Dunhill’s Ye Olde Signe

27th January, 2009: Posted by glpease in Tobacco Commentary

Thanks to the generosity of one of our pipe smoking brethren, I have been given the rare opportunity to taste this long out of production blend. I’ve found myself quite awestruck by it.

Ye Olde Signe was one of Dunhill’s earliest mixtures, first produced in 1915[1]. It is listed in early catalogues as, “Pure Virginia¬† leaf, rich to natural sweetness, unusually mild with soft delicate flavour.”[2]. The sample I was given is ca. 20-years old, tinned by hand in the London store back when Dunhill still cared about tobaccos. It is a lovely dark, rich, shag-cut straight virginia blend, well matured, and rendered even more so by a couple decades in the tin. The bouquet is intoxicating, like any good, dark, well-aged virginia; softly fermented and inviting, with impressions of figs and sour Morello cherries (that’s actually a good thing), and minus the overly cased scent found in too many modern virginias. But what grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go was the flavour.

Upon first light, the usual, familiar guests arrive - the slightly tangy sweetness of VA, dried fruit, a hint of orange peel, a very subtle bitter undertone; all there, nicely amplified and smoothed by the passage of time. Bringing up the rear, however, were some of those wonderful, more interesting characters - the ones that make the party more interesting.

Typically, I find straight virginias, especially modern ones, to be somewhat monotonous. (Don’t tune out, quite yet, please.) Though they offer a pleasant palette of tastes, that palette is somewhat limited in breadth. And, while these tastes do develop in intensity throughout the bowl, the tobaccos do not generally deliver the same sort of olfactory and gustatory attraction for me of more complicated mixtures. Ye Olde Signe is different.

Early on, a deep, plum-pudding flavour develops, round, supple, and subtle; then, an almost liquorice-like sweetness, again, softly spoken, but well worth listening to. There are hints of Darjeeling tea, and then, things get interesting. First impressions are followed by an almost Byzantine labyrinth of twists and turns that develop through the bowl, while always remaining wonderfully harmonious, with nothing calling undue attention to itself. On occasion, a phantasm of non-existent oriental tobacco whisps across the stage before disappearing into the wings.

It is unfortunately very rare for a straight virginia to possess this much complexity; if the effect was not so perfectly orchestrated, it might well wander into the realms of tobacco neurosis, but that isn’t the case, here. Everything remains in perfect balance. The smoke is exciting, without being so dramatic as to become tiresome. Each puff simply delivers pure fascination. This is a blend that deserves a clean pipe and fresh palate. It is one not to smoke mindlessly, but to sit back and savour.

Its sweetness is the bass line, like a fine Vintage Porto. Other characteristics are the spice that in the gaps, making a more complete whole. There’s strength here, too, not quite in abundance, but certainly noticeable. Unlike some of the modern high-octane smokes that knock me across the room, this just picks me up, and carries me away into a land of pipe smoking bliss. It elaborates wonderfully, each sip gaining a little more intensity, while offering a fresh insight into the blend’s mesmerising flavours. Outstanding stuff.

I’d never tried this when it was available, so I cannot compare the aged version to a younger sibling, but after smoking a couple bowls of this, I sadly realize what I’d been missing all these years. I wish I had a dozen tins in the cellar; two dozen would be better. This blend has placed itself at or near the top of a very short list, for me, of exceptional matured VAs, joining the Benson & Hedges OVF, maufactured by Gallahers, Barry Levin’s outstanding, limited edition Kringle Flake, blended by McClellands, and Garfinkel’s Scottish Cut Cake, produced by the legendary Robt. McConnells. Sadly, these are all difficult to find, now. Make it three dozen tins.

I nearly hesitate to post this. This tobacco is rare, now, and writing anything that increases the likelihood of greater competition in acquiring a tin or two is imprudent on my part, but given my own proclivities towards sharing information, coupled with the generosity of the fellow who supplied this sample, I am obliged to do so.

So, if you see some somewhere, please, just let me know. If it’s on ebay, do not bid on it, but forward the link to me. If you discover a dusty tin on some withered tobacconist’s shelves, have it held for me, and tell me its whereabouts - I’ll call at once with credit card in hand. (Sure. Like any of this is going to happen…)

There are a couple, perhaps three¬† more bowls in the sample. I’ll shed a tear or two when the last of it is gone. In the meanwhile, I’d better get used to the idea of never smoking anoy of this again, and see what I can do to build something similar, however improbable the task…

A couple weeks ago, I was happy, thinking I’d already tasted most of the great blends of the past. Clearly, I was wrong. Thanks, Bruce, for expanding my experience, and ruining my life.


[1]John C. Loring - Dunhill Pipe Tobacco - 1907-1990
[2] ibid. Blends Appearing in Catalogues