Tom Eltang Cutty
21st December, 2000
It's been a while since I tapped out one of these reviews, and tonight seemed a decent time to get back to it. I have a few interesting pipes on deck, including one of the new Radice Twin Bore pipes. Since it's been a while since I've posted one of these reviews, I will again mention that no allusions to literary genius will be found here - just an honest setting down of my impressions in first draft form. So, don't tell me about typos...
A Cutty is, ideally, reminiscent of an old clay pipe. It may or may not have the spur at the bottom of the bowl, but the slightly tulip shaped bowl, canted decidedly forward, and a long, delicately curved stem are essential to the shape. Tom has interpreted this shape elegantly, with style and grace. He then finished the pipe with an amazing rustication that works very harmoniously with the shape. The proportion of shank to stem is ideal, and the pipe is beautifully balanced. The bowl's cant is beautiful, dramatic, but still functional. Too much cant, and a pipe is difficult to light and smoke. Not enough and it's not a Cutty. Again, the perfect balance has been reached in this regard, rendering the pipe beautiful, and most importantly, eminently smokable.
When I got the pipe, once I had sufficiently admired its charms, I was somewhat disturbed to discover that the bowl coating looked as though it had been put on with a plasterer's trowel. Though my position on bowl coatings has softened quite a bit, having experienced the neutrality of the coatings of Talbert, Bonaquisti, Carlson, to name a few, I'm still not particularly a fan of them. When they are put on with a heavy hand, I'm annoyed. (I've had particularly bad experiences with the coatings of Tsuge and Bang, but that's fodder for another review.)
I wasn't about to smoke the pipe with all that glop in the bowl, so I set out to remove most of it. I've been smoking a pipe for 20 years, and in that time have only experienced one burn out, and that, from a clearly defective piece of wood. I don't need a pipe to protect me from burning out the pipe, so if I could get this stuff out completely, I'd be very happy.
As it turned out, it took about an hour of careful working with a variety of abrasive tools, and I ended up with what appeared to be about a teaspoon of bowl coating dust. Considering the demure stature of the bowl, that's a lot of goop. I then cleaned the bowl with alcohol, and let it dry completely before the inaugural smoke.
The first bowl was a Latakia mixture. This was not the best choice. Some wood has an excessively bright, green, herbaceous taste to it before a pipe made from it is well seasoned. I don't know if this is just solely the wood, or if it has something to do with the way the wood is cured, but I've experienced it with Bangs, Stanwells, Tsuges, and now, my first non-estate Eltang. It's not a really bad flavor, but one that I seem particularly sensitive to, and one that is a bit off-putting to me. I used to attribute this flavor to the bowl coating, but as that's been all but eliminated from this pipe, I suspect it must be attributed to the wood itself.
This flavor is different from the brightness that Castellos exhibit when new. I actually quite like *that* particular quality. No, this is not pleasant to me. The only way I could really get through the bowl was to smoke it over a couple days. Undaunted, I figured a different tobacco would possibly mitigate this quality.
The next bowl, and all subsequent bowls have been smoked with a variety of Virginas and flakes. I chose tobaccos with assertive flavors, hoping to overpower the sting of the wood. To make a long story short, it took about a dozen or 14 bowls for this pipe to start delivering a smoke that really shined. Then, a few bowls later, it began to come into its own.
I've smoked this pipe a few more than 20 times, now, and it's really starting to sing. Each successive smoke is a little richer, a little purer, a little more articulate, and I have no doubt that this will become a favorite pipe, a superb smoke soon, rendering all that a good Virginia has to offer.
I've had pipes break in more quickly, and with less effort, but sometimes, results are worth the effort required to achieve them. This pipe appeals so much to my aesthetic sense that I was willing to go the extra mile to see what it would ultimately deliver. Besides that, I have a couple of Eltangs that were purchased used, well seasoned, and they smoke amazingly well, giving me encouragement to give this pipe some time.
Truly, this pipe responds well to darker Virginias, while it tends to over-accentuate the tartness of brighter grades, and increases the spice of oriental tobaccos well beyond the "nuance" level. Even somewhat tamed, though not quite broken, the pipe is a little persnickety about what fills its bowl. A small sacrifice to make.
I don't want it to seem as though I don't like this pipe. I do. Very much. In fact, I love it, but it has tested my patience just a bit. After smoking Heeschens, Carlsons, Rasmussens, and Barbis, I've become spoiled by pipes that smoke superbly from bowl one. Deep down, I know this pipe will become a favorite, given time. (I think Bo Nordh once said that it takes 50 bowls to truly break in a pipe. If Bo is right, and who am I to question the preeminent pipe maker in the world today, I'm only half way there with this one.)
Eltang makes a limited number of pipes each year. His smooths are stunningly beautiful, with a richly contrasted double stain that is truly breathtaking, exhibiting the grain of the wood in striking detail. For fans of birdseyes, his ukelele shape is a veritable feast for the eyes, so to speak. He clearly spends a lot of time selecting his wood, and cutting pipes to take maximum advantage of superb grain patterns. There is no question that Eltang is a master at his craft.
Eltang's stem work is exceptional. In fact, this pipe is so comfortable between my teeth that I nearly neglected to mention it. Ingo Garbe, one of the world's most renown makers, told my friend Marty Pulvers that the last inch of the stem is just as important as the rest of the pipe. Clearly, Eltang believes this as well, and spends the time here to do things right. Tillykke, Hr. Eltang!
So, what started out as a rather challenging relationship, with pipe and pipe smoker circling each other to figure out who would be top dog, is becoming a deeper understanding, and will, I'm confident, grow to be a profound friendship. I think the time spent cultivating this relationship has been, and will be, time well spent. This pipe is not likely to ever leave my collection for any reason.
I like it.
As I reach the end of the bowl, and the end of this review, only one more thing must be mentioned. Since this is a tall, narrow bowl, packing properly is essential to a good bottom smoke. I've never quite gotten the hang of stack bowls, but I'm learning. This bowl made it almost all the way down without excessive relights. One of these days, I'll get it right. But, this is clearly the fault of the smoker, not the pipe.
Design/Artistry A+ - The cut of this pipe is simple, elegant, and perfect. The proportion of shank to stem is ideal, and the cant of the bowl is
Fit/Finish A- - The drilling, fitting of the stem, and so forth are exquisite. In fact, in this regard, the pipe is perfect. The rustication is nothing short of amazing, and fits the pipe perfectly. I also have one of Tom's smooth pipes, with the most stunningly contrasted double staining, which is sort of a trademark finish for Eltang. These pipes must be seen to be believed. The only thing holding this pipe back from a solid A+ in this category is the bloody bowl coating. How about a lighter hand, Tom?
Engineering A+ - Attention to detail is important, and here Tom's work is superb.
Smoking Qualities A - The break in of this pipe was not exactly painful, but the odd flavors and harsh character certainly didn't move it to the head of the pack. However, now that it has been well established, with a good cake forming, the pipe has begun to deliver a clear, articulate flavor, albeit still a little on the bright side. It's quite sensitive to tobacco choice, and seems to be made for deeper, darker flakes. Only time will tell if this is temporary.
Value B - This rusticated Cutty was reasonably priced at about $225, but some of Eltang's high grades have become quite spendy. They are excellent pipes, and well worth the money, if you have the money to spend, but they are not exactly a bargain, and it will likely be a while before my collection sees another smooth. Really, I'd love about 10 of Tom's pipes. I'll have to buy another lottery ticket...
Since I penned the original review, the Cutty has really become an amazingly good pipe. The smoking qualities are as fine as any I own. Yes, it took a little time to break in, but it was certainly worth the effort.
I've also had the good fortune of acquiring a couple more Eltangs. These have been absolutely fantastic. And, I've had the even greater fortune of sitting down with Tom for a few hours, talking about life, pipes, and everything else we could think of. I'll never forget those few hours, and every time I smoke one of my Eltang pipes, it will evoke very fond memories.
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