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Latakia – The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

I think all of us who enjoy smoking Latakia, whether on a daily basis or irregularly, are rightfully concerned about the state of Cyprian Latakia tobaccos now that the Syrian version has been long gone. I often get asked why can’t Latakia just be grown by someone in the United States so that we don’t have to worry about its availability in the future? Actually, that is a good question and deserves a good answer. I’m not sure that my answer is a good one, but I did do quite a bit of investigating recently and hope that my information here is fairly accurate.

Syrian Latakia was indeed a wonderful leaf that was grown only in the northern part of Syria where the soil was moderately deep and most importantly, rich with minerals that enabled the Shekk-el-bint plant (see photo), to produce thick and firm leaves that took readily to being sun dried and then smoked over fires that were made with woods from the area (as well as some local herbs), which clung readily to the Shekk-el-bint plant leaves, which were ten to twelve inches in length and quite narrow. Each plant had from fifteen to twenty leaves and once processed, retained a smoky aroma and the distinctive “salty and sweet leather” like flavors and stout bottom that Syrian Latakia fans have appreciated for many, many decades. At harvest time, the plant was cut and the leaves, plus the flowers (called by McClelland’s, “Rose of Latakia”), were spread out on the ground to dry in the sun, then were taken to storehouses where they were smoked for a period of 13-15 weeks with the area woods and herbs. The finished product never was high in nicotine but certainly had more Vitamin N than its Cyprian cousin due to the fact that the leaf had thicker veins which holds the nicotine. There is nowhere in the USA where the combination of deep, dry and mineral rich soils combine with long hot days and cool nights that helped to make the Shekk-el-bint plant thrive. It has been tried but was always a miserable failure.

Why is Syrian Latakia no longer being made in Syria? Back in the 1960’s the Syrian government severely restricted the production of Syrian Latakia due to environmental concerns that had great impact on a lot of other areas of Syria’s agriculture.  Thousands of acres of woods were harvested and burned to make Syrian Latakia and the value vs. return was small compared to other agricultural endeavors. The growers and harvesters could not make enough money to continue production of tiny amounts annually, so they finally just quit. So, the Syrian Latakia shortage began well before the current war and failed economy. And with the unrest in the area getting worse instead of better, growing the Shekk-el –bint plant again and harvesting and processing it is about the last thing on the mind of the Syrian government at present time.

Why can’t blenders simply substitute Cyprian Latakia for the Syrian version? Well, actually they can and do; but only with specific blends where the difference does not greatly alter the presentation. Well known blenders like G.L. Pease, Mike McNiel, Russ Ouellette and others will readily tell you that the difference between Cyprian and Syrian tobacco is quite noticeable when combined with other leaf used in particular blends. The most noticeable difference is the fact that Syrian Latakia was so much more pronounced in its presentation, even when applied gently, and that using enough Cyprian Latakia in a blend to make up for the difference causes a bittersweet taste that does not benefit the presentation of most blends, and in fact, overwhelms them.

Is Cyprian Latakia in danger of going out of production? The short answer, unfortunately, is yes. In fact, there are reports out right now indicating that what we are now receiving from Cyprus is not the same Cyprian Latakia – for a variety of reasons – that was processed and exported even just a few years ago. I’ll cover the latest news that I have discovered regarding Cyprian Latakia, and whether it is also going the way of the Dodo bird in a future blog. I will say this for now; if you enjoy Latakia in your smokes, please make sure you are putting some in your cellar!

Steve

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Heartbreaking Stories Happen – Even Here!

Not often, fortunately, but on rare occasions, I get tins from consignors delivered to me that either I can’t sell due to problems with the tin, or, that have been returned because the buyer found a problem that I did not see. Such was the case not too long ago with an almost two decades old 100g tin of McClelland’s Dark Star (factory date stamped to 2000). As most of you know, Dark Star is a flake tobacco and in tins with some air rather than vacuum sealed it’s difficult to tell whether there’s an issue because all air filled tins of flake tobacco have some shake.  One of the things I do is chart the weight of literally hundreds of different blends so that I can weigh them if I am suspicious. As an example, a solid 100g tin of Dark Star should weigh approximately 5.7 ounces. This dried out tin of Dark Star weighed 4.6 ounces.

Tins with dark outer wrap such as the Dark Star, cause additional problems because you can’t see the rust bleed through like you can with a light colored wrap. And with rust, that stuff is kind of like the chicken pox, once the rusting process begins it spreads fast!

With this bad tin of Dark Star, I could see the problem immediately when I took off the outer plastic lid. In this photo you will notice there is a crease along the inner seam that had opened. That’s where the air got in, dried out the tobacco and allowed the rusting process to begin which went on for years.

 

I then took a photo of the inner walls with the dried out tobacco chunks still inside. After dumping the very dry contents into a trash can I took another photo of the empty tin  after removing a couple of pieces of the inner wall lining which was very brittle due to all the rust. Not a pretty sight!

I did debate whether to do this blog. After all, I don’t want my Dark Star tin sales to go into the tank, but thought it would be interesting to share.

