat is off to Steven Books, Dick Silverman, & Leonard Wortzel for their willingness to share their experience and skill with the pipe community.

  • I was in a antique store a few weeks ago and picked up a few what I thought was empty tins one being John cottons I soon found out they had never been open the John Cotton’s tin date back to 1950-1952 now how cool is that.

  • Richard… SUPER COOL!! >>I soon found out they had never been open the John Cotton’s tin date back to 1950-1952 now how cool is that.<< Where was that antique store? Could be worth a trip to check out other shops in the area.

  • dickatcct, the shop is in the St. Louis area so if you ever in this location give me a holla and we will go huntin