James Upshall Bark LX Panel
Guest Review by Stan Milan
Stan approached me with the idea of doing a "guest review" comprising of his broad experience with the Upshall line of pipes. "A great idea! This maker doesn't get the recognition he deserves often enough." So, presented here are Stan's thoughtful comments on this well established, but infrequently discussed marque. -glp
Where have all the great English pipe makers gone? Sadly, only a few name lines have their English masters still carving, blasting, etc. for them. Barry Jones of James Upshall fame is one of them. I admire the purity and consistency of his art. The company was originally owned by Colonel Barnes of Charatan fame, and called the Tilshead Pipe Company; Mr.Jones bought the company in the 1980s and changed the name. Upshall does not have their pipes made in another land and packaged in England. This is still the real British McCoy, made by hand near Stonehenge, England. This is a consumer review of a new pipe from the Upshall line since the company made a comeback several years ago.
The picture shows a new (now smoked), beautiful , extra large Upshall bark panel sitter, with silver from Les Wood. Mr. Jones does the briar selection, aging, carving, tooling, and rusticating. He breathes life into the soul of a dead thing. When I saw the pipe at Classic Pipes, I immediately had to have it - a rare temptation for me to indulge myself in, indeed. The pipe called to me. It had my name in its heart. A perfect black beauty, perfect balance, and perfect engineering. The tobacco chamber was natural (nothing to hide), though in the picture it is shown smoked, by me, of course. The stem fits snugly but can be easily removed, passing the pipe cleaner test all the way, with the air hole true and centered, in bottom of the bowl, and properly aligned through the shank. The tenon fits right. There is a great feel and texture to the rustication. The pipe is large but comfortable in the mouth or hand and has thick walls so it does not get hot to hold. But would it smoke well? Or at least as well as the "old" Upshalls? A mystery to some, but I had little doubt, and here's why.
In the early 1990s, I had my introduction to the "older" Upshalls through the estate pipe mailers from Steve Leaders (formerly Aromas). He explained that the collectibility of those pipes did not at the time demand the high price of other English collectibles. Over the years I bought at least seven (7) Upshalls from him. Medium apples and billiards (several) and a Bing Crosby type, free forms (sort of a dublin and bulldog with relief), sitters (lovat), and a giant billiard (now Umpire series). All were smooth (mostly Ps - walnut - and an S - mahogany or red finish) and had wonderful grain patterns. They were all pre-smoked, but they smoked excellently right away for the new blends I smoked in them (with one exception, as noted below) - each pipe became dedicated to a blend. Esoterica's Dorchester and Tilbury, Three Nuns, Uhle burley, Schurch Mogano, McClelland 2020, McCrannie's Old Syrian, and G. L. Pease Cumberland. In fact, I recently moved from Esoterica's Tilbury in one freeform to Mr. Pease's Cumberland (a slightly similar blend but heavier). A very smooth compatible transition of blends and within a few bowls I was getting a truer and truer Cumberland taste. Wonderful!
The one red sitter billiard didn't smoke quite as well (it was not 100% true to the tobacco taste I was familiar with) as the others at first. I smoked McConnell's Scottish blend in it, and after about 15 bowls, it was comparable in smoking character to the others. I realized that this estate pipe hadn't even been smoked enough by its former owner to be fully broken-in. I now smoke Old Syrian in it, and it's excellent too.
I was saddened to learn in the mid 1990's that the Upshall company had gone bankrupt, as it likely meant I would never find a new one to smoke.
Later I read in a pipe mania publication that some smokers perceived that an Uphsall has a longer than average breaking in process. Why not just try a high grade Italian which usually need little breaking in? I share in this phobia, as many of us have become soft. But I decided to buy an unsmoked Upshall to try anyway, knowing one would be hard to find. Luck came my way in the late 90's. I found a lone large bent brown blast at a local Tinder Box for a reasonable price and smoked Solani #633 in it. The smoke wsa not as pure and sweet as the blend normally tastes at first, but before the end of the tin (15 plus bowls), it was getting better and better. A second tin brought out the excellence in this non-estate Upshall. I later learned from the markings on the stem that this was one of the older Upshalls that had been sold later in the U.S.
Finally, the company was bought in 1996 by a well to do and ardent pipe lover, Mr. Ezrati, and it came back a few years ago. He didn't want the James Upshall name to be bought by a big company, only to find it on a clone or other inferior pipe. At last I could get a another new Upshall pipe and try. But I read the pipe prices had doubled! Gasp. I found Classicpipes in 2001 which had Upshalls for reasonable prices, for a high grade that is (still about 1/3 more than in the past, but after all the firm had gone bust). I bought an extra large bent A (chestnut). I smoked about 20-30 bowls of Ennerdale flake in it and found it to be a sweet break in and producing the sweet fruity flake tastes that I know from other pipes.