I am often asked what the best way to store tinned tobacco is. There is no question in my mind but that storing your tobacco in a cool, dry and dark place is the best answer. A sealed tin will last for many decades that way. If you store your tobacco in your garage or another non climate controlled area, the temperature variations in most climates will eventually cause issues with many tins. Some people say they immediately transfer their tinned tobaccos to Mason Jars. I am not a proponent of that unless you plan on smoking all of the contents quickly. Each time you open a Mason Jar to get some tobacco out to smoke, there is a transference of air and the aging process is then retarded as the fermented gassy air leaves the jar. Additionally, when the new air enters the jar that is an opportunity for the contents to dry out further. If you are going to do the Mason Jar thing, use small jars unless you are planning on long term storage. And do leave them out of sunlight!

What I do when opening a tin of tobacco that I know I will smoke only infrequently, is to to get just enough out to fill my pipe and then transfer the remaining contents to a 4 oz Mason Jar, label it, and put it back in one of my Coleman Coolers for transfer back to my off-site climate controlled storage building. If I were not a seller of tobaccos, I’d do the same thing except put the Coleman Cooler in a cool, dry closet in my home.

Good smokes to all!

Steve

 

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Reuniting With An Old Friend

For those of us who are more seasoned pipe smokers (okay, those of us who are old), this story is probably similar to one of your own. I’m talking about when you decide to pull out a pipe you have not smoked in months or years for no reason other than just to get reacquainted. I don’t get that urge very often because the only pipes that remain in my Lazy Susan racks are mostly the ones I enjoy smoking regularly. However, on occasion, for whatever reason, I may go a long period of time without smoking a particular chunk of briar even though I have no particular reason for not having removed it from reserve to active duty status. It just happens. I’ll get back to this thought in a moment.

After many years of having gone overboard with my PAD (Pipe Acquisition Disorder), I decided a decade or so ago to get a handle on my shameful disorder. So, I went through my collection and selected – after many hours of stressful pondering – what I felt like were my top 36 smoking pipes and put them in a couple of 18-hole Lazy Susan style racks (the photo to your left). I keep those racks in a glass enclosed case which is a part of my smoking cabinet where I keep all kinds of smoking related items. I then took the dozen or so pipes that I don’t smoke but are special to me for various reasons and put them away in a drawer in my shop. Over the years as I was pulling pipes out of my top-36 and replacing them with better smokers, I’d take the banished pipes and put them in a drawer, too. And now I’m up to three or four drawers full of banished pipes and have expanded my elite “smokers” to include a third Lazy Susan 18-hole pipe rack. Good Lord, how does one get rid of TAD? I think it’s incurable!

I admit that one of the pipes that I have always kept in the top 36 – okay, now the top 54 –  is an old Duca Barla bent billiard that my wife gave to me as a Christmas gift back when we were dating over 20-years ago. Don’t tell her this but I tried smoking that pipe a dozen times over the years and each time I determined that Hell itself could not burn hotter. Whenever she sees that pipe, which thankfully isn’t often, she’ll ask how her pipe is doing. I always say, “smoking as good as it did the day you gave it to me, honey,” which I figure isn’t really a lie because it didn’t smoke “good” the first time I smoked it and it still doesn’t smoke “good.” That must mean the pipe still smokes “as good” as the day she gifted it to me, right?

Now, back to my original story; a couple of weeks ago as I was going through my pipe racks to select a pipe to smoke, I stopped swirling the Lazy Susans when I got dizzy and right in front of me was an early production Tonino Jacono – he’s a long-time Italian pipe maker and a darned good one to boot – that was the first handmade pipe I ever purchased way back in the 1980’s, although the exact year of purchase escapes me at the moment. This is a photo of that pipe, not a particularly well grained piece but the rustication along the shank attracted me to it as I loved the contrast and still do. I had not smoked that pipe in several years and am not sure why. It had always smoked well. So, I pulled it out of the rack, loaded up a bowl with a favorite tobacco and had a wonderful smoke as I sat on the back patio of my home while drinking a margarita and being thankful that I didn’t live in a cold weather climate. I had purchased that Jacono during my first career as a college and NFL radio sports broadcaster, and as I smoked, I thought back to all the road trips I took all over the country with that handsome Jacono as my companion. Back then the smoking laws were slim and none, and there were many times when, after broadcasting a college football or basketball game (I have a face perfectly made for radio), I would go back to my hotel room, sit down and light up that pipe as I wound down.  What a great old friend! And I felt terrible for having neglected it for so long.

In the two weeks since rediscovering the outstanding smoking characteristics of that old Jacono, I’ve smoked it almost every day and will probably do so again for another couple of weeks before slowly easing off the peddle. After all, my Jacono is getting on in years and may need more rest than it used to. Kind of like me.

