Having been rather pleased with my last foray into the further reaches of my cellar, it seemed like a good theme to stick with for a bit. Last month’s Sunset Breeze was a pleasant surprise; honestly, I’d expected the aromatic to have faded into a shadow of its former self. That it hadn’t done so speaks highly of the blender’s art and quality of the ingredients. With that in mind, I went digging through my modest collection to find another artful blender’s offerings—the estimable G.L. Pease marque this time. The treasure I came up with is a tin of Westminster from March 2007, placing it amongst the first production runs of this blend, and what a treat it was to find.
The blend itself is Pease’s homage to the fabled pre-Murrays London Mixture. While my own journey with pipes commenced much later than the halcyon glory days of many of these fabled 60’s-to-80’s-era blends, many of which continue to inspire new iterations with every generation of pipe blenders—such as The Balkan Sobranie, Three Nuns, and the panoply of the old House of Dunhill blends—I have had the good fortune to taste samples of many of these storied labels at various pipe club gatherings or from friends’ cellars, and a few have even found their way into my own collection; however, they are few and far between, and I am not a collector of them as a rule (excepting, of course, my precious vintage Escudo). Which is a rather long-winded way of saying that I am blissfully not tied to holding this up as a blend comparison, but rather able to freely enjoy it on its own merits, of which there are very many to be sure.
Time has been much more than kind to this tin—in fact, I would say it has been downright magnanimous. As far as English blends go, Westminster certainly deserves its place as a modern gold standard. As the tin commends, it truly is a perfect every-day English: rich, but restrained; sweet, but just enough to offset the sour; mild, and easy on the palate. The end of a bowl simply begs for a refill, and it carries well at any time of day—with the morning tea, afternoon work, or evening contemplation. Peeling back the lid on this 15-year-old tin releases a whoosh of vibrant, colorful aromas: flat cola, well-oiled shoe leather, corn starch come to mind, along with the faint muskiness of hide glue, the sense-memory of pencil shavings (and perhaps even some chalkboard dust), and nut shells. Of that last one, indulge me some excessive specificity: having recently spent some time on a pecan orchard, I can testify without reservation that I can detect the scent of last year’s fallen and fallowed nuts from the tin. Don’t condemn the purple prose; consider that this is all just a very specific way to express the earthy, vegetal richness found in the opening bouquet.
The Virginia in the blend certainly has given it long, sexy legs, all its earthiness aside. The rough cut is a departure from the vintage Dunhill presentation of fine ribbon, of course, but suited perfectly to the ingredients here in order to balance “breathing room” for aerobic activity against the tightly-pressed cuts and their more anaerobic endeavors. Allowing the tin some breathing room, the initial boisterousness of the Virginias unsealing settles down and the aroma attenuates to a more subtly complex, Scotch-like smokiness. The aroma of the prepared bowl from the charring light to the heel does not disappoint; it lights and puffs effortlessly, with breathy, easy sips from the bowl conjuring fall foliage, dusty libraries, spice bazaars, and warm summer rooftops, and of course all that earthiness that was prattled on about earlier. The tannic piquancy of the Cyprian Latakia is highlighted by the other Oriental components, weaving perfectly within the structure of the Red and bright base—yet there are no overbearing solo measures in this orchestration; every part is in equal and complementary proportion. It also holds a remarkable consistency of flavors from beginning to end, with the first light as flavorful and every bit as complex yet subtle as the last sips from the heel. Additionally, it has an exquisite smoothness on the palate, even after repeated bowls, with an aftertaste of steak and char. Recommended accompaniments are a sturdy English breakfast tea for morning or noon, veering toward a Scotch or Cognac for evening times. While some may find it too mild, for my taste that works in its favor. I personally tend to prefer the Latakia component on the restrained side, and Westminster is a masterwork of balance in this regard. Far be it for me to suggest one tamper with perfection, but in our hearts each of us is a tinkerer by nature, and so the blend does lend itself admirably as a base to add a pinch of this or that to; a common refrain one finds on the forums is adding a bit more Latakia to the blend, and I find that a pinch of Basma adds a nice creamy complexion to the smoke, and Drama adds…well, a nice amount of drama.
By his own reckoning, Greg Pease embarked on the creation of Westminster as a way to recapture the experience of the pre-Murrays London Mixture, if not a re-creation of the blend itself. From his Briar & Leaf Chronicles:
“In addition to being a delightful smoke, Westminster has allowed me to revisit, and in a way relive the past in a way that no other of my blends have. My old tins of London Mixture are magnificent, and are part of my little treasure box. One day, if all goes well, a few ancient tins of Westminster will take their place.”
Since its release in 2007 it has been a mainstay of the brand, and as mentioned before is rightfully considered a benchmark blend against which others are held. Opening this tin from its 15-year slumber, and noting every flavor nuance as well as the memories and feelings it evoked, I can attest that Greg’s ambitions have certainly been realized and appreciated.
All photos by E. Roberts