The Making of Sutliff's Birds of a Feather—A Signature Series by Per Georg Jensen
Posted by Greg Rosenberg on 18th May 2022
It all started on the first weekend of October 2021, when pipe smokers from all over descended on the Sutliff Tobacco building in Richmond, Virginia for the 33rd annual CORPS Pipe Smokers Gathering. Mark Ryan arrived with a brand new varietal to share, Katerini Perique. The short version; Ryan pressure fermented the Oriental subvariety, just as Perique is processed, resulting in a sublime new blending component (you can read all about it in our recent piece, What is Perique-Processed Katerini?)
At the event, Sutliff Tobacco agreed to purchase the novel varietal for use in some new mixtures. Beyond the innovation of Katerini Perique, it is also special because it's in finite supply, unlikely to be produced again. This presented the Sutliff team with a difficult question—how can we make the most of the opportunity? How do we give this tobacco the showcase it deserves?
“The idea kind of took off into—well, what do we want to do and how do we want to do it?” says Sutliff’s president, Jeremy McKenna. “Well, to pay homage to the Katerini Perique or give it, you know, the proper respect and treatment, let's bring over Per.”
The concept snowballed from there. The Mac Baren master blender Per Georg Jensen would come to Richmond to blend with the Katerini Perique. Then the thought dawned that Katerini Perique wasn’t the only novelty that needed to be made the most of. Jensen’s visit—this collaboration in itself—was a novel event. Why not develop an entire line, a Signature Series by Per Georg Jensen, from Sutliff Tobacco? Thus, the Birds of a Feather series took flight.
A Series of Unique Tobaccos
It was decided that six blends would be created for the series. Birds of a Feather was beginning to take shape, and with each development came more aspects to consider.
“We started asking, well, what does this series look like?” explains McKenna. “As we continued down that path, outside of just saying, hey Per, we want six different blends, it was kind of, how can we theme them together? How can they all tie together in some way?”
As exciting as Katerini Perique was, focusing six blends around the ingredient seemed excessive. Additionally, the blends containing Katerini Perique would only last as long as the supply of the limited varietal. So, spreading that supply between two blends was also the more prudent option. But if not Katerini Perique, what would be that common thread running through each mixture?
“Basically we came up with the theme ‘unique tobaccos,’” says McKenna. "The six different blends carry some unique tobaccos in them that are not widely used or widely available, so you have two with Katerini Perique, two with Rustica, two with St. James Perique, one with the Katerini Oriental.”
With that, the project had taken on a distinct shape. In one mid-January week, it would be realized.
First, let’s take a quick detour and look at these rare birds individually.
St. James Perique
The first of our unique tobaccos is St. James Perique. Most Perique is Acadian Perique. The only difference between the two is the source-leaf that goes through the Perique process of pressure fermentation.
It was once the case that St. James Parish tobacco was the sole source-leaf for Perique. This tobacco that's specific to the Parish is a Burley variety with one of a kind characteristics, possibly imparted from the calcium rich loam in which it's cultivated. However, as far back as the early 20th century, it became clear to the farmers and processors of Perique that dependence on the St. James leaf may not be sustainable. The conditions for growing the crop are finicky—an entire season's harvest could be lost to myriad threats. As William C. Rense writes in a 1970 report:
The growing of perique is fraught with such disadvantages as ease of crop failure, much labor, and high expense for fertilizer, insecticides, and barrels for the curing process. Heavy rain, especially in late May and early June, can wash the bed away from the tobacco plants and allow them to be “fried” by the sun. In 1958, 50% of the crop was destroyed in this manner some two weeks before harvest (Rense, 126).
To skirt these threats and maintain consistency in Perique’s flavor from year to year, Acadian Perique, a mixture of the St. James leaf and a second similar leaf (Kentucky Green River Burley), became the norm.
“Until we brought that to everybody’s attention I guess, folks didn’t realize that what everybody’s consumed exclusively since 1980, was the Acadian blend, because Mr. Poche was the world's only source since 1980,” says Mark Ryan, who purchased L. A. Poche in 2005.
So we have St. James Perique and Acadian Perique. How do they differ?
“I would say the Acadian is a milder version,” Per Jensen tells me. “A lot of people describe the St. James as peppery. St. James is—oh, how should I compare it?”
If you’ve had the privilege of talking tobacco with Per Jensen, you probably know his metaphors are as artful as his blends, and I anticipate one is surfacing as he ponders the two Periques.
“If you have this rough cowboy,” he continues. “With a six-gun and everything, and you compare him with the police officer at the airport, they’re two different breeds. They do the same job but they are different…So, in St. James Perique, you have the cowboy.”
Well, I’m satisfied.
We know of over 50 species from the Nicotiana genus, but the two with their roots entwined in the history of smoking are Nicotiana rustica and Nicotiana tabacum.
Nicotiana rustica is the species once common to North America, and it was grown in now-Virginia when settlers were introduced to the plant by natives (Ley, 89-90). It would be the species cultivated in Jamestown until around 1612 (Jeffers, 20). Tobacco smokers were far more partial to the variety from Spain, which came from the seeds of the species N. tabacum, common at the time to Central America. Nicotiana rustica has a much higher nicotine content. Techniques we would now use to tame the rough edges, such as different curing methods, were not yet developed, making N. rustica especially harsh. To capture the refining palates of tobacco smokers, John Rolfe procured seeds from Trinidad, and thus N. rustica was replaced by N. tabacum as the common smoking tobacco (Sherman, 6).
Oriental, Virginia, Burley—these are all subvarieties of N. tabacum. However, N. rustica wasn’t totally eclipsed, as varieties of this leaf have remained in cultures throughout the world—Russia’s Makhorka, Vietnam’s Thuốc Lào, or South America’s Hopi, for example.
(Note: In contrasting the two species, I opted to use the proper binomial name. I’ll use “Rustica” going forward, speaking of the tobacco in the context of a blending varietal.)
Rustica must be tamed, but there is clearly something desirable that keeps it around. A few years back, Mac Baren set out to make snus from Rustica, and as many know from the HH Rustica Blend, Jensen is no stranger to blending with the varietal. By sun-curing the leaf, more of the natural sugars are preserved. Mellowing the harshness, we’re left with an ingredient that can bring body and strength to a mixture. The Rustica you’ll find in two blends from this series will do just that.
As was stated above, Katerini Perique is the varietal that set this whole thing in motion with Mark Ryan introducing it to his peers at the Richmond Pipe Show. Putting the Oriental subvariety, Katerini, through the Perique process of pressure fermentation results in a wonderfully complex condiment imparting earthy notes with a rich, plummy sweetness.
With the first release from the Birds of a Feather series, Uno, we had the opportunity to try both Katerini and St. James Perique side-by-side.
“We have to consider that the St. James Perique is made out of Burley and it is first air-dried meaning it has no sugar,” says Jensen, contrasting the two. “And Katerini is an Oriental, it’s sun-dried and it contains sugar. So, how they develop in the fermentation is different.”
Developing six blends in a few days is quite a feat to begin with. The task only seems more arduous when we consider Katerini Perique was an absolute stranger to Jensen. I thought he may have had the chance to try the Katerini Perique prior to his arrival—had at least some opportunity to pick through the characteristics, consider how it may interact in a blend.
“The only thing I had until then was the noise that Jonathan [Sutliff’s VP] was making,” Jensen tells me, overturning my assumption. “Jonathan was praising it to the skies. And when I came I had high expectations and they were fulfilled. It was quite a unique tobacco.”
St. James Perique and Rustica may be uncommon, but they were no strangers. How does one approach blending with a new varietal for the first time?
“Ah, I would say it was extremely exciting,” Jensen explains. “First of all, to meet a new breed of tobacco—the Katerini Perique—I’ve never experienced anything like that. And then trying to learn the nature of this tobacco, and trying to compose with other elements that did not subdue it. Because you want them hand in hand, not the one in front of the other, because then it’s unbalanced. And that was my first thought, how can I mix this so it’s part of the blend? Because it would be very easy just to overpower it with the Katerini Perique, but that was not the task.”
The Balance of the Blend
In speaking to the specific approach he took to blending with the Katerini Perique, Jensen arrives at the fundamental principle at the core of his blending, no matter the prompt.
“Basically, when I blend I have one goal that I always try to keep in mind. And that is balance.”
When it comes down to it, whether it’s the Katerini or St. James Perique, these special tobaccos are like the spices in our food—they can’t be the entire story. It’s exciting to showcase new and rare varietals, but part of that showcasing is finding how to make them sing with the mix, not despite it.
“You have to take care that you don’t spice it to the point of being too strong or monotone,” says Jensen. “For instance, chili, strong chili. If that is overdone, you can bury everything in your dish, and nobody will taste it. And that’s not how I blend.”
Rustica is perhaps the outlier of our special tobaccos in that it’s less of a condiment imparting the upfront flavors, and more relevant to the body and strength of the blend. Even still, the same call for a discerning, thoughtful application applies. Just as with HH Rustica, the taming of the stubborn herb is partially a matter of how it’s processed, but also how it's interacting with the other tobaccos.
I gather that for Jensen, crafting a great flavor profile is a matter of each component being used with purpose—balance is knowing when that purpose is met.
“[If you over-spice,] you can tell people whatever you want to tell them because they cannot prove otherwise. And that’s too bad. If you do something for a blend, you should be able to detect it. If you write on the label for instance, ‘contains St. James Perique,’ then the smoker should be able to pick out the spicy note from the blend.”
Per Jensen’s Visit to Sutliff
The theme of "uniqueness" is manifest in the Birds of a Feather series in ways not limited to the rare varietals used. The composing of the blends was unlike anything Jensen had undertaken before. He was developing these mixtures in less than a week, working from a predetermined arsenal of varietals and casings. While working, Jensen seemed focused and determined, but I wanted to catch up and see how he looked back on the experience a few months removed, having had the time to reflect.
“I was out of my comfort zone," he tells me. "Because normally it would take months, perhaps even up to half a year or one year, but this time I only got five days.”
Truthfully, it was more like four.
“A few years ago on Danish television we had a broadcast called Show Me Your Fridge,” Jensen goes on. “That was where they took a master chef into someone’s house, you opened the fridge, and he had to compose a fancy meal from what’s in it. It was like opening the fridge and composing something out of what’s already in it.”
Such a challenge asks the blender to balance discipline with creativity. What good is a blend with rare ingredients if it isn’t supported by a thoughtful recipe? What fun would it be to make the same blends that are out there with one special something thrown in? The liberty to experiment is important, but with a tight deadline, one isn't afforded the creative abandon to chase down every last whim. Jensen compartmentalized each day to dedicated goals so that he could be sure each blend was coming along on schedule while earnestly exploring and developing the profiles.
Each afternoon I would make my way to the Sutliff conference room (which you could now call the Per Jensen Pop-up Tobacco Lab) to chat and get his summary of the day's progress so that we could share updates through Sutliff's Facebook. Each afternoon he would have a word or phrase boiling down the stage in the process before expounding.
Day 1 - Getting Acquainted
Today was all about getting acquainted. With an assortment of tobaccos—some from right here at Sutliff, some brought along from Denmark—and a myriad of flavorings, Per has been busy putting his palate to work, tasting the varieties of leaf and getting a sense of their properties and how they’ll interact in a blend.
It’s a real treat to have this behind the scenes look into the process as Per develops these mixtures, too fascinating not to share, so expect some updates through the week as these blends come to life.
Day 2 - Trial and Error
“Trial and error,” is how the master blender succinctly sums up day two. As yesterday’s update relayed, day one was all about getting acquainted with the cornucopia of potential ingredients.
Naturally, such acquaintanceship spurs theories of how certain components may interact and from which mixtures truly special properties may emerge. Today was about putting yesterday’s intuition to the test, lunting down trails of inquiry to separate the dead ends from those warranting further exploration.
Day 3 - Excitement
Excitement. It’s as simple as that. What more can be said for that moment when the idea begins to step out of the abstract and truly starts to take shape—when the imagination becomes reality?
There’s something special about each of these blends: Rustica, St. James Perique, Katerini Perique. We are not only seeing wonderful new blends come to life before our eyes, we’re seeing the craft of blending journey into new realms.
Day 4 - The Final Test
With six exciting new mixtures on the eve of their debut, Per uses this last opportunity to thoughtfully give each blend scrupulous examination. With less than a week to develop six blends from an arsenal of tobaccos that includes three unique and rare ingredients, he is resolute in assuring that each blend showcases something special. To wit, making certain the full potential of this unprecedented opportunity is realized.
Per also leads the team through a marketing exercise for theme, names, launch order, tobacco format, etc. keeping an eye on the unique tobaccos used in the blends. That is especially the case with a tobacco that two of these blends will introduce for the first time ever, Katerini Perique. After today, we’re confident that Per is doing justice to Katerini Perique with the introduction it deserves, and we’re proud to be a part of it.
Art and Naming
Day 4 highlighted yet another unique aspect of this project for the Sutliff brand. Once Jensen finalized the blends, we found ourselves in the conference room. McKenna handed us papers, on which the six tin designs pictured above were printed, though missing were the blend names. That was our first task.
We wanted to tie the names with the theme, so we decided to embrace the inherent quirkiness of the blends.
“We basically came up with synonyms for unique in some form or fashion,” says McKenna. “Some of them are kind of a stretch but we got there.”
Then we played the matching game—configuring which art, blend, and name fit with another. It was lost on me at the time, but McKenna later pointed out how unorthodox this all was for Sutliff.
“Sutliff historically has not been good at naming, like it's just been very matter of fact. Vanilla Custard, English # 1, Medium English…Because there’s no name for Katerini Perique blended with Latakia, blended with Virginias, blended with Burleys, we went for obtuse names that stick with the theme.”
Since this series was all about standing out, the tin art also breaks tradition for Sutliff. Most tins or pouches from the brand have been similarly straight forward.
