Update: Sept 2022
Sadly, Seattle Pipe Club’s Master Blender, Joe Lankford, has passed away.
Capturing the palates of pipe smokers the world over was never the goal when Joe shared his home-blends with his friends at pipe club meetings. But now, some 15 years since the first Seattle Pipe Club blend was launched in 2007, pipe smokers everywhere can attest to Joe’s greatness—his creativity and talent, as well as his kindness and sincerity. We’re the better for it.
While Joe’s absence leaves a great hole in our community, his presence will continue to echo through and enrich the world of pipe tobacco.
In the two decades since its founding in 2000, the presence of the Seattle Pipe Club (SPC) has spread far beyond the regional notability one might expect from a pipe club. To many of us, the name Seattle Pipe Club means some of the best tobacco blends out there.
SPC has brought us blends that are now a cornerstone of pipe tobacco collections for countless smokers across the world. Mississippi River and Plum Pudding are instant classics—gifts to the palate that continue to give, especially with the varieties of these favorites that have been released over the years. Taking into consideration other dynamic blends from SPC such as Seattle Evening, Potlatch, Hood Canal, and more—we felt we had to write a comprehensive piece exploring this club and their meritorious contributions to the world of pipe smoking.
The Seattle Pipe Club
Before the late 1990s, Matt Guss had been an infrequent pipe smoker. Though the pastime had long played a role in his life, beginning with his father being a pipe smoker, it was starting to become more of a passion than a hobby. But, as many of us can attest, the joys of pipe smoking are as dynamic as the tobaccos we love—it’s as much a social pleasure as it is a solo one.
Naturally, Guss, a self-proclaimed social person, resolved to share in this pastime with others who held the same appreciation for pipes and tobacco. He posted on one of the few pipe smoker forums (mind you, these are nascent internet days) to see if anyone in the Seattle Tacoma area was interested in meeting. Two responses came in, Ron Butler and Gary Schrier.
These three would be the founding members of the Seattle Pipe Club, but from the onset, it was clear that many others were itching for such an environment. Meeting at a local pipe and cigar shop, the Issaquah Tinderbox, the Seattle Pipe Club (as the group would come to be named) had their first meeting. “People just came out of the woodwork it seemed. Probably a dozen or so at the first meet up,” says Guss. “...Folks who showed up knew other pipe smokers, the shop helped out talking to customers and the Seattle Pipe Club began to take off. Lots of other pipe smokers were hungry for making new friends and experiences in the pipe community. We’re a very social bunch of folks.”
At the time, this venture wasn’t really conceived as a “pipe club” in the organized sense—simply friends who wanted to enjoy a pipe together. But as the network grew and things began to pick up steam, they slowly began to naturally take on the staples of an organized club: education, entertainment, and occasionally hosting guest speakers.
If it wasn’t clear that these gatherings were the early stages of a full fledged pipe club, then the notion would likely have elicited guffaws from the early members if you told them that they would evolve into a brand of highly respected blends, one of the most loved small batch operations out there. I mean, when the initial blends were concocted, there was no plan to distribute—demand alone brought that about, and with a slow burn (and we love a slow burn), this trio and their get-togethers has become something else entirely.
But to really tell the story of Seattle Pipe Club Tobacco, we need to visit another name: Joe Lankford.
The Man Behind the Blends
Joe Lankford has been with the Seattle Pipe Club since nearly the beginning and is the Master Blender behind the SPC blends. But I’m sure in the early 2000s Lankford would have never guessed that the pipe club he enjoyed frequenting would also become the vehicle for his personal hobby evolving into the operation it now is. Heck, before his first blending success, Mississippi River, Lankford had come up unsatisfied with his attempts at blending.
But let’s back up to get the whole picture of what led to these mixtures we love today.
The Tobacco Shop and Early Blending
Lankford started smoking a pipe in ‘64 and had his first venture into the industry in the late ‘60s when he and his wife opened a tobacco shop in Dodge City, Kansas. Unfortunately, a recession forced them to close shop in the early ‘70s, but Lankford’s hands-on interest in tobacco wouldn’t end here.
Lankford started blending in the ‘70s. He would often experiment with tobaccos that seemed to fall short of the taste he was looking for by mixing them, trying to discern the component characteristics and their role in the composite to bring out the desired profile. This usually resulted in trashing the experimental blend, Lankford admits, but it offers an insight into Lankford as someone who knows what he wants in a tobacco—that he was long someone to think “hm, well how do I make this myself?” It may not have been overnight that he harnessed the blending mastery to decode and translate into existence what lay on the palate in abstract, but it is no surprise that the man who went on to create such fantastic blends was spurred by a tinkering mind, not content to settle for “close-enough” to the taste he wanted.
Of course, the blotched blends were not eternal—far from it. Lankford set out to develop his palate so that he could sift through the nuances of a blend. He would buy base tobaccos to smoke individually to get to the heart of their properties. He spent weeks doing this and experimenting with different blends, but nothing seemed to hit the mark. That is, until he woke up in the middle of the night with an almost divinely inspired idea. He got up, scratched out a recipe, and returned to bed. The next day he mixed that blend, not expecting much better than his previous flops. But when he took that first draw he knew he had come across something special. That was Mississippi River. No need for refining the recipe, he got just what he was hoping for on the first shot (with one exception, all of Lankford’s distributed blends have been first try recipes).
Lankford and the Seattle Pipe Club
More than a taste for tobacco, Lankford is known in the community for his taste in pipes. He has a particular penchant for S. Bang tobacco pipes—the Copenhagen artisans, world renowned for their legendary craftmanship. It was in the early days of the SPC meetings that Joe Lankford came through the door to show off his collection of more than 50 S. Bang pipes. It wasn’t long after this that he was bringing something else for show-and-tell (or perhaps, share-and-smoke)—homemade tobacco blends.
Lankford began to share his blends with members of the Seattle Pipe Club, which became exceptionally popular with the group, especially with his second strike at gold, the Balkan blend Plum Pudding.
At the time there were no aspirations to take this venture public; in fact, he was making his blends on request from fellow SPC members. As you can imagine, Lankford’s operation wasn’t exactly suited to manufacture or distribute at a high quantity. He gets tobacco from the stock he keeps in his garage (about 1,200 lb worth, as per a 2017 interview), gets out scales and stainless steel bowls, and starts mixing. As requests kept coming in, SPC reached out to Master Blender Russ Ouellette to see if he could make Lankford’s recipes at a larger scale. Even with this first batch being exclusive to the club, the aggregate order exceeded expectations at 50 lbs. From there, requests came from outside the club and in ‘07, Seattle Pipe Club Tobacco went commercial.
With more blends to come such as Seattle Evening, Deception Pass, and Potlatch, as well as variations on Lankford’s initial signature blends, they eventually found larger manufacturing capacity in Sutliff Tobacco’s factory, where Lankford’s recipes are blended to this day.
Matt Guss and Joe Lankford—Friends and Partners
Although Lankford is the stalwart, artistic force, it is not his vision alone we have to thank for these blends. Matt Guss, the founder and president of SPC (and of equal importance, close friend to Lankford) carries the business end and has been there every step of the way to enable these blends to reach their full potential.
I’ve had the pleasure of communicating with Guss through writing this piece, and frankly, it is a great joy to hear how he talks up his friend: “...it is my great honor to have helped introduce this wonderful man to an appreciative international audience,” Guss tells me. “ Joe is my dear friend and talented partner in this little enterprise we call Seattle Pipe Club tobaccos. I am just a backstage business guy. Joe is the star talent!”
I think we can all relate to having that friend, endowed with a great talent as well as modesty, of whom we take great delight in raving about. Hey, you be humble all you want pal, but I’m singing your praises. Although, I can imagine a similar sentiment could be levied on Guss’s modest appraisal of himself as “just a backstage business guy.” Afterall, he’s the man behind SPC. There’s something special about these pipe clubs—we see it in clubs like The Conclave of Richmond Pipe Smokers, who annually host the Pipe Smokers Gathering, or The Chicagoland Pipe Collectors Club, similarly hosting The International Pipe and Tobacciana Show. There is something about the bonds and kinship in a pipe club that makes for fertile ground in taking that shared passion that brings us together locally, and sharing it with our pipe community at large.
The Seattle Pipe Club tobacco brand has come a long way from Lankford’s kitchen. Let’s take a look at some of these fantastic blends you can order through our store:
As was mentioned, Mississippi River was the breakthrough of Lankford’s signature mixtures. Before Mississippi River, he had 35 years of casually experimenting with blending, but this was the first eureka.
In this blend, the spicy Oriental and smoky Latakia bring a medium strength that doesn’t overpower the dark fruitiness of the Red Virginias; they mingle in perfect harmony. Most any fan of English blends will tell you, Mississippi River is a must try.
Lankford’s second blend, it was Plum Pudding that really got heads turning and proved that the Lankford magic which brought us the game changing Mississippi River was far from a fluke or lucky guess, but the result of the dedicated creativity and taste of a master blender.
With this Balkan favorite, smokey Cyprian Latakia stands upfront, but perfectly supported by spicy Orientals. A consistent, cool burn from beginning to end with savory smokiness, if you’re not a down-to-the-ash smoker, you may be now.
Here we have another English with Lankford’s third blend. Seattle Evening was made for the annual SPC dinner. Each year an auction is held at the dinner, so Lankford put a new blend together to be bid on. Like the previous blends, the response was just too positive to limit to the club, and Seattle Evening joined the all-star line-up.
This may be the perfect blend for those with a taste for English but prefer less potent Latakia. No doubt it plays its role, but is tamed in the earthy, citrus foundation of the Red Virginias and slight Oriental spice.
Deception Pass is a milder Virginia/Perique blend—a wonderful all day smoke. But don’t think it’s not for seasoned palates—the only prerequisite for enjoying this blend is a taste for VAPers (and if you don’t have a taste for them, Deception Pass just may make a believer out of you yet).
Citrusy Virginias sit up front with, what is at first, nuanced support from Perique, though the spice blossoms slowly through the bowl, steadily escalating its insistence on paying complement to the Virginias. Through the Orientals, a slight molasses and earthy flavor backdrops the natural sweetness like the bassline we can make out through careful listening, but that would have to be omitted entirely to truly appreciate its efforts—a presence more readily perceptible for its role in the ensemble.
Named for the Northwestern Native Celebration of Plenty, Potlatch is a blend worth celebrating and sharing. This Balkan mixture is complex and ambitious. It’s hard to say who the ring leader is here, like the line-up in a heist movie where everyone has their specialty.
The Black Cavendish is a soft and sweet base, setting the perfect stage on which the well choreographed drama is set. The Perique spice plays perfectly off Burley, while the fruity Virginias and smoky Latakia put on respective, attention-grabbing shows like two trapeze artists, never losing poise or colliding, even when you expect them to.
This is one of the blends that truly showcases Lankford’s grasp on his varietals, from their individual characteristics to how they play off each other. He manages to bring us a blend that stands in a category of its own.
If Potlatch is a symphony of distinct, woven melodies, Rainier Levant is a bare essentials folk arrangement; steel strings, walking bass, and bouncing piano. With this Balkan blend of Latakia, Oriental, and Virginia tobaccos, the case is made for Lankford’s mastery of the limerick as well as the epic.
A cool smoke from light to ash—in this blend, woody Latakia comes to the foreground, wonderfully tamed with the savor and spice of Oriental support. Nonetheless, Rainier Levant is a blend for Balkan lovers who still like the dark fruity Virginias playing a supporting role, not just a foundation offering only structure and little flavor.
Hood Canal offers a nutty Burley base on which woody Latakia takes center stage. Orientals contrast with the darker notes bringing a brightness to the mix. All is brought to cohesion with the nuance of a light taste of Perique playing an accenting role. This is a superb blend for fans of Plum Pudding who appreciate having options (not that the Pudding could ever get old, but as they say, variety's the spice of life). Hood Canal could be said to be a lateral blend to the classic, but no doubt with a character very much its own.
Wild Man brings us a medium body English blend that truly takes the palate for a ride through a tour of flavors.
This blend is for those pipers who really enjoy an arc through their smoke—one impressive profile coming and going on a flavorful carousel. As the Latakia and Orientals dance, grassy sweet Virginias hold onto the palate—consistently, but not eagerly. If one had to choose a dominant tobacco here, it’s probably the Cyprian Latakia, but the Orientals certainly make their case. At any rate, the depth of the woody Latakia finds harmony with the sweetness and spice of the Orientals with an alluring whimsy. It’s the kind of delightful anomaly that takes a blender whose compass for mixing is as informed by their scholarship as it is their creativity.
Another VaPer for the books, Galloping Gertie sends notes of fig, citrus, and earthiness to the front lines with harmonizing Stoved and Red Virginias. The Perique is hardly behind with flavors of plum and tanginess. What results is a foreground lush in flavor with a medium strength. In support are the Black Cavendish and Orientals that bring notes of brown sugar and lightly woody flavors with a tame spice. These fill out the profile, letting the forward fruit and tang act not as a pervasive force, but as the natural and lively lead in a dynamic blend.
Limited Run Blends
Most can relate to that anxious feeling we get when the movie we love gets a sequel or that favorite show is going to be rebooted, and we worry “oh no, don’t touch it, it’s fine as is.” But what’s really wonderful are those rare occasions when we’re happy to admit “my mistake, they really pulled that off!”
A similar sentiment is elicited from these limited run blends from Seattle Pipe Club. What a joy it is to find genuine pleasure in something, and then be graced with new ways to appreciate it. That’s what you get with these great takes on Lankford’s signature blends.
Special Reserve (Flake)
With the Mississippi River Special Reserve, you have the option between two cuts: plug or flake (the latter being the most recent release from SPC).
Gifted with rare, well-aged Virginias, Lankford boosts his classic recipe for an even greater smoking experience. The special Virginias bring the sweetness a bit more forward and add to the complexity of the mix. The compliments between flavors with the added ingredient make the Special Reserve a great candidate for cellaring.
Rum Barrel Aged
Another stellar iteration of Mississippi River sees the classic blend aged for thirty days in oak rum barrels. You can sense the subtle rum flavors in the alluring tin note. The rich and creamy qualities of the mix are really brought out in a delightfully cool smoke.
Special Reserve (Flake)
Like Mississippi River’s Special Reserve, the lucky procuring of some special tobaccos has graced us with a different take on another Lankford signature blend. Plum Pudding Special Reserve, also available in a plug or flake cut, takes the original recipe, and substitutes some of the Orientals for another rare tobacco varietal offered to Lankford. A little more sweetness and a tinge of barbeque comes through with the amended blend. The upgraded tobaccos truly play well together—another good one to stock in the cellar where those flavors can take to each other even more.
Bourbon Barrel Aged
Finally, we have another barrel aged beauty. After thirty days of aging, we’re left with another incredible treat.
This blend expertly showcases the distinction between barrel aging and other means of aromatic flavoring. The bourbon is graciously settled into the profile and refines it delicately, especially complimentary of the Cyprian Latakia. For this take on Plum Pudding, a richness and savory taste is present. An added delight that doesn’t forget what made Plum Pudding so good to begin with, but brings a creative and new wonder to it.
It’s really the dynamics that are at the core of Seattle Pipe Club blends. We all have our personal tastes, but there isn’t a Lankford blend in which you can’t appreciate that there has been an untouched niche on the palate that has been located and satiated.
I’ll say again, these blends from Seattle Pipe Club are true contributions to the world of pipe tobacco. There's an intimacy to this pastime—be it pipe smoking as a social ritual that we get to share with folks mutually drawn to the art, or the meditative moments of serenity it brings when we get to slow down and take our time to enjoy something that’s for us. And while tobacco in general is the sustenance to the pastime, it’s masterful and creative blends which keep it healthy, breathing life into the intrigue and magnetism surrounding it. It fuels our penchant for curiosity and the everlasting pursuit. It paradoxically satiates while giving us more to desire. Like the pipes we choose or the particular methods to our pipecraft, it’s what allows our affection for personalizing the things we enjoy to come through.
And we owe it to folks like Lankford, like Guss, like those in the Seattle Pipe Club for providing us with blends that so directly nourish the spirit of this ancient pleasure of ours.