The Accidental Blender

6th July, 2010: Posted by glpease in Editorial

Some tobacco manufacturers collect their tailings, the little bits of blended tobacco that are left over after packaging, and sell them as bargain blends. You never know what’s going to be in them, and they’ll never be the same twice, but they’re cheap, and some smokers enjoy the adventure. Me? Not so much.

What would happen, say, if one of my accidental “blends” turned out to be the most fantabulous blend ever produced, and dozens or even tens of dozens of enthusiasts from around the globe - a massed hoard of the world’s pipe smokers bought it, loved it, ran out of it, and then arrived, pitchforks and torches in hand, pounding clenched fists angrily upon my door, demanding more of last month’s Bert’s Blend. (Bert was the name of the chimney sweep played by Dick van Dyke in Marry Poppins, in case you’ve forgotten. It seems a fitting sobriquet for such a blend.) As I’d never be able to reproduce it, my sometimes vivid imagination can easily paint the ensuing doom drenched nightmares of finding myself pilloried in the village square at dawn, being pummeled by bushels of rotting fruit and pouches of Mixture 79. (I wonder if anyone remembers how to actually pillory someone.)

An unlikely scenario? Maybe. Consider the following tale of one of my earliest blends, one from my Drucquer days, the almost completely hitherto unknown and completely accidental Byzantine Mixture. (No, you will never find this on ebay.)

While at Drucuqer’s, working on the formula for what was ultimately to become Sublime Porte (which later evolved into Silk Road, and later into Samarra, each a subsequent reinterpretation of its predecessor, each flying a different brand’s flag), there were dozens of trials, each anywhere between 10g and 100g. Most of them were pretty good, but not quite what I was envisioning for a finished product, and being wholly inexperienced at the blender’s art and science at the time, I faced the development through blind trial and error, informed only by the fact that I’d been assembling the shop’s other mixtures, like a human mixmaster, for some time. I’d change one component, and taste, then another, and taste again. This approach is confounded somewhat by the fact that a blend is often remarkably different when first blended than it is even a few hours after the fact, not to mention what happens after weeks in a jar, or when toasted, stoved, steamed, or otherwise manipulated.

I learned a great deal in those weeks, about how tobacco works, about the ways different varieties of leaf interact with one another, about how to approach the work of blending them, about what went well with what, and, more importantly, what didn’t. It was a great beginning, and it yielded a pretty good result; Sublime Porte was tuned right, on the shelves, and people were buying and liking it. It was my first, start from scratch, commercial blend, done sometime in the early 1980s. It turned out to be a fine blend, and something of a hit for the shop.

But, there was this other thing, this jar of tailings; a glass testament to one blenders trials and efforts, not his craft, and certainly not yet his art. The leftovers of each and every experiment were sequestered in a large apothecary jar with a screw-on metal lid. After all the weeks of wild exploration, I couldn’t even guess what that jar actually contained. Latakia, yes; a few different orientals, perique, many grades of virginias, dark and light cavendish tobaccos, brown and white burleys, even. It was a kitchen sink blend with a London accent.

And, this accidental blend turned out to be really, really good - rich, complex, and tragically, owing to the fact that this was long before I’d learned to record everything when developing a blend, absolutely impossible to reproduce. (My lab notebooks, now, are rather more complete and disciplined than the 3×5 cards, Post-It notes, used envelopes and cocktail napkins on which I was inclined to record things in those days.)

I labeled the jar, Byzantine Mixture, and left it behind when I left Drucquer’s employ - again. (I worked at the shop under three different owners - this was the second one.) Somewhere along the way, that jar found itself buried and dusty somewhere in the back room. Can’t blame the shop owner. Why put something on the tasting bar that can’t be reproduced and sold? But, that’s not the end of the story.

A few years later, a friend of mine had taken over as manager of the shop, and while doing a little housekeeping, he’d found some jars of old tobacco in the back room, mostly blends that had been discontinued for one reason or another. Being the curious sort, he tasted all of them them, and found one particularly to his liking. I was visiting him at the shop one day when he was smoking that blend.

“What are you smoking? It smells fantastic.”

“It’s something I found in the back. I have no idea what it is, but it’s labeled Byzantine Mixture. I can’t find any record of it in the books.”

Before telling him the story, before revealing the secrets of the blend, I asked to try it.

“I think there might an ounce or two left. I’ve been smoking quite a bit of it…”

I filled my pipe and struck a match; it was fabulous, rendered even richer, riper and more complex by the passing of time, and I was reminded, just a little, of a Zen koan about tigers, a cliff, and a perfectly ripe strawberry.

A man walking across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger chasing after him. Coming to a cliff, he caught hold of a wild vine and swung himself over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Terrified, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger had come, waiting to eat him. Two mice, one white, one black, little by little began to gnaw away at the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!

Pipe smoking tigers. I keep better notes, now.