“There’s no art,” McKenna explains. “It’s design, tin design, right? Focused around logo, blend, and color scheme…It’s really nice, but it’s not art. I mean if you go back years some of our Tobacco Galleria looked like clip art off of Windows 95.”
McKenna’s brother, Jacob McKenna, had drawn a series of birds for his son. They were bold and vibrant—but poised, not gaudy. Stoic yet vivid. It seemed they embraced the core of this series—standing out, yet balanced. Just like the blends, these pieces were inspired as a whole but still are so individual from one to the next. It's the irony of the Birds of a Feather series, the thing they have in common is how uncommon they are.
Day 5 - The Panel
That only leaves Day 5. But Friday wasn't for blending, it was for sharing.
Another layer to the theme of uniqueness for Birds of a Feather, Sutliff hosted a panel of pipe smokers to come and enjoy these blends for the first time.
“We’ve brought in other people just in general to hang out and smoke or whatever,” McKenna tells me. “So we just posted on Facebook, hey is anyone available this day? You wanna come in? You wanna smoke? And we had plenty of volunteers and so we set up the whole room for that.”
McKenna then reached out to our friends at Missouri Meerschaum to see if they might supply some fresh cobs for the panelists. Of course, folks used their own pipes as well, or a mix of both, but with six blends throughout the day, McKenna wanted to give the option.
“And so we just brought in a panel and paid attention and took notes and listened to what they were saying and tweaked what needed to be tweaked or left alone what needed to be left alone," says McKenna. "Then out of that came our final blends.”
I was lucky enough to join the fun. Throughout the day we tasted blend after blend, offering feedback. Or at least the other five panelists did. As Jensen joked before skipping me, "Greg, you are paid to say nice things," so I sat back with my note pad and enjoyed the tobacco and camaraderie.
Jensen also had his pipe lit most of the day, but it wasn’t with Birds of a Feather blends. At one point he is asked what he’s smoking. “ Amphora Virginia.” You could tell he took pride in the week's efforts, but after all that time in the weeds, tasting varietals, getting everything just right, I'm sure it was a comfort to return to an old faithful friend, a good straight Virginia.
The final update:
Day 5 - Two Thumbs Up
Today was the big day. Four days ago, these blends were nothing but ingredients on a table, six marble slabs to be chiseled away at. Per came into the Sutliff building knowing he would be faced with a blending experience that was entirely unique—from the ingredients he’d be using, to the time he had to put them together, to the opportunity to debut the blends for an assembly of pipe smokers.
He refrained from giving any information on the blend until each smoker had some time to sit with it and let their palate explore. Then he would go over the blends’ contents and explain his direction for the mixture. Finally, each smoker in turn would give their impressions. What we got was wonderful feedback from a diverse group of pipe smokers with an array of preferences. Wonderful feedback is not to say perpetual raving. As Per said at one point “I know each tongue sitting around this table is different.” One thing we can count on from our friends in the pipe smoking hobby was to be honest participants, and honest participants they were. The experience gave us even more insight into these blends, and a strengthened confidence in the series Per has created.
When asked to sum up today's experience, Per gave two thumbs up, “success.” It’s been a remarkable week here at Sutliff, one we will happily reminisce about as the fruits of this experiment are seen through the coming year with each release.
Jensen has experience with a similar panel format in his work with Mac Baren, but it’s quite different in practice. Feedback is given from professional smokers, trained to leave their preferences at the door and offer an objective appraisal of the blend in progress. This was a far more casual affair, which suited the end of a bustling week just right. Between productive feedback was lively conversation, not limited to pipes. We were there for a purpose, but you can’t get a group of pipe smokers around a table and expect merrymaking to not ensue. And who would want any less?
When prompted to reflect upon the experience, Jensen gives a laugh and remarks, “it was great. I admire them, they’ve got iron tongues.”
One of the tasters in our midst was David Ellsworth of the Conclave of Richmond Pipe Smokers. His wonderful account of the experience and review of the first blend, Uno, can be found on the CORPS facebook page.
More to come...
The first blend from the series, Uno, was released on May 10th. Of the special tobaccos, both Katerini and St. James Perique were included. Uno went pretty fast, but look forward to trying another great blend from the Birds of a Feather series soon enough—Whimsical.
As always don't forget we offer other pipe tobaccos and cigars.
- William C. Rense, The Perique Tobacco Industry of St. James Parish, Louisiana: A World Monopoly (1970), Economic Botany
- Willy Ley, The Healthfull Aromatick Herbe (1965), Galaxy Magazine
- H. Paul Jeffers, The Perfect Pipe (1998)
- Milton M. Sherman, All About Tobacco (1970)
- Shakko, WW2 Makhorka (Stalin's bunker), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons