Hello and welcome to the first installment of this new series, What I Smoked This Week.
The name is pretty self-explanatory, but to summarize, each week I’ll dive into two different blends—sometimes they’ll be new to me, sometimes not. At the end of the week (Friday), I’ll expound on what I smoked and my experience with them.
Ultimately, I hope to chronicle the exploration of pipe tobacco blends in a way that’s informal, conversational, and human. I'll be writing entries throughout the week, like any smoking journal—so, instead of being written entirely as a reflection at week’s end, I’ll try to show the arc of how the blends open up and how my impressions change as I work through them.
And of course, we’ll get into pipes as well. Finding that pipe that makes a blend sing is all part of exploring after all. In fact, any goings-on in my pipecraft I will bring to these pieces (I've recently gotten into restoration, so look out for some botched Grabows).
That’s the gist of what the spirit of the series aspires to be. But I’ll refine the approach to best engender that spirit as I go. I’d love for any readers to be a part of this too, so please reach out with any feedback, advice, requests, corrections, or just a friendly hello (if I know pipe smokers, I may get all five in one email—here’s hoping I do). You can reach me at GregR@TobaccoPipes.com.
Okay, let’s get into it.
(As the pilot of the series, I’m kind of wishing I did Squadron Leader. Shame, shame.)
|A crumble cake made of Cyprian Latakia, outstanding Oriental, Bright Virginia and a touch of Black Cavendish, finished with a subtle top note.|
I have a beer cracked, music's on (fellow pipe smoker Harry Nilsson), and in front of me is a fresh tin of Bengal Slices.
Opening it up, the anise flavor comes right out to shake your hand. Something about that dark spice, licorice scent with the smoky Latakia evokes a pleasant old-worldliness. The dark brown, blond mottled slices crumble easily into small clumps. “Finished with a subtle top note,” the tin reads. That seems to wash with the lightly moist tobacco in my hand, far from the moisture you get from a generously cased Aromatic. The licorice scent seems a step beyond subtle, but we all know how deceiving a tin note can be. Though the slices break down into small pieces, still, the clumps have that hydrated springiness, refusing to be taken to dust. I bet it would smoke fine out of the tin, but I’ll give it a half hour to air out just a bit.
It’s a frigid evening and there’s something about a good English blend that warms me up. It’s cozy in my apartment, but I’ll have to take my pipe outside. Unfortunately, my building has a strict no Latakia rule (okay, it’s a no smoking rule). I remember reading that the old Model Tobacco plant a few blocks up the street is getting turned into apartments—think they’ll let tenants smoke inside there? Hm, no—I assume not. But I bet they keep the retro sign.
Okay, I’ve got my Missouri Meerschaum Emerald packed with Bengal Slices—into the cold I go.
So far, getting familiar with Bengal Slices has been a treat. This is of course the rerelease that Russ Ouellette blended upon Standard Tobacco Company acquiring the brand (just one of three classic brands they revived). I haven’t tried the original or any previous iteration, so I’m only talking about this tobacco on its own merits. But frankly, that’s the only way I will ever judge a rerelease or match blend or anything of the sort. I may note how they differ if I have the relevant experience to do so, but if I like the blend in front of me, I’m a happy camper.
Speaking of camping, let me get back to this smoky English.
It’s an easy smoke and very smooth. I anticipate some trial and error with a new blend—altering how I pack, dry, or break it down with the first few bowls (sometimes more) to find what’s most agreeable with the particular blend. I don’t think much of that will be necessary though. Bengal Slices is that drama free friend that’s always “down for whatever.” No fuss.
My first impression of the Latakia was a more herbal smokiness rather than assertive. More woody than spicy which compliments the earthy Orientals very nicely. The blend is rather strong with flavor—not as a Lat-bomb, but as the emergent property of a few players.
Then there’s the top flavor. The nose deceives again. True to the tin description, the topping seems light. The licorice is certainly present, but not forward as an Aromatic would likely be. However, it creates a wonderful dynamic with the tobacco flavors. The Virginias and Black Cavendish are sweet. However, the earthiness keeps a cap on the sweet side—a dynamic, complex blend for sure.
When trying a new blend, I’ll often switch to a bowl of something else in the same vein. I think there’s something calibrating about it, it gives perspective on if I’m just perceiving a blend generically as “an English/Balkan” or if I’m getting more of the individual characteristics, the qualities that make a blend its own. So, perusing my options, I pull a jar of Arango’s Balkan Supreme from the shelf and pack a bowl.
If it wasn't implied, there was time between all these smokes—if there wasn’t I could have eaten some of my dog’s food and tasted Latakia.
(Has anyone named a dog Latakia? That would be a great dog name.)
I gravitated to a wider bowl for these, such as my Molina Tromba 102. I think the wider burn area lends itself to complex blends. It's kind of like a burrito bowl—the best bites have a little bit of all the fixin's.
I think Supreme had more of the woody smokiness, Slices more herbal and darker—almost dark fruity (the licorice top flavoring and Virginias are likely suspects). Slices have a sweetness, but not very sugary sweet—silky and floral in the olfactory kind of sweet. The Black Cavendish is creamy and adds body.
I think this side of the profile came into higher resolution when returning to the Slices from Supreme; juxtaposed by Supreme’s more (in my approximation) savory-ness.
Here’s where I’m at based on these initial several smokes—
Having spent a bit more time with the blend, I think my initial impression is nearly the same. If anything, I may have understated the presence of the Latakia. Although, I have at this point read numerous reviews, (this entry being the first since doing so) and others have attested to a more Lat-heavy experience, so perhaps that is affecting my objectivity (whatever that is). While I am noticing that smoky Latakia more, I think the abutting flavors give this blend a complexity that subverts being defined by one note.
One bump to the Taste bar—
But I have to say, for my taste, I really enjoy that incense, herbaceous quality an English can have, especially when it’s silky and is retrohaled without roughing up the sinuses. Latakia, I like. Lat-bombs work for me sometimes, but I’m especially receptive to its inclusion in moderation where it really just jives with the Oriental and Virginia and isn’t stealing the show. For that reason, I think Bengal Slices hits my personal preferences quite well. But that’s just me, others certainly find it to be a Lat-bomb.
That said, upon reading others’ impressions, I think I have no choice but to give Fusilier’s Ration a try in the near future. This is Ouellette’s other nod to the original Bengal Slices—apparently a bit more strength for this one. I’ll be interested to give it a smoke! But I can say confidently that I’ll keep the Slices on deck.
Escudo Navy De Luxe
|A combination of full bodied Virginia and Perique are the cornerstones in Escudo. The blend is pressed and matured before it is spun and cut into coins. This process ensures the unique character of “Escudo”|
My other indulgence this week was the quintessential VaPer, Escudo. I first tried it two nights ago in my Nuttens Bing Heritage II. I’ve had this pipe for a few weeks and it smokes like a dream—has quickly become one of my favorites.
The coins are immaculate and arrive in a perfectly neat presentation around the tin. I would have thought they’d get a bit disheveled in their journey. They were easily rubbed out into soft ribbons—for some reason I imagined they would have a more coarse consistency. This packed well and took to a light with no fuss.
I jotted down my tin note impression, “Wine vinegar-y. Grass. Fig.” What poetry! I’m inclined to leave these incoherent notes on strangers’ windshields just to confuse them. I won’t...
Now, with my first smoke, my palate was a bit blown out. I may have been drawing on an Aromatic earlier in the day with a bit too much enthusiasm. And although coffee can often be a wonderful friend to a smoke, it probably wasn’t doing me any favors in getting a basic first impression.
But here are my notes while having my first bowl—
Grass and hay from VAs. More on that [grass and hay] side than sweet. A little lemon. Perique is plummy and adds a little spice but not a lot. Thought maybe more strength would develop through the bowl but seems quite consistent.
Since that note I've had a few more opportunities to get to know Escudo.
I expected more Perique. Which isn’t to say I’m disappointed there isn’t, but a lot of VaPer enthusiasts love their heavy Perique blends, and Escudo being the essential VaPer, part of me expected more forward spice. That said, you don’t have to go searching for the Perique, it’s not like Orlik Golden Sliced (by which I mean, there isn’t debate as to whether Perique is used at all), but still is modest and very well balanced in the mix.
Escudo seems tame in taste and doesn’t have too much of a nic hit, but the notes of fig and grass are wonderful and there’s a consistent tanginess I enjoy very much. At this time, I put the strength just below medium and the taste at mild to medium, probably closer to mild.
I’m starting to notice a little more spice from the Perique developing throughout the bowl. Still mostly on the dark fruit side, which is just dandy for me, no complaints here.
Escudo proves to be one of those that gets more interesting as you keep getting familiar. It’s only grown on me. Although, I did come to it with only a few taste buds left, so perhaps my growing appreciation is really the arc of my returning senses. Either way, this VaPer is singin’ now.
Escudo isn’t especially complex, it isn’t balancing a ton of flavors, but I’m realizing it’s one that really puts me at ease. Yes, pipe smoking tends to have that effect in general, but some blends all but demand it. My one regret? The cold. I’m taking a few coins from this tin and putting them in one of my 4 oz. Ball jars. The next warm Virginia-winter day (and you usually don’t have to wait too long), I’m sitting in the sun with a book and some Escudo.
Packed some up in my recently acquired/cleaned up Chacom Star 158. This little pipe is perfect for a quick break smoke.
Given some time to get acquainted with the blend and coming to it with a less tarnished palate, I’ll have to adjust my Taste and Strength for this blend a hair, 1/10th more in each assessment.
I’m certainly getting more Escudo. Despite already being sold on it, some blends you just know aren’t done growing on you.
Until Next Time...
(Maybe I should come up with a sign off that's actually original. Homework for next week.)
Morgan Riley, Midlothian, Va, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons – unaltered