There are few things nicer than experiencing the satisfactory hiss of a tin of pipe tobacco that’s been waiting for you to pop it open for a decade. The smell that comes off the tobacco the second normal atmosphere hits it is as good as opening an oven door to a loaf of freshly baked bread: and in a way, it smells like it, too. I almost want to apologize to this tin of GL Pease Samarra from 2011, because the world has changed a lot in that time. I’ve changed a lot in that time. It brings about a line a good friend of mine used to say a lot: “Life isn’t complicated.” He’s right. It isn’t. We certainly can make it that way at times, but pipes have this funny damned way of reinforcing this point.
Last month Greg Pease himself wrote a fascinating article titled “Latakia Doesn’t Age Well.” There’s no reason to begin citing his words about Latakia and aging (of which most I agree), and Samarra is one of his first blends: one with a notable amount of Latakia. I first tried it probably about a decade ago, and I recall it being rich with the wine-like smokiness that is brought forth by a young Cyprian Latakia; I remember the Perique having a bit of a sting on the upper part of my palate. The nicotine was perhaps a bit more than I preferred at the time. This is why I let it sit. Not to mention, for a day such as this, a month such as the one my birthday falls within, and the year where it turned double-digits. What would I be in store for? Would Samarra be a shadow of its glorious self, or would it be even more refined than when it was freshly plopped into the tin?
Samarra is a dark, ribbon-like mixture that when fresh, and I double-checked my dusty notes from back then, had a much more acidic bright tone to it when first opened. Today, this decade-old tin as mentioned above became almost bread-like over time, and it took on an organic warmth of character to the nose even before it went into a pipe. Greg has thoughts on how and why tobacco does age, having something to do with the anaerobic properties of a properly-sealed vessel as well as the moisture content of the leaf. I’ll let whomever is curious do into their own research on that; it isn’t too tough to find. Samarra, fresh or aged, loads and packs perfectly, lights ideally, tamps and puffs nicely. It did back then, and it certainly does now: so what’s different?
The first part of the bowls I had in the first few rounds even changed a little. A secret to smoking aged tobacco is that it needs time to breathe, to acclimate back to our world. The one with oxygen and oxidation, which is completely different than when it is sealed. Greg is a wine guy, and I’m a rube: I’ll drink it as long as it’s red. The one thing sommeliers have taught me realizing I have a collar as blue as a Nevada sky is that wine needs to breathe once opened. Tobacco is no different, apparently. I’m not a scientist, I’m just a guy with a pipe and a few words at his disposal. I know when to trust a person who knows more than I do, and the experts agree here. The first puffs once the tobacco has breathed properly are silky-smooth. This is despite the Perique, despite the smokiness of the Latakia, and the light spice that goes along with the other Turkish/Oriental tobaccos. This is what aged tobacco is supposed to be: mellow, not nonexistent. The character of the Turkish comes out even more in this blend right out of the gate, and it’s a herbaceous, roast-chicken quality, toasted coriander and a very faint hint of sage. This tobacco is umami. And I’m just getting started.
The middle half of the bowl worried me. Perique isn’t something I prefer usually, but I’ve come to get to know it and accept its role in tobacco more recently. When I first started smoking this tobacco, meaning in 2011 or so, the Perique was very up-front. Here in the future world of 2021, I didn’t even sense it when I first popped the tin and started taking my notes a few weeks ago. Like clockwork, midway the Perique lazily raises its head and says “…hello!” It’s so gosh-darned polite you figure it made a casserole for the church social and went to bed early, rather than having a couple with the boys and carousing til midnight. The Latakia? Guess what: it ages fine. At least in Samarra. Is it edgy? No. Is it like going face-first into campfire smoke? No. Is it pungent and leaning wine-sour like when it’s fresh? Again, no. So what’s the point? I equate it to the hot sauce phenomenon that was a thing a decade or two ago. People stopped tasting the condiment and just went by numbers. “How many Scoville units that sum-bitch got?” That’s all that mattered to most. You wanted fire coming out of your rear end? That meant it was great. Latakia went down that path, too. I believe a lot of that hype has died down, and the trends have branched out to other arenas. This is actually a great time to revisit those old “Lat-bomb” blends that may be rolling around your cellar, because if you’ve matured as much as your tobacco has, you may have found it’s grown with you. Samarra for me is a classic example of this—and my palate.
The end of the bowls of Samarra are where, for my bowls, angels sing. Quietly. After 22:00 and the HOA says there’d better not be any noise disturbances. Retro-haling is easy, and widely encouraged. In 2011, I found a note of Samarra that warned me specifically not to do this. The Perique was just a bit too much. New decade, new me, new tobacco (almost): and roll those puffs back through the nostrils, please. The meatiness and almost grilled fatty nature of the smoke is impossibly good. The Perique stays at the sides of the tongue, lending a little dryness and spice, and the other Turkish savory parts bring up the rear.
I knew this tobacco was going to be good. There hasn’t been a tobacco that I’ve aged since I’ve started, or an aged tobacco that was given back when I first started out, that was bad. That’s the thing with aging tobacco. I’m positive that if all the basics for aging are there, it cannot get worse. I paired it with whiskey. I paired it with rye. I paired it with mixed gin cocktails (the Gibson being a favorite of mine this time of year). I paired it with coffee, I paired it with tea, and if I don’t stop rhyming, Dr. Seuss I will be.
The real purpose of this review is that I wanted something I was going to enjoy, something I knew I was going to enjoy even before I set my sights on it. Tobacco reviewing isn’t always smoky kismet—I wish it was. It was nice to dip into something that didn’t feel like work, a bit of a treat and a risk-free vacation. I don’t get those very often. It’s truly about enjoying the little things, most especially when there’s a lot of chaos around. So don’t be hesitant to forget about a tin of tobacco accidentally or on purpose.
Oh, and whomever tells you Latakia doesn’t age well, in my humble opinion, they weren’t here smoking this with me. Good: that left plenty more for me.