Happy puffing to all,

Steve

 

 

 

 

 

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How Pipestud Became a Pipe Smoker

Even though I have now been smoking a pipe for 49-years – I started when I was 17, and I’ll let you do the math on how old I now am – I can still vividly recall the first time I smoked a pipe. I was a junior in high school and worked part-time as a disc jockey for a local radio/TV station in Waco, Texas. The news anchor was a grizzled old veteran named Bill Herring and he smoked a pipe. The only time that pipe was out of his mouth was when he was anchoring the TV newscasts – yes, we could smoke freely just about anywhere we wanted to back in those good old days. Bill always smoked Stanwell pipes filled with Borkum Riff Whiskey. Everywhere he went Bill left a trail of the most wonderful smelling smoky odor. He looked very distinguished in his suit while puffing on that wonderful smelling pipe every time he came into the radio broadcast booth to deliver the news to my listening audience. One day, I decided that I wanted to be like Bill and smoke a pipe so that I could look grown up, smart and distinguished too.

One evening in between spinning those old 78’s (I bet a lot of you don’t even know what that means), I cautiously approached Bill as he was preparing for a newscast at his desk in the newsroom. I began the conversation by telling him how much I enjoyed smelling his pipe and that I was thinking about taking up pipe smoking myself. Bill stopped hammering away on his old Smith-Corona, took a couple of slow puffs, smiled, and said, “Boy, I think you’ve made a wise decision.” To shorten a long story, just a few days later Bill took me to Waco’s only mall where our town’s only pipe shop – The Humidor – was located. I was fascinated from the moment I walked into the shop. The smell of the place was heavenly, and behind the counter on a peg board hung about a kazillion pipes of all shapes and sizes. On a shelf under the peg board was a long line of glass humidors filled with various blends, and under the glass counter in front of the owner were more pipes being displayed as well as various lighters, tampers, etc. It all looked so cool – I was hooked! The owner of the establishment, dressed smartly in a tweed jacket and bow tie, joined Bill and I as we looked over the pipes on the wall. After about 20-minutes I chose a Danish looking sandblasted bent Dublin pipe with smooth side panels; a Stanwell second called a Danish Sovereign. The $12.00 price tag on that pipe stretched my wallet but hey, I wanted that pipe in my mouth! So I gave the pipe to the shop owner to set aside for me and then began the hunt for the perfect tobacco.

Bill and I walked over to another wall filled with display shelves of tobacco tins. It was a whole new world to me. Mac Baren, Dunhill, Balkan Sobranie, and many others – probably all now long discontinued. Bill said that most of those blends carried hefty price tags – some as much as $3 dollars! So, he advised that we look at the pouches of blends that were in another area. As we looked over the huge variety I spotted a large box that had the same Borkum Riff Whiskey pouches that my friend always had sitting on his desk back at the radio/TV station. “I want to get a pouch of that Borkum Riff Whiskey,” I firmly stated. “I love the way it smells.” Bill smiled and said that it tasted as good as it smelled and that it was the only tobacco he smoked. So, I added .89 cents to my tab by getting a pouch.

Before leaving the shop and heading back over to the station, Bill got me some pipe cleaners and a tamper to go along with my prized new pipe and tobacco and off we went. Once we got back to the station and at Bill’s desk in the newsroom, he showed me how to load my new pipe and how to tamp once the pipe got lit. We both used matches – I wasn’t about to pay the kind of money the pipe shop wanted for the lighters they had – and I stood by his desk, feeling quite grown up and manly as I took my first few puffs. I thanked Bill and then strolled back out to my car with pipe in mouth, hoping that I was projecting the perfect image of a pipe smoker to anyone who might be looking.

My bedroom at my parents house was actually a stand alone on the other side of our garage. So, I knew that I could smoke out there with no issues. My father didn’t smoke but my mother smoked cigarettes and I felt pretty secure in the knowledge that I wouldn’t get much grief once I told them I was smoking a pipe, but didn’t want to take any chances of them seeing me smoking it right off the bat. I got into my bedroom and lit up again… and again and again and again. Man, keeping a pipe lit was not easy! So, I just puffed harder and faster trying to keep the thing going. I bet I used up a whole book of matches on that first bowl. I actually did enjoy the taste at first, but after awhile with all that puffing, all I could taste was hot smoky air. I smoked that bowl of Borkum Riff Whiskey all the way to the bottom as I was determined to smoke every shard of tobacco.

I smoked two more bowls before dinner and another one right before going to bed. I was still using a ton of matches, packing the bowl too tightly, no doubt, but I sure was having fun being a pipe smoker – until the next morning. I woke up feeling something weird and painful in my mouth and on my tongue. I could hardly talk and when I brushed my teeth with my Gleem toothpaste there was a burning sensation in my mouth that was almost intolerable. Hell itself could not have been hotter!

I have a saying, pipe smokers are born, not made. A born pipe smoker keeps at it until he/she learns proper smoking techniques through trial and error. Back in the 1970’s there was no internet. The only way I could get smoking tips was by ordering an Iwan Ries Catalog that had helpful tips in it. I didn’t smoke my pipe much at first, mainly because I had my tongue in a sling, but once I began the learning process, I decided two things. First, I really liked smoking a pipe and second, that pipe smokers must not have asbestos tongues after all.

Happy Puffing,

Steve