Recreating the Past

3rd January, 2004: Posted by glpease in Tobacco

Often, especially at pipe shows, I’m asked why I don’t recreate some of the long-lost blends of yesterday - those classics whose passage from tobacconists’ shelves has been often lamented. You know the ones I’m talking about, or, at least you have your own list. Of course, it’s not just the blends that have disappeared, but those that have been changed radically through reorganizations, buy-outs, manufacturing changes, the disappearance of varietal leaf and, probably, cost cutting measures. My reaction to the question is always the same. To do so is pretty much impossible. Certainly, some have claimed to recreate old blends, but every time I sample them, I’m disappointed with the result. Never once, in my experience, has someone really “cloned” a classic old blend successfully, at least not to my perhaps overly critical palate.

Why is this? To answer that, we have to examine what it would require to do it right. Let’ s take something like Balkan Sobranie’s wonderful Mixture 759 as a good example. This tobacco has not been made for some years, and during its life, several changes were made to the blend. If we were to examine a particular sample of the blend today, it would have undergone significant change as a result of age. There’s just no way to take it apart, to reverse the effects of time, and expect to know what was in that blend, in what measure when it was first produced. Further, even if the exact ingredients could be divined by use of Ouija board or crystal ball, there were manufacturing techniques employed that, to this day, remain secret. Were any stoving methods used? Was something added to any of the leaf to give it its special character? Finally, the particular varietal leaf, particularly the orientals, may not be available today, at least not in quantities that a micro-blender could reasonably obtain.

Certainly, we could dissect a sample, separating it into tiny piles of leaf that appeared to be of the same type, tweezing out each strand, examining it closely, and placing it with its mates. Doing so, of course, would provide a reasonable approximation of the proportions of the major constituents, or would it? Some chemical analysis could be done of each little mound, in an effort to figure out where the leaf was grown, what its sugar content was, and so on, but this would be an analysis of aged tobacco, not fresh. The result would not be particularly meaningful unless similarly aged leaf of the same type and of known origin was also available for comparative analysis. Even then, this would disregard the synergistic effects of the different tobaccos upon one another when stored in such close proximity for an extended period.

And, that’s just the tip of the tobacco blending iceberg. Many manufacturers used methods that to alter the leaf they used in their blends. Stoving, panning, steaming, pressing—any of these techniques could have changed leaf of a particular type in ways that are difficult, if not impossible, to augur from our late-arriving sample. Even the way the leaf was aged would have make a dramatic difference in the final result. Too, what about things like casings, toppings, scents that may be added with such a subtle hand that their presence lies beneath the threshold of perception, yet their absence would be clearly noted by the critical smoker. Three Nuns, for example, I have long felt, has a wonderful, ephemeral topping applied that is partly responsible for its unique taste and aroma. No other tobacco has ever been produced that is quite like it. These amendments would have interacted with the tobacco during aging, and any clue they may have provided when the product was first put in the tins will more then likely be obscured by time’s passage.

Of course, a result that is “close” might be produced in this way, but close isn’t a clone. I’m often amazed at the tiny changes to a blend that many smokers can discern and will comment upon, as well as the more significant changes that go un-noticed. The dramatic differences in various production years of Balkan Sobranie, for instance, seem to be forgotten today, as the diverse incarnations of the “blend” merge into one homogenous memory of something that no longer is, and likely never was. So, the best we can hope for is to make something good, something that will satisfy, in some way, those longing for what they can no longer get. With luck and skill, we can make a replacement, but not an identical twin.

What, though, if we could, using all the techniques of modern analytical chemistry, synthesize something that nearly duplicates that precious sample of our beloved old weed? What would happen to this new blend in the future? If it’s the same today, it will certainly be different in years to come, putting us back at the starting point, with perhaps an even more daunting task. See the problem?

When I set out to produce the blends in the Classic Collection, It was not with an eye toward reproducing anything. Instead, these are something like impressionistic paintings of what I enjoy today when smoking some of the classic blends of days gone by. None of the blends duplicate the sensory effects of smoking the old standbys, but they do serve to remind me, a bit, of my own experience with those blends. In that regard, I consider them quite successful. I’ve not revealed the blends that influenced these new ones, as my experiences are likely quite different from another smokers, and why create arguments where none need to exist? In the final stages of the development of these blends, and any blend I produce, I had to make decisions that would result in each one standing on its own merits, providing a well-balanced smoke today, with good potential for aging. Perhaps over time, one of these will turn into something quite similar to the blend that influenced its creation, but I’m not taking any bets. I do hope that they, one day, will be considered classic blends in their own rights. (Though I’m certainly not intending for them to disappear any time soon. Our wonderful pastime has had enough of that over the past few years.) If one or more of them grabs your attention, stock up. Age will work wonders on these blends - that is one thing I am absolutely sure of.


After-words: Since writing this, I’ve gone against my own grain, and made my best attempt to recreate an old friend. The blend is Westminster, styled after the original Dunhill London Mixture, and the story can be found in my article, The Road to Westminster. Yes, I dissected, tweezed and analyzed, and am really happy with the result, though I would certainly not call it a reproduction. Then again, in twenty years or so, maybe it’ll come close.