A Magic Carpet Ride

6th June, 2004: Posted by glpease in Tobacco

This is something of a day in the life, or, more accurately, a year in the life article. It starts with a fateful event, the loss of a very important ingredient tobacco, and ends with the creation of a new blend. The labyrinthine journey from there to here has taken something over a year, but it seems like only days. Time flies when you’re having fun! Too, this is for those who wonder just what the hell it is I do for a living…

For about a year, I’ve been exploring the depths and mysteries of the amazing Syrian Latakia that we acquired as a replacement for the leaf we used before. As many will recall, toward the end of 2002, we suffered from a dramatic shortage of this exotic leaf; there simply wasn’t a pound to be had. Our supplier had run out! As a result, a few very popular blends went out of production, temporarily, (it was amazing how quickly the dealers’ shelves were cleaned out of Renaissance, Raven’s Wing and Mephisto when the announcement was made), and a mad scramble ensued to find a suitable replacement. We called everyone. We tried everything. We were desperate.

Finally, our supplier, wonderful guy that he is, found a source, and after negotiating a price, informed us that the quality would be even higher than the excellent leaf we’d previously been getting. Bonus! There was a catch, though; we had to assure our supplier that we’d use this stuff on a continuing basis if he was going to be able to keep the supply flowing. Also, we had to take the whole shipment. Of course, we agreed, and the deal was struck. All that was left was to wait…and wait…and wait. I was a little skeptical about the claims of higher quality, as the leaf we’d been getting was quite superb, but if the new stuff was at least as good, I’d be happy. More waiting. The ship the tobacco was aboard had quite a wonderful tour of the world, apparently, and it took several months to reach New York. Then, several weeks to clear customs. More waiting. Then, the bales could be sent to our processor for conditioning, cutting, re-drying. More waiting, and more of my continued skepticism. In the mean time, we offered some of the supply to other manufacturers, sharing our good fortune, and responding to the harsh economics of ordering a full container of leaf. About 2/3 of the shipment was redirected. Balancing inventory and cashflow is always a delicate operation.

Finally, in June of last year, I got to experience this remarkable tobacco for the first time, and it’s been an exotic love affair from the moment I stuck my nose in the bag containing the first samples of cut leaf. At once, many ideas began to formulate. What would I do with it? Would I attempt to recreate some of the old blends extant prior to the Great Syrian Latakia shortage of 1960? Not likely. Certainly, it would be a perfect replacement for the previous leaf we’d been using, even improving the old versions of the blends that contained it. But, this leaf is so delightful, so special, that something new, something borne from my own vision had to be created.

I’ve been working on that “something new” ever since. In March of this year, I was quite close, and took about 200g of my prototype with me to the Los Angeles pipe show. The only problem was my own greed. It was all I had, and I was afraid there wouldn’t be enough for me, so I didn’t let anyone taste it! That should have been the first sign that I was either going off the deep end, or really falling for this stuff. When I returned from the show, I made a couple of very tiny adjustments to the blend, mixed up about 500g, and began sharing it with a few people. Finally, a blend that demonstrates what Syrian Latakia is really all about could be brought to market.

I took a batch to the Chicago show, where it was wonderfully received. I’ve been smoking an almost steady diet of it since March, and I am still enamored with it. It’s rare, even among the blends that I create to my own tastes, that I can smoke a tobacco often without contemplating ways to change it. This one, somehow, has transcended that aspect of my character, and remains a sheer delight to me. But, what is it that makes it so special? Time to back up a little.

When I first began working on his blend, the intention was to showcase the spectacular Syrian leaf. Certainly, this could be used merely as a condiment, as a seasoning for a blend, but it’s so wonderful that it needed to be a featured player, as a soloist in a carefully orchestrated symphony. This turned out to be more difficult than expected. Finding the right blend of tobaccos that would lend the proper support, while not overpowering was a delicate juggling act.

Some notes on the characteristics of this tobacco are in order. Unlike the heavy, leathery quality of Cyprian Latakia, Syrian is delicate, wine-like. It’s reminiscent of the sweet spices - cinnamon, cardamom, clove. It’s less smoky than its cousin, less dense. It’s more more delicate, and at the same time, more intricate. It presents an amazing tapestry of intrigue. It’s like wandering through the spice markets of Aswan, or exploring the alleyways of a Turkish bazaar. It fascinates the senses, and invites meanderings of the mind. Does this paint something of a picture? It’s exotic. Cyprian leaf is opulent, in its own way, but somewhat ponderous and baroque. Cyprus leaf is a heavily vinified Zinfandel, while the Syrian is an elegant Burgundy. Cyprian Latakia is Wagner to Syrian’s Bach.

The more I explored the twists and turns of this new leaf, the more I realized that to overshadow its splendor with a heavy handed blend would be like taking the finest Pinot Noir grapes of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, and making Sangria from them. Weighing this down with excessively sugared leaf, with too much dark Virginias, too much oriental would be a crime. The blend needed to be light, preserving the delicacy of the leaf, while still having good body, excellent structure. Knowing what I was chasing was at least a good start.

I seleced just a little bright, golden Virginia to add some sweetness, some lovely reds for body, and a hint of steamed Virginia Cavendish, to broaden the palette a bit. Then, earthy orientals, and a little aromatic Basma were chosen. Getting just the right portion of each leaf in the blend took many iterations, each resulting in a deeper understanding of the blend I was attempting to apprehend. After eight months, hundreds of pipes full of scarcely different examples, I was finally narowing the gap between me and my quarry. After nearly a year’s chase, I’d closed in, and bagged it.

Imagine spending a year experimenting with different variations on what was essentially the same theme before finding the target. That’s what it’s been like. Along the way, there have been many decent smokes, and a few almost exceptional ones, but the blend was elusive, until the very last little tweak. All that’s left now is the artwork and the labels, and a new blend will be born. It’s name will be Bohemian Scandal, and it should begin finding its way to the shelves within a month or two. I just hope the artwork doesn’t take as long to complete as the blend did. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I hear a pipe full of Bohemian Scandal calling, and it demands my full attention…