How Long Before You Know?

An often asked question that I receive; How long will it take me to know whether I like a new blend that I smoke? That’s a good question, and for me, an easy one to answer now, but certainly such a question would not have been easy to answer when I first began my foray into the wonderful world of pipe smoking. I think that I’ve mentioned before that everyone’s chemical makeup is as different as their fingerprints. I may try a blend that I think will serve me best if I just toss it into the trash can. Or, smoke a blend that is so good after the first bowl that I’ll immediately order more so that I can cellar and age it for later enjoyment. But for others, what I love may be putrid stuff to them and vice versa. And what about the question of how many bowls to smoke before knowing for sure whether one does or does not like the blend? For newer pipe smokers who have not yet had the opportunity to smoke a hundred different blends, the learning curve takes more time because they often don’t know yet exactly what they like or dislike. And their points of references are limited. For old guys like me who have been smoking for many decades, figuring out whether they like or dislike a blend may take only a bowl or two.

I first smoked a pipe in 1971, and I tried all kinds of tobacco blends in my early years of pipe smoking – most of them aromatics. You know, Borkum Riff, Captain Black, Amphora and Cookie Jar, just to name a few. In the late 1970’s I found a blend at a tobacco shop in a mall in Austin, Texas, where I lived and worked at the time, and it became a staple for a few years. It was called Special Blend No. 2, and it was a Virginia and Black Cavendish ribbon cut tobacco that had been soaked in Vanilla. To this day I suspect it was the famous Lane 1-Q that even today remains the most popular “house blend” of tobacco shops all over the country. Anyway, back in those days I was only smoking one or two bowls of tobacco a week and I had a very small stable of pipes. I owned a few Stanwell’s and a few Savinelli’s and that was it. On my limited budget, a pound of Special Blend No. 2 at a couple of bucks and change seemed like a good deal. And my most expensive pipe was a Stanwell that I purchased in the late 1970’s for the staggering (to me), price of $45. It took me a long time of self debating before deciding whether I wanted to spend that much money for a pipe.

Let’s jump forward 15-years. My epiphany occurred in 1986. I went to a different tobacco shop in Austin one day just to look around. The owner saw me looking at pipes up on one of those peg boards where all the less expensive pipes are always kept. Because I was a television sports announcer for the local NBC TV affiliate in Austin at the time, the owner recognized me and immediately told me that a TV broadcaster on the local newscasts should have a worthy pipe to smoke. Well, how could I argue with that? He then took me to the back room of the shop and opened a drawer. He had just gotten in some hand made pipes from a pipe maker in Italy by the name of Tonino Jacono. He said Jacono’s family owned a briar mill and that he was always able to get the best, most well cured and driest smoking wood to make his pipes. I was fascinated and the pipes were beautiful. But the $125 price tag on those pipes bugged my eyes. Inwardly wincing, I agreed to purchase a Jacono billiard that had a smooth bowl and rusticated shank (I still have it and that pipe is shown in the attached photo). At the time, I thought it was the most beautiful pipe that I’d ever seen. After I purchased the pipe, the crafty proprietor told me that I needed a worthy tobacco to smoke with my new pipe, and he suggested Rattray’s Red Rapparee. He said that it was a very flavorful English style blend and also his favorite tobacco to smoke. Well, I didn’t know what an “English” blend was but figured that if the blend was the favorite of an owner of a pipe shop, well then, it must be good. I was still a free… well, I mean that I was still a single man back in those days, so, with no one to feed but myself, I gave the guy all of my money and took my prizes home. Along the way I did stop at a local grocery store to buy a small can of beans (I didn’t have enough money left in my pocket to buy a large one),  because I knew that’s all I’d be eating for awhile after my splurge at the pipe shop.

Long story short, after my pinto beans dinner that night, I lit up my first bowl of Red Rapparee in that Jacono and never looked back. What a sensational smoke! And even today, some 35-years later, I will occasionally pull out that old Jacono and smoke a bowl of Red Rapparee in it, and still enjoy the sensation as much as I did more than three decades ago. So yes, you can find a blend that you love at first light while you quickly toss another in the trash can because it was like suffering through a bad date.

Over the years I’ve talked with many pipe smokers regarding how they evaluate what they are smoking and whether or not the blend is a keeper. Some people have hundreds of pages of notes on blends they have smoked and what the overall presentation was like to them. I used to do that myself back in the early days of my pipe smoking career. Now though, if I like a blend enough to smoke it a second and third time, it is almost always a tobacco that I’ll buy more of, cellar it for a few years, and smoke it again. And I almost always like it as much or even more. Not always, but most of the time. As for my affair with Lane’s 1-Q, it ended once I had my first bowl of Rattray’s Red Rapparee those many years ago.

For those of you still on the hunt for favorite tobaccos, my only advice is to simply try a variety of tobacco types, listen to what your palate is telling you and you’ll be just fine.

Happy Puffing,

Steve