Smoking the Grail
Trevor's reflection on smoking a previously-owned pipe and previously-owned tobacco.
Smoking the Grail
By Trevor Friesen
Sometimes, you just get lucky. I have been haunting antique shops for years, always on the lookout for pipe smoking ephemera; that great old pipe that needs only a little cleaning to bring it back to near-new condition, a great pipe rack or tamper, perhaps a smoking poster or painting. I am always looking for ancient Dunhills, Comoys or Barlings. I dream of coming across one of the Great Danish pipes, an Eltang, Former or - rarest of pipes - an Ivarsson, Nordh or S. Bang. Over the years I have purchased many pipes, some unsmoked, some requiring quite a bit of refurbishing.
Tobacco tins are also on my radar. Yet, I really am not interested in collecting empty tins. Then again, I once bought an empty Craven Mixture tin, only because I'm a huge fan of J. M. Barrie's "My Lady Nicotine," and the Arcadia Mixture referred to throughout the book was in reality Craven. I have bought a few tins in the past with tobacco still in them; a sealed tin of Dunhill Flake and an old flat tin of Erinmore Flake are two that stand out.
This past winter, I spied a white and black tin on the lower shelf in the back of a cabinet in an antique mall my wife and I frequent. I recognized that label. Calling the man with the keys over, I tried my best to not get excited... usually, all you find is empty tins, after all. He opened the cabinet, and shifted some things out of the way to get to the tin. The sticker tag had a price written on it, with a description: "$xx, Full tin". Eagerly I grabbed the tin from his hand. It did not feel all that full. This was an old 2 oz can, the kind with a cutter top. I slowly pulled off the outer lid, hoping to see that puffy inner lid shining back at me. Alas, it was not to be. The can had been opened years (perhaps decades?) ago. There was a paper disk sitting on top of a pile of bone-dry tobacco. The can looked to be 3/4 or more full. The tobacco ranged in colour from near black to light blond and even some greenish bits. I looked around the edges of the can and saw no evidence of rust, so I bought it, and took it home.
Sobranie is one of the most respected tobacco manufacturing companies ever. They made many fine blends for other companies, but their own label tobaccos have become legendary. I will not get here into the history of the company and the tobaccos they produced (a quick Internet search can satisfy any curiosity) other than to say this vintage of their Smoking Mixture is rather highly regarded. According to Jon Guss' excellent article “A History of Sobranie and Its Pipe Tobacco Blends” and its appendix, “Dating of Sobranie Tobacco Tin,”, this tin was produced between 1960 and 1967. If the tin had retained its original seal, I would have been sorely tempted to put it up for sale to the highest bidder, but as things stood, I had no proof that the tobacco contained was in fact the storied Balkan Sobranie. So, once I got it home and completed my research, I began the lengthy process of re-hydrating the tobacco using the G.L. Pease method:
"Finally, I’ll offer my preferred method of moistening tobacco in a controlled, if not scientifically precise manner. Put the tobacco in a large bowl, and cover the bowl with a moist towel (plain water is fine). Do not let the towel touch the tobacco. Over time, and it can take anywhere from hours to days, depending on how dry the tobacco is to start with, and the ambient temperature and RH [relative humidity], the tobacco will equilibrate with the moisture provided by the moist towel. Check it often, and re-moisten the towel if necessary. This works like a charm, and minimizes the risk of over hydration, and mould. The target is strands of tobacco that are pliable, but don’t stick together when pressed into a ball."
After nearly a week of stirring the tobacco under the cover of damp paper towel, the tobacco reached the correct humidity based on the pinch test described above. Rather than 'coming alive' with aromas of rich Virginias, tangy Orientals and smoky Latakia, the tobacco retained the musty smell it first presented when I bought the tin. It still smelled a bit like the basement of a really old house. I was hesitant to stuff this in my pipe and light it.
Eventually, I overcame my trepidation but, while firmly believing I was smoking the original Balkan Sobranie, it was not what I expected. The tobacco did not have the look or taste of a well aged blend. It was almost as if the tin was purchased, opened, had a few bowls smoked out of it, had the lid replaced, and then was forgotten on a shelf somewhere. The tobacco would have dried out within a week or two, and aging (in a sealed tin, as we know it) would not have occurred. It is as if this tobacco burning in my pipe has been held suspended in time, and rather than aging and getting richer, has lost something that made the leaf extra special. The overall impression I got while smoking this was of an Oriental (Yenidje) forward blend. The Virginias were the merest whisper in the background and provided no sweetness that I could detect; the Syrian Latakia was virtually unnoticeable. The tobacco burned nicely, but had a buzzy bitterness, and a black tea-like dryness to it. The aftertaste was a mix of spice and brine, almost sour. The room note wasn't anything to write home about, either. To put it bluntly, my wife thought it stank. The aroma left in my pipes was familiar though, I've smelt the same thing in many of the estate pipes I've examined in second hand shops and antique stores.
The tobacco couldn't have been all that bad, though (it wasn't). In a surprisingly short time, the jar I had stored it in was nearly empty. Soon after finishing the Sobranie, I opened a modern recreation of the blend, and found that the old tobacco I had been smoking (other than the weird basement smell in the tin) was pretty similar to what is being made now in homage to it.
As I filled my small group 1 Dunhill Dublin with the last pinch of Sobranie, I reflected on the hobby and lifestyle I have chosen. It amazes me that I can fill a previously owned pipe - that is now approaching 95 years old - with previously owned tobacco that is around 50 years old, and sit and smoke and connect in a way with the people who owned these things, and enjoyed this pastime long before I was born. And it's refreshing to know that currently produced tobaccos are still high quality and approach (if not exceed) the excellence of these storied blends of old. My Grail may not have been made of solid gold, but it retained a nice shine.