Embarcadero - A Point of Departure

2nd July, 2007: Posted by glpease in Tobacco, Stories


As the release of Embarcadero, the newest entry in the Fog City Select approaches - begin looking for it in mid July - I’ve been asked a few questions about it. What was the inspiration for this blend? What did you have in mind? What’s it like? Why Embarcadero?

They’re fair questions, and I had to do quite a bit of probing into some of the dusty bric-a-brac shelves of my mind to come up with something that would pass for reasonable answers; after all, it’s been a few months since I started working on it, and a whole host of synapses have fired since then, or so I’d like to think.A little background: The Fog City Selection is about Virginias, for the most part. With the exception of Ashbury, a delightful blend on its own right, but something of a misfit in the series, like an adopted cousin from another country, this collection is dominated by Virginia tobaccos, bright, red, and everything in between. The series begins with Montgomery, a bright, zesty blend augmented by a bit of wonderful dark-fired Kentucky burley for substance. Telegraph Hill follows with the addition of perique. Lombard brings in other condiment tobaccos, including a delicate kiss of Cyprian Latakia. Laurel Heights is a darker, duskier virginia blend, again with whispers of Latakia rustling in the breeze to bring added complexity to the mix. Finally, Fillmore presents similar, darker virginias, sweetened and soothed by perique, pressed, and sliced into delightful broken flakes. What was to come next? (Will I ever produce a straight, pure Virginia blend? Maybe…)

Please forgive what may seem like a slight of near heresy to those who are dedicated proponents of fine flue cured tobaccos. While Virginias can be truly delightful in their own way, they do present something of a limited spectrum of flavor and aroma. There are quite a few excellent examples of straight Virginia tobaccos on the market, and I’ve smoked many of them, enjoying their charms, but they always end up seeming just a little one-dimensional to me. They present nice flavors, lovely sweetness, interesting subtleties, and do develop and change somewhat throughout the smoke, but I’ve always found myself becoming a little bored with them as the pipe smolders toward its end game, and wanting more. Like a great wine that presents something new, some little surprise with each sip, I want my pipe tobaccos to do something similar. I admit to the quirk of a slightly short attention span, and often find myself needing some little kick to bring me back to the experience after a while. That’s what condiments can do for a blend.

So, I started exploring some of the classic Virginia blends I’ve enjoyed through the years. There is a long tradition of employing other tobaccos in VA blends to bring in those important extra elements, resulting in added dimension to the smoke. They were still Virginias, but the addition of a little seasoning raised them up to something more, much in the same way that the addition of a little spice and a hot grill can transcend a great piece of steak from tasty sustenance to a memorable experience.

Most of us who have been around the pipe for a while are aware of the magical pairing of Virginia and perique. The Louisiana leaf softens some of the edges of Virginias tendency toward sharpness, and adds subtle hints of stewed fruit to the aroma and flavor. But perique is not the only condiment that has been employed to excellent effect in the greatest of the great old blends.

The inclusion of a pinch of Latakia in Laurel Heights, which a few have complained about, but many more have complimented as some sort of masterstroke of ingenuity, really wasn’t my invention, however much I’d love to take full credit for it. This was actually a not uncommon practice amongst some of England’s best tobacco houses in the past, and I stole it. The admission of this little plagiarism makes me no less proud of the final result. I employed similar thievery when I concocted Fillmore. (Yes, Virginia, there is a little of the smoky stuff in that one, too. Some, those very sensitive to its presence, will easily notice it; others would only notice its absence.) Seasoning is a good thing.

This brings me back to Embarcadero, after another little detour - this time, to the near east; specifically, to Turkey.

Some time ago, we were able to fix a reliable source for some exquisite Izmir leaf. We’ve always had excellent orientals available to us, but this stuff is special. It’s so good, it can almost be enjoyed straight. Why almost? To begin with, pure orientals are notoriously difficult to keep lit. The delicate anatomy, combined with the natural oils and the chemistry of the leaf conspire to create a tobacco that either wants to burn, or go out completely. Keeping it in the important middle zone, that splendid smoldering that delivers the best flavor and aroma, is a challenging exercise best left to only the most patient amongst us.

More significantly, without other tobaccos to provide structure, to balance the flavors, it can fatigue all but the most jaded of palates. When combined and skillfully balanced with other tobaccos, though, such as with Westminster, the Izmir works pure magic; it adds a wonderful character to the smoke, its own flavors enhancing and strengthening the interplay of all the other components of the mixture. It goes with the Latakia like eggs with bacon, and the Virginias form a lovely plate on which to serve them.

When I was contemplating the next extension to the Fog City range, this superb Izmir struck me as a ideal way to add some excitement to a wonderful Virginia blend. Once again, I borrowed from those who have pre-deceased me, and began working on what was to become Embarcadero. Choosing top grades of rich, highly sugared red Virginias, the same flue-cured components that are featured in Fillmore, I worked to find just the right balance between the Virginias’ and the oriental’s characters. I wanted the Izmir to be part of the orchestra more than a featured soloist. It had to be discernible to the critical palate, while not upstaging the other players. There was much to be done. Now that the chairs were filled, I had to get busy on the rehearsals.

Even when things go smoothly, it always takes time to get a blend in tune, to arrange the parts so all the players show their best. This becomes even more crucial when a tobacco with a strong voice is used. A little too much, and it can stand out like a dissonant piccolo. A little too little, and it might as well pack its bags and go home, leaving its seat empty. Embarcadero was no exception. It took several iterations to begin to home in on what would become the final blend. Once it got there, though, there was no question, at least in my mind, that the extra effort was well spent, and Embarcadero was ready for its debut.

Like Fillmore, Embarcadero is presented in a broken flake form. The tobaccos are pressed together to integrate, then held in cakes to ferment slightly before being sliced, gently broken and packed. In the tin, the tobacco presents itself as a field of beautiful, medium reddish brown, shot through with darker strands of brick-red and flecks of the Izmir’s bright yellowish olive. It’s beautiful to look at. Its aroma is equally lovely - delicately sweet, subtly fruity, with an undertone of zestiness. Deeper whiffs bring hints of cocoa and citrus, hinting at those decadent dark chocolate covered orange sticks - do you know the ones I mean? Embarcadero invites long, lingering breaths of its enticing aromas, as well as short sniffs. Each brings its own appreciation for the interplay of perfumes encapsulated in the tin.

In the bowl, the smoke is as comfortable as a pair of old jeans that fits just right, but offers much more when the attention is focused. This is a fragrant, natural blend. The virginias present a subdued sweetness with sumptuous body and a velvety “feel.” Toasty flavors, hints of nuttiness and roasted coffee come through in waves, along with the exotic, intriguing spice of the orientals. While tempting to compare it to the other blends in the series, or even with other tobaccos in a similar genre, this one really stands out as unique. I’ve been enjoying it since the final prototype was in my hands, and continue to find additional charms with every smoke. This is good stuff!

Why Embarcadero? The Fog City Selection has been inspired by San Francisco - it’s places, its history, its climate, its culture. I imagine the bustling docks over a century ago, where the New World embraced the Old, and worked together to create a place unlike any other. The Embarcadero runs along those docks, and is still a place of excitement and enchantment for those who live and work nearby, and for those who visit. It’s a point of departure, but also of arrival. It fits.

Besides, I like the way it sounds.


P.S. In finding the best way to smoke this one, I’ve tried rubbing it right out to a fine ribbon, folding the bits of flake, rolling it into a loose ball, and every other method I could think of for packing it. For me, it seems to work best to keep the tobacco chunky, gathering enough to loosely fill the bowl with vertically aligned pieces, then giving it just enough of a press with the thumb to settle it, and go. Once under way, it smolders effortlessly, and slowly, delivering a long, lingering, leisurely smoke. The same “technique” works well with Fillmore and other broken flakes, as well. Give it a try! You may find that a little experimentation can be richly rewarded.