The Celebrated Bengal Slices

23rd August, 2010: Posted by glpease in Editorial

When I was a young pipester, a relative newcomer to the fold, I was always deeply intrigued by The Celebrated Bengal Slices. There just wasn’t anything else quite like it. The rich, wonderful tobacco, served in their elegant little black, red and gold tins had the deep Latakia flavours that I loved, along with a beautiful pressed virginia sweetness and exotic oriental spice, all harmoniously joined together and augmented with a delightfully subtle, artfully and precisely applied floral note. (To be clear, this is not the aromatic version, which was, even to my inexperienced mind back then, an abomination against all things sacred.) Legend has it that this was Balkan Sobranie, pressed into cake form and thickly sliced. Given the credibility of the fellow who originally told me the story, I’ve no reason to question this. In fact, everything that I’ve learned about this blend through the years has provided more credence to the claim.

The story, briefly, is that Sobranie House, wishing to take advantage of the success of Smoker’s Haven’s Krumble Kake (which Sobranie produced for them) decided to market their own version, made unique by the addition of a special topping. Though the blend became somewhat popular, it was always eclipsed by the overwhelming stardom of the better known and more widely available Balkan Sobranie mixtures.

Once Sobranie House shuttered ca. 1982, after licensing their more popular mixtures to Gallaher, manufacture of the Smoker’s Haven blends was transferred to J.F. Germain & Son on the Channel Island of Jersey, while the tiger’s production was discontinued until it was moved to Denmark for a brief period. The Danish-made product was still quite good, and maintained something of a cult following, but it was different enough from the original, I suspect, to impact sales. In the mid- to late-1980s, the blend was summarily discontinued, never to be seen again, while Krumble Kake continues to this day to enjoy success. (Germain also produce Esoterica Tobacciana’s Penzance, a very similar mixture to Penzance, but with a larger measure of Cyprian latakia.)

There is something about Bengal Slices that still engages me on deep levels. It’s not just the flavours and the room note of the tobacco, but the whole presentation. The beautifully elegant tin, the perfectly stacked thick slices, the amazing aroma that tantalizes as soon as the tin is opened. Unlike many lovers of English mixtures, I don’t really lament the passing of Balkan Sobranie, though I know I’m supposed to; there are many excellent tobaccos available today that fill that particular niche. But I do very much miss Bengal Slices. It was always, to me, something a little decadent, something special, even opulent. Fortunately, I have, over the years, squirreled away a few tins, and, it’s always a real treat to open one, which I recently did.

After all these years — I’m guessing this one to be from the 1970s —  the Latakia has softened somewhat, has given up some of its edge, and the additional scent has integrated more completely with the rest of the tobaccos, adding a little baroque ornamentation to the overall experience without being in any way ostentatious or overbearing, and subtly enhances what would otherwise be just a really good mixture. It’s dark and opulent, a tobacco that Carvaggio might have painted. Age has been very, very good to this. The thick slices have become almost completely black, with the occasional glint of red or deep brown shooting through the darkness. It is, in a word, magnificent in every way, and how often can we honestly say that about any tobacco, past or present?

The Celebrated Bengal Slices may no longer be produced, and there is nothing that can really take its place, but, at least until my small supply runs out, it will continue to be celebrated.