Saturday, February 9, 2008

On tobacco

I hesitate to write about tobaccos because the experience of smoking is entirely subjective. Two people may enjoy the same blend, therefore person A says to person B, "if you like that, you will love this." But person B doesn't like it. There often seems to be no certain pattern or logic to what someone likes and doesn't like.

There will also be the problem of digression. I look at the topic I have chosen and see digressions of Shandyish proportions ahead. Digressions that will render it impossible to keep to the shortest route, but I hope that my digressions will be scenic enough for the reader to generate further interest in the subject.

So how do I approach the subject of pipe tobaccos? I can only write about what I like and what I don't like. I will not presume that any person will have the same preferences.

As I have said before, I began by smoking what I could find: namely Captain Black and Borkum Riff. The biggest problem with these "drugstore" blends is propylene glycol, or PG as it is commonly referred to by pipe smokers.

Propylene glycol is a hygroscopic compound, that is, it "attracts water molecules from the surrounding environment through either absorption or adsorption." PG keeps these drugstore tobaccos moist, but too moist, and artificially so. It makes smoking these blends a harsh, unpleasant experience, and I can only assume that the reason they have sold so regularly for so long is that too many pipe smokers just don't know any better.

I once conducted my own little experiment. I placed two paper towels flat upon the kitchen table. On one of them I spread a pipeful of Captain Black. On the other I spread a pipeful of Cornell & Diehl's Yale Mixture. I buy almost everything I smoke from C&D because 1) it is in bulk and I can buy a pound of excellent tobacco for the same amount of money that one or two 50 gram tins of something else might cost, and 2) no propylene glycol. It is for this reason that if C&D tobacco is to be stored for any amount of time, it should be vacuum-sealed as soon as possible upon receipt and 0nly an ounce or two be kept out at a time for smoking.

But now, back to the experiment. I didn't have my fairly-high-precision digital scale back then, or I could have weighed each sample. I did the next best thing. Each following day I scooped some of each up in my fingers and squeezed. In two or three days the C&D sample had become brittle and dry. The Captain Black remained moist and squishy. In a week the C&D was so brittle I could almost rub it into powder. In two weeks the Captain Black still remained moist and squishy. As we like to say around here, that just ain't right.

But in those early days it was all I knew, and it was all I had, so I smoked it. I found a tobacconist at the no-longer-extant Central Park Mall--a store called The Tobacco Bowl, and began smoking a vanilla cavendish that the proprietor called Gentleman's Delight. I'm pretty sure it was the ubiquitous Lane's 1-Q. I ordered a couple of samplers from the Blue Ridge place I have previously mentioned. Among them I remember a cherry, a vanilla, one black walnut, and an unflavored English blend which I didn't like at the time but would probably like now. I was especially fond of the one flavored with black walnut. It was called Black Ambrosia and I liked it enough to order a whole 8 oz. tin of it.

On cavendish: this term is used to refer to any tobacco that has been artificially sweetened (and usually flavored, but not always).

In 1994 I finally gained real internet access, although it was limited (5 hours per month!). By 1995 I had full, unlimited internet access with Netcom (anyone remember Netcruiser?). Soon I discovered the newsgroup alt.smokers.pipes, and I finally had a way to get information from people who really knew pipes. It was around that time that I discovered online tobacconists such as Cornell & Diehl, and a whole new world of pipe tobacco was opened to me.

However, I was still an aromatic smoker. Perhaps a word on the word "aromatic." In the loosest sense, this can describe anything that smells good (or at least, smells). But in pipe tobacco terms, an aromatic is a tobacco that has had some kind of non-tobacco flavoring added to it. If you can name a flavor, odds are that someone, somewhere has added it to tobacco. Craig Tarler of C&D has created many fine blends, and many aromatic blends that are not entirely offensive to me even now. Among his aromatics that I enjoyed were Honey Crest, a burley tobacco flavored with honey; Spice Nut, a blend flavored with various things that gave it (as the name suggests) a pleasant spicy, nutty flavor; a couple of different kinds of vanilla; several cavendish tobaccos flavored with various kinds of fruit-flavored brandy; and one called Pasha's Dream which was flavored with something that I could never identify but which I really liked. But something was still missing, and I wasn't completely satisfied with any of them. So one day I sent an email to Mr. Tarler explaining my situation and asking for a recommendation for an "English" blend of tobaccos without any aromatic flavoring. He recommended I try Yale Mixture. I did, and that was pretty much that.

There isn't much I can say about aromatic blends. They usually smell wonderful to the people around the pipe smoker. However, one thing that most non-pipe smokers don't know is that the smell and flavor of a tobacco is entirely different for the smoker than it is for the bystanders. I never really liked the flavor, or especially the after-flavor of aromatics. Cherry tobaccos will smell like cherry, vanilla will smell like vanilla. There isn't a whole lot more I can say about them.

It is my opinion that it is only with natural blends, uncontaminated by any kinds of odd flavors, can the true joy and infinite nuance of pipe smoking be found. And with that, I will call it a night and explore this topic further in future posts.

For now, I will leave you with the lyrics to an old folk song called Tobacco's But An Indian Weed.

Tobacco's but an Indian weed,
Grows green at morn, cut down at eve.
It shows our decay;
We are but clay;
Think of this, when you smoke tobacco.

The pipe that is so lily-white,
Wherein so many take delight,
Gone with a touch;
Man's life is such;
Think on this, when you smoke tobacco.

The pipe that is so foul within,
Shews how the soul is stained with sin;
It doth require
The purging fire.
Think on this, when you smoke tobacco.

The ashes that are left behind,
Do serve to put us all in mind,
That unto dust,
Return we must.
Think on this, when you smoke tobacco.

The smoke that doth so high ascend,
Shews that our life must have an end;
The vapour's gone;
Man's life is done.
Think on this, when you smoke tobacco.

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