Mike Falba of Classicpipes, a local internet distributor of Upshall, explained to me that Barry Jones uses Grecian plateau briar, air cured, not oil cured. Mr. Jones feels that oil adulterates the natural briar taste. The briar does have a sweet natural taste in this case. There are a variety of grades, finishes, and sizes. All grades of his pipes smoke equally as well. Mr. Jones still reportedly has a stock of Greek briar from the old days, and makes the pipes himself with the same tools (allowing for replacement parts, maintenance, and improvements over the years). He reports to work on time, takes a lunch break, and makes about 25 or so pipes a week. He relegates those with small surface flaws to seconds, called Tilsheads (one of those I possess is a Tilshead). Still a quality smoking pipe. The same briar wood, same tools, same process, and same head pipe man (no apprentices as yet this time around) should produce the same quality pipe. I strongly believe it does.
So with this background of 9-10 Upshall pipes, old and new, estate and unsmoked, with many different blends smoked in them over a decade, I had no trepidations about buying another "new" Upshall to smoke. I have already described its beauty and engineering. It's the only bark I possess. Again like the two other unsmoked Upshalls I have, both old and new, it does have to be broken in (not to smoke out any bitterness, as there is none, but to get the true flavor of the tobacco in the pipe cake). I used only a little water from my fingers to moisten the bowl interior. It did smoke sweet from the start - the briar's own sweetness. I used McCrannies new Red Ribbon, and was getting to that typical Virginia sweetness near the last portion of the tin. I decided to continue with McCrannies, but use a tin of new Red Flake instead (very compatible with Red Ribbon, but more robust and a little less complex due to the melding of the flavors during pressing). The rich red Virginia taste continued to sing at me. A wonderful experience, as the breaking it was pleasant, not at all bitter like some pipes can be. (Now, the red ribbon and flake are new 2003 versions that I was trying, so they will never be 100% the same as the old versions in any pipe.)
Bear in mind that I am very particular about the nuances and subtleties of my smoking blends. What I call breaking in, someone else may not. If neutrality or sweetness versus bitterness during initial smokes is your definition of breaking in/broken in, like it is for most smokers, then the Upshall requires none. If you insist upon tasting the true 100% flavor of the natural tobaccos and essences before calling any pipe "broken in", like most all pipes take some time for, smoking a number of bowls to create a thin cake and imparting the tobacco flavors well into the bowl is required of the Upshall. Only very few pipes over my lifetime allowed me to experience the true tobacco flavor at the commencement of the first few puffs or first first few bowls in an unsmoked pipe. One was a newer Italian high grade; yet another was an inexpensive ($15-20.00) A. Garfinkle algerian briar bought in Wash., D.C. over 20 years ago that I waited (air cured?) nearly that long to smoke.
Unless the public supports this pipe again, I'm afraid another one of the last of the great English briar masters may phase out. The reasons for the smallish market especially in America are mostly economics - the pipes are great but not cheap, they're not Italian or Danish, there's a perceived unknown about the "new" Uphsalls, there is no large U.S. distributor (a marketing item), and the older pipes were dumped on the market at depressed prices. Hopefully, this article takes much of the unknown out of the "new" line. I plan to acquire more in time; perhaps one of Mr. Jones' unique "countryman" pipes (a bark commodore shape, as seen on Classicpipes website).
How do I rank this bark pipe?
Design/Artistry: 9.5 of 10 ( I reserve the 10s for smooths, but this one is a perfect silver/bark.)
Fit/Finish: 10 out of 10. A perfect bark.
Engineering: 10 of 10. No flaws; smooth draws)
Smoking Qualities: 9.5 of 10. I reserve a 10 for a pipe that needs no breaking in (which has happened to me rarely in over 30 years of smoking high grades). This one deserves at least a 9.5, as it did break in gracefully and smoked excellently once broken in by my definition. After all, it not just if the first 10 bowls smoke good; it is how well the next 1000 bowls taste that is most important. You can grow old with these pipes.
Value: 9.5 of 10. This pipe was in the $350.00 MRRP range, barring discounts, trades, etc. A one year guarantee accompanies the pipe. Not inexpensive, but worth it to me for a high grade English pipe. Other more or less comparable English brands are typically more expensive.
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