2012 Throwdown aims to reincarnate John Cotton's Nos. 1&2 Medium

The Seattle and New York Pipe Clubs–organizers of the 2011 Balkan Sobranie Throwdown–announce a new edition of the event for the Chicago Pipe Show this coming May.  This year’s competition is the John Cotton Throwdown, featuring John Cotton Nos. 1&2 Medium. 

The John Cotton Throwdown is sponsored by Sutliff Tobacco Company,
an Altadis company.

Do pipe smokers love vintage tobacco blends? If heated pursuits of old favorites on eBay are a reliable indicator, you betcha.

Prices have reached nearly unimaginable levels. Nine days ago, on March 4th, a sealed, full, 2 ounce tin of Balkan Sobranie 759 sold for a whopping $1,325! Although this is a recent high, it is not at all uncommon for 759 to sell for $300 to $700 for a sealed flat tin.

Throwdown Organizer and Emcee Matt GussHow the Throwdown came to be

Great tobacco vintages are highly sought after. It is precisely for this reason that the concept of a tobacco-blender Throwdown was conceived by brothers Matt and Jon Guss. Would it be possible for today’s master tobacco blenders to recreate legendary vintages? If so, imagine how happy today’s pipe smokers would feel to be able to enjoy ready access to them.

Russ Ouellette’s Black House - 2011 Throwdown WinnerIf Russ Ouellette’s Black House or McClelland’s Blue Mountain are among your favorite English pipe tobacco blends, thank the producers of last year’s BALKAN SOBRANIE THROWDOWN. These two spectacular blends emerged from a blending competition that was the runaway hit of last year’s Chicagoland International Pipes and Tobacciana Exposition, aka the Chicago pipe show.

Inaugural Throwdown a resounding success

Some 400 pipe smokers filled the show’s smoking tent to capacity to watch a conversation among Throwdown judges, interviews with the contestant-blenders, and the grand finale: the announcements of the Throwdown Competition Winner (Russ Ouellette, Hearth and Home) and the People’s Choice Award (Mike and Mary McNeil, McClelland).

Last year’s event prompted a lot of buzz in the pipe-smoking world, much of it skeptical. “How is it possible to recreate Balkan Sobranie’s 759? The same component tobaccos don’t exist. What about recreating the aging effect? I’ll believe it when I smoke it.” These are a small sampling of comments I read or heard on the Throwdown.

2011 Balkan Sobranie Throwdown Winner Russ OuelletteThat was the whole point of the Throwdown: to showcase the considerable skills and talent of three leading tobacco blenders. Speaking as one of last year’s judges, I was more than a little surprised by how close the contestants came. I know my fellow judges, Joe Harb and Rick Newcombe, were impressed as well.

Throwdown Co-Chair Matt Guss sums up the Throwdown concept: “Walt Disney said, ‘It’s kind of fun to do the impossible.’ So we challenged three expert blenders to do just that. Come as close as possible to recreating a legendary pipe tobacco and have three knowledgeable judges evaluate their efforts. Impossible? That’s what we call a tobacco blending Throwdown.”

Chicago Show Director Craig CobineChicago Show Chairman Craig Cobine says, “The Throwdown was not only a spectacular event for the 2011 Chicago Pipe Show, it led to the release of several wonderful blends that pipe smokers are now enjoying.”

This year’s vintage target

Although it doesn’t sell at Balkan Sobranie prices, my favorite vintage tobacco is John Cotton’s No. 1&2. I love it. So, I am thrilled that the second annual Throwdown Competition will focus on recreating John Cotton’s Nos. 1&2 Medium. If this year’s blending contestants come as close as did last year’s contestants, chances are that I’m going to have access to some great new daily smokes. I can’t wait.

Altadis General Manager Paul CreasySutliff Tobacco Company, an Altadis company, is the John Cotton Throwdown sponsor this year.  “Altadis USA is thrilled to sponsor this event.” Says Paul Creasy, General Manager for Altadis.

This year’s contