The Road to Westminster

5th January, 2007: Posted by glpease in Tobacco, Stories

The passage of time can be a strange thing. The engagement we experience with the things of life can dilate time in ways that almost seem drug induced, confounding our sense of rhythmic transit in ways that are inexplicable, producing a sort of temporal dissonance. So it is for me with the history of Westminster’s development, and while it feels like well over a year since I first found myself submerged in this project, it was really only in March of 2006 that I was going at it it full tilt. The background to the project, however, extends much farther in history, in some sense, back to my earliest days of pipe smoking, when a particular tobacco caught my fancy, and hasn’t really let it go.

In about 1980, while I was in the throes of exploring many of the then readily available, but still classic blends, mostly from such venerable house names as Sobranie, Dunhill, McConnell, Rattray, Sullivan Powell and so on - you know the list - a few rooted themselves in my brain as truly exemplary. Many, perhaps most of the blends I tried then were superb examples of what they were, but only a few truly resonated with my own tastes in blissful harmony. One of those blends was Dunhill’s marvelous London Mixture. This blend was first offered in 1928. The original catalogue description read, “A delightfully harmonious blend of matured Virginia and Oriental tobaccos, soft and mellow, cool and fragrant.” I won’t argue. Of all the blends bearing the standard of Duhhill, this was The One for me. It had a richness, a sophisticated elegance, and a complex nature that kept it from being tiring. It was full enough to satisfy, but never overbearing. It wasn’t as exotic as some of my other faves, but neither was it as pretentious. It was comfort food for the pipe, and was destined to be a constant resident of my tobacco shelf for many years.

Circa 1981, when the new shipments of Murrays produced Dunhill blends began to find their way to the shelves (all the prior tins I’d smoked were earlier ones of Dunhill manufacture), I noticed changes in my beloved London Mixture. It was still an excellent blend, but to my tastes, it seemed to have lost a little something. Perhaps it wasn’t as rich, or as well balanced. Memory tells me that the Latakia content was slightly lower, that the virginias were somewhat stronger, that the balance was different. Still, an exceptional blend, and one I gladly smoked, while acquiring older tins when I could find them to satisfy the deeper cravings, but just not the same. Of course, the older tins did have the advantage of time on their side, but there it took more than that to explain the changes.

London Mixture has always been there for me, even as I’ve added many other blends to my list of regulars over the years, and removed some, and now that I’ve had the opportunity to experience the Murrays version at many different ages, I can say that though somewhat different from the original, it has remained an excellent tobacco, and kept the spirit of the old blend alive.

When I learned last year that Orlik had taken over production of the Dunhill blends from Murrays, concern was raised, so I picked up a few tins of the last available Murrays production, and a few of the newer Orlik ones to try over the coming years. The Murrays version retained the character I loved about London Mixture right to the end. I can’t be quite as positive in my assessment of the new version. While it’s certainly a good tobacco in its own right, and a lot of the flavors are still present, though in a different balance, it’s more shallow, less refined, and certainly, less full. It’s one more step removed from the original, at least to my tastes, and not nearly as appealing to either my palate, or to my memories. It had become something different. And so, into the lab.

In March, I took samples from several vintages of London Mixture, some kindly sent to me by friends knowing about the journey I was about to embark upon. I smoked each, taking careful notes. Then began the laborious task of dissecting, with magnifying glass and forceps, the blends into their component parts. This is an inexact science, at best, as after years of melding and aging, it can be quite difficult to discern the different tobaccos, but it would provide me some starting points for my own experiments aimed toward recreating a classic, or at least capturing something of its essence. The dissection done, I weighed each little mound of tobacco carefully, and began to examine and analyze each. Countless hours were spent on this part of the project, but the insight gained was invaluable.

Once I had a good idea of both components and proportions, I began the real work of creating a new blend. Several prototypes were mixed, each carefully assessed, and adjustments were made. This is one of those incremental processes that can consume all available hours, and one that never really reveals the end point until you come quite close to it. By the middle of May, I’d narrowed it down to two different rough recipes, consisting of percentages of component classes - like Latakia, oriental, virginia. From here, I started working on the balance of the components in each group, and what sort of processing would be necessary to accomplish the final goal. More prototypes, more experiments, more little glass jars full of 20-50g of blended tobaccos.

Finally, by the early part of July, I had the one final version pretty much in hand. Small changes would still be required, but all indications were that I was getting quite close. My lab notes from 10 July begin, “Westminster ROCKS!” and a list of people I would send samples to. Then, it was something of a waiting game. I blended up a batch of this prototype version, and put it aside to see how it would integrate over time, though previous samples had already given me a pretty good clue. Fast-forward a bit: I sent Craig the manufacturing details, and he put some together for sampling at the CORPS show in Richmond.  The response was very positive.

In the interim, I’d made some very small adjustments, and finalized everything. I set to work on doing the label, and getting everything ready for production. Finally, in December, 2006, everything was ready to go, and the blend was officially released on 2nd January, 2007.

I carried this baby for nine months, and it’s as much a part of me as it would be if it were human. I’m still thrilled with the results. Though not exactly the same as my beloved old pre-Murrays London Mixture, it carries that spirit with it, and delivers a great deal more than I’d thought possible at the outset. It evokes memories of those days in the early 1980s when I’d wander into Drucquer’s, grab a tin from the shelf, pull a coin from my pocket to open it, and revel in the richness of that first aroma. It does this in a way that my ancient tins do not. The wondrous changes they have undergone through the grace of age make them something different altogether - no less meaningful or important, but not evocative in the same manner.

In addition to being a delightful smoke, Westminster has allowed me to revisit, and in a way relive the past in a way that no other of my blends have. My old tins of London Mixture are magnificent, and are part of my little treasure box. One day, if all goes well, a few ancient tins of Westminster will take their place.