An Evening With Charles Rattray

18th February, 2005: Posted by glpease in Tobacco, Stories

Okay, the title is a little misleading, but I know no one is silly enough to believe that old Chas is still with us, or that I’m old enough to have actually spent an evening with him (though, frighteningly, that’s actually possible), or that I’ve been experimenting with my OUIJA board again. You’re not that silly, are you? Actually, this is about an evening spent with a good friend, an acceptable, if somewhat nondescript meal, and an amazing smoke on a crisp evening. Mr. Rattray was present only in spirit.

Richard and I share many loves, among them Formula One racing, spicy food, single-malt whiskeys, great cigars, exotic women (not the same ones…), and, of course, pipes and tobacco. Periodically, we’ll get together for a fiery feast, followed by a stroll and a fine smoke. Oh, and ice cream. We have a favorite spot in Benicia called Sala Thai; the owners have come to know us, and understand precisely what we mean when we say “spicy, please.” (I don’t speak Thai, but have enough language savvy to recognize “those crazy white guys” when heard through not-quite-closed kitchen doors. Yes, they do indeed know us.) Hence, the importance of ice cream.

Richard has long been a fan of the old Rattray’s tobaccos; not the caricatures that are being produced today - fine blends in their own rights, but so dissimilar to their namesakes that I find it a little off-putting that they wear facsimiles of the original livery - but, the real thing. Those wonderful old bulging tins, sporting cutter tops and faded labels. He called me up one day.

“Hey, amigo. Guess what I just got?”

Figuring it probably wasn’t Michael Schumacher’s Ferrari, since the season wasn’t yet over, and knowing that even a fabulous cigar rarely warrants a phone call, I was without clues. “Give me a hint.”

“A REALLY old 4-oz cutter top of Black Mallory in PERFECT condition.” Some clue. “When are we going to have dinner and pop this puppy?” When, indeed?

This required some planning. First of all, uncorking such a rare treasure is not to be taken lightly. It requires a proper courtship, the building of anticipation, some significant forethought. Second, our habit of highly spiced food would have to be broken for the occasion; there’s just no way to truly appreciate the fine subtleties of a REALLY old tobacco after the full-frontal palate assault of the fire-breathing Thai dragon chile. Third, I had to choose a pipe for the occasion. (I’m sure Richard will read this, so I won’t acknowledge that a capacious bowl was one criterion used in making my selection.)

Working backwards, I chose a favored Castello Sea Rock, a G sized shape 34 - a slightly bent dublin. I’d just smoked it, and wanted to give it a good rest, so I posed the notion of “Wednesday next.” That should be ample anticipation for both of us, would give the pipe some breathing room, and it wasn’t so far in the future that I risked Richard’s opening of the tin without me. I love it when a plan comes together.

Next, we had to decide on a place to eat. One nice thing about Benicia is that it seems relatively friendly, at least in California terms, to pipe smokers. In all our visits, we’ve never experienced the mysterious “Dance of the Hands” face-waving so prevalent in many less civilized towns. People there seem downright tolerant. So, of course, Benicia it would be.

There’s a slightly pretentious seafood restaurant, Captain somethingorother, down near the waterfront. We’d talked about giving it a try in the past, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity; good seafood wouldn’t overwhelm the tasters. The date was made.

Wednesday came. We met at the door, were escorted upstairs to our table, and took our places. Richard produced the Black Mallory, and set it on the table, giving it its own special place. Catch-up talk was exchanged, a couple of pipes shown. Menus were studied and orders placed. I finally couldn’t stand it anymore, and grabbed the tin to examine it a little more closely. The label was perfect, without tears or signs of fading. The soldered-on top was clearly bulging, but it hadn’t blown the cutter top off - quite. A tax-stamp in perfect condition held it in place. No corrosion was evident anywhere. This tin was as pristine as I’ve ever seen.

Just as we were considering opening it, a nicely dressed woman was seated at a nearby table. Sadly, her choice of scent was not equal to her fashion sense, and the olfactory torture was instant. In situations like this, I find myself wondering that a few ephemeral wisps of my pipe tobacco can be found SO offensive by so many, while the lingering, headache inducing odor of cheap perfume can be inflicted with impunity. We’d have to wait to experience that wonderful “whoosh” as the delicious fragrance held captive behind those bulging seams was released by the intrusion of the knife. Fine. We’d eat first.

Dinner was decent, if not memorable. The fish was fresh and well prepared, the vegetable of the day, baby bok choy, wasn’t overcooked, and the potatoes were properly mashed. But, however good the dinner had been, the real business was the Ratrays, and eating was something of a formality. Dinner over, we retired to the “smoking section,” a little patio outside the restaurant with ample seating, and only two intrepid pipesters willing to brave the chill air.

The first whiff from a freshly opened ancient tin is always the best for me. I like to be right above the tin when the beautiful genii imprisoned within experiences her first taste of freedom, swirling out to stretch seductively in the freshness. The knife went in, the lid was given the necessary twist, and the genii was released. This tin held no disappointments! We passed it back and forth, savoring the wonderful fragrance of that aged weed, gazing into the rich, deep hues of red and black that graced the fine, short strands. What a beautiful tobacco.

Over the decades, the orientals in the blend had gained that wonderful musty character, like a well aged Burgundy, and the Virginias had become rich and fruity, and truly magnificent. The Latakia, of course, had softened dramatically. Often, this paling of the Latakia is something I’d consider a flaw in a Balkan or English style mixture that’s sat this long, and gone “over the hill,” but here is where the blending genius of Charles Rattray shined brightest. His treatment of the Virginias in the mixture, the rich reds, the black-stoved leaf, the balance of delicacy and robustness, made his tobaccos unique in the world, and provided them with longer legs, greater staying power than many or most of the Latakia blends of the era. Rattray’s blends had real staying power, as though they were designed to last. In his own words, Rattray’s methods imparted “a distinctive flavour which the lapse of time accentuates, rather than diminishes.” Amen, brother.

How about the smoke? I confess that I was too carried away by the sheer ecstasy of the moment to jot any notes, to attempt to assign descriptive terms to the experience. In my mind, though, I will always carry the memories of the first taste, the wonderful aroma that swirled about us as we puffed our way to heavenly bliss, and the way this great blend developed during the smoke.

Of particular note were the Virginias. Their sweetness was present throughout, a consistent theme; not the bright, zesty sweetness of a younger blend, and certainly not the artificial, sugary sweetness of many of today’s heavily cased mixtures. (There’s a topic for another article - and one that will, I’m sure, result in some significant eyebrow lifting.) Think of the difference between a Hershey bar and a deep, dark, rich flowerless chocolate cake. Behind the sweetness, a fruity character wove in and out of the smoke, intimating dried figs, sometimes even ripe pears. Delightfully minky/musky notes remained intriguingly in the background, along with a quality I can only describe as “mushroomy.” (My friend Paul calls this “The Funk.” Absent, however, was the pungent smokiness of the Latakia, which would certainly have been Syrian in a mixture of this vintage; while gentle hints of enticing warm spices - clove, cinnamon, nutmeg - betrayed its presence, it’s more forceful qualities had set sail years ago. Surprisingly, even to a dedicated and die-hard Latakiaphile (me), the generally dominant, and desirable campfire and leather contribution of the dusky oriental were not missed in this case. This was perfection.

While Black Mallory is generally considered, at least today, to be a “heavy Latakia” blend, probably more for the darkness of its presentation than for its actual blend components, I’m more inclined now to think of it as a very rich Virginia blend, spiced just right with the “king of flavour.” Rattray had a very special way with tobacco, and I’d give anything to know even some of the secrets that went into creating these exquisite and exalted mixtures. I wonder how many of today’s tobaccos will weather the storms of age as well. I have some hopes for some of mine, but time will be the only true judge. Perhaps breaking out the OUIJA board isn’t such a bad idea after all. Or, maybe the crystal ball.