Where Am I Going & What Am I Doing In This Handbasket?

By Russ Ouellette
The implication of the title
of this article would imply that I’m going to hell, and if you listen to some of the antis, they would reinforce that belief. In actuality, when I see the large number of our customers who are in their eighties and nineties who light up daily, I feel confident that some of those folks are still alive and kicking due to the peace of mind and almost zen-like relaxation that smoking a pipe can bring.

As to whether I’m involved in a noble profession, that’s a matter of perspective. And I’m certainly not doing this because of financial gain. Don’t get me wrong, I get paid fairly for what I do, but there are certainly a number of other things I could do that would pay me better. So why do it? First, I love tobacco blending. It’s the closest thing I can think of to becoming a chef without having to deal with a 130 degree kitchen in July. Plus I get the additional benefit of performing my tasks and serving people around the world.

I love the nuances of using Virginia like sugar, Perique like pepper, Latakia like Liquid Smoke, etc. One of the things that I find attractive is failure. Obviously, I don’t like missing my mark when I’m trying to put something new together, but it’s in sampling the mistakes that I discover what some of the combinations actually do, rather than the way I expect. Every time I don’t accomplish what I’m aiming for, I learn something new, and I file it in the back of my mind for use at a later date.

Another aspect of my job is to write material for our websites, and (as a sideline) for PipesMagazine.com and CigarChronicles.com. Since this has become a bigger part of my responsibility, I find that it helps keep me fresh. I can deal with questions, write about processes, tobaccos, the business and the people. I can work in some of my passions, like the article about Sherlock Holmes or have a few laughs with definitions (September, 2011). I also find that, as I write, I’ll occasionally look at things from a slightly different perspective, and that may lead to a discovery or a whole new idea.

Something else that I do for Habana Premium Cigar Shoppe/PipesandCigars.com is to answer customer questions about the products we carry. I’m still dumbfounded by the amount of misinformation that is spread about pipes, tobaccos and cigars. You would think that there would be enough ways for people to get the truth – with magazines, websites from the manufacturers and retailers and sites that use industry professionals as writers, but sadly, there’s still enough bulls**t (def- effluvia from a male bovine) that circulates in a way that presents itself as fact to choke said bull. If we, in the tobacco industry, are fortunate enough to have a customer pick up a phone and call, or take the time to email with a question regarding the misinformation, we can save him or her time, aggravation and money, but there are a lot of folks we never reach, so they wind up getting burned.

When I can help someone out, it makes my day. This is the true definition of “win-win”. The customer goes away happy, the company reinforces a good relationship, and I feel good that someone’s day has been made a little better. That’s probably one of the reasons that so many anti-smokers are miserable; they only get to give people bad news (as they interpret it, even when the numbers don’t add up). When I can identify a tobacco for someone who hasn’t been able to locate it, I know that I’ve made someone’s life a bit more enjoyable, and that helps me get to sleep at night.

I also get to go to the pipe shows. If you haven’t had the enjoyment of attending one of these, you should make it a point to get to one. Almost universally, the people I know from the pipe side of this business are among the kindest, most generous and accepting individuals I have met. It was a little over five years ago that I began to attend the shows. When I first got there, I had no idea how things worked, and although I knew some industry people who were there, I couldn’t bother them while they were taking care of their own business…or so I thought. When I ran into problems where I might be missing some tape, pens or the like, I found that just asking was all it took. All of a sudden I went from feeling like an outsider to being "one of the guys" (even though there’s a number of women among the "guys" today), and I will be eternally grateful to all the amazing people who sit behind the tables at these shows.

Additionally, I get to meet many of our customers and potential customers. I enjoy helping pipesters find the right sample(s) to try based on their likes and dislikes. We’ll get into conversations about blends and pipes from the past, families, hobbies, characters we’ve known and much more, and I often get a better sense of how my efforts impact other people. It can be a very humbling situation. At a recent show, I was talking to someone regarding a tobacco from the past that I had reproduced as accurately as I could. I was told that, when this customer was in college, he had started smoking a pipe, and he fell in love with this older blend which he smoked about 75% of the time. When he got home for the holidays, he told his father that he had taken up the pipe (Dad was a pipe smoker as well), and he took out his tin to light up. His father asked him what he was smoking, and he offered him the tin so he could try some. Dad fell in love with the blend, too. So every time he would go home, he always brought his father a tin, as no one in Dad’s area carried it.

Years passed, and his father did also. Around the same time, the company discontinued the blend, so for a long time, there was an empty space for this gentleman. Last year, he sampled one of my blends, which happened to be the one that I intended to be similar to his old favorite. He came back to my table after trying it and told me the history and then proceeded to tell me that when he got a few puffs into the bowl, he felt tears welling up as it reminded him of the bonding that had occurred with his father. I’m not an overly emotional guy, but I got a little misty and choked up after hearing him.

This is why I find the handbasket fairly comfortable, and I hear that it’s nice and warm where I’m headed.


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


23 Responses

  • Taking time out for a pipe and peace of mind as a result just HAS to help one live longer. Even when I’m carrying a pipe in my teeth while busy I’m in a good space. Ya just have to slow down something in the day’s events to have a decent smoke even on the run or the pipe will snap at ya and let ya know to s-l-o-w down a bit.
    Russ you have been very helpful in my quest for my custom blend,Piney Glade, and my hat is off to you with your prompt responses to emails, thank you.
    If it weren’t for me being a pipe smoker I never would have met a certain Brother of Briar online and developed a good freindship.
    Through participating on a pipe forum I met a fellow recovering person and have shared many mutual interests even though he’s 20yrs younger than I. I AM greateful for folks like you and other Fellow Of The Craft.

  • Russ, what’s with that last paragraph?!?!? Are you TRYING to make me cry?!?!!? Nice article!

  • Great article,Russ! It’s nice to be in a profession you love, I know, I was in the business for about 10 years myself. If there was a decent B&M in the area, I’d try to get back into it.

  • Great article my friend. Take solace in the fact that you bring happyness to pipe smokers everywhere.

  • Thank you Russ for that little peek behind the curtain. As always; a very good read, thoroughly enjoyed.

  • hahahaha very good article. touching and good to know hell will be a nice place with all of us there.

  • Thanks for an entertaining and well written article. I can’t begin to tell you how much I appreciate your blending accomplishments. A substantial portion of the Hearth & Home line brightens my day, every day; and the bliss of my one indulgence in life would be greatly diminished without the work you do.

  • Great article Russ, it is neat to about hear the hobby from the perspective of a blender/retailer. Thanks!

  • Well keep making those wonderful Orientals and Balkans and I will keep reviewing them. You made it easy for me with MAgnum Opus and Black HOuse. Funny how you mentioned cooking because I often compare food experiences with my tastes of tobacco. Magnum Opus is an exciting blend that lends itself to all sorts of pairings, be it coffee, a dark beer or even cowboy coffee, a campfire and roasted corn. Black House is the companion of the decadent. Marrow Bones simmered with butter, a few slightly seared white aparagus with butter and a chocolate torte for dessert with a deep Burgundy followed by a spiritual cleansing of a Swiss Verte Absinthe sipped slow, while the BH is smoked slow, preferably in a meer or a warden.

  • I think I got something in my eye near the end there. Something manly, like sawdust or sand spit up from a top fuel bike doing a burnout. 🙂
    Thanks for the article, Russ.

  • Wonderful article Russ! Just had an argument with my doctor the other day about pipesmoking & how it helps stress, and can calm you! Thanks again, John Christman

  • Great read Russ..slide over and make some room in that hand basket…..Loved the way you mentioned learning from the mistakes,..kinda like playing the “wrong” chord and then finding out it’s a better one to play..improvisation in blending..mistakes can be better then what was intended. Blend and Smoke on….

  • Indeed, you have fine job. As a pipe smoker the best thing is, that it sometimes reminds someone of a close uncle or father that has passed away.

  • Enjoyed your article with some Anniversary Kake, Russ, and once again you’ve made me jealous and instilled more than a little yearning to get into the business, handbasket and all!

  • I truly love what I do for a living, but there are aspects of it I wouldn’t wish on anyone, mainly the garbage I get from anti-smokers. But, it’s more than made up for by all the kind words from customers and the friendships I’ve made with amazingly talented people in the industry. I used to admire the work of many of these folks for years and now I count them among my friends and look forward to the shows so we can get together and have some laughs.
    Likewise, the opportunity to express my thoughts, for what they’re worth, here on PipesMagazine.com and CigarChronicles.com has been cathartic, and I really enjoy the comments and feedback.

  • Dealing with antis is much like dealing with religious zealots. You can’t force to see someone who has sewn his own eyes shut. The myopic noise they spew may work its way into the tin ear of a politician who can’t hear reason and is searching for a way to pretend he is doing his job, but it won’t stand against the million fires of not only we who appreciate what you do, but the great minds of the past, whose ability to reason reminds us every day to be humble in our thoughts and serious as we appreciate the balm that is contemplating the glowing ember and the ethereal wreath about our heads. You will need the warmth of all who wish to join you because the opponents of liberty and free thought will make hell a cold place.

  • Great Article Russ! Now you got me curious what is the blend you made that is similar to one the Son smoked with his Dad? Is it available or a custom blend. Would love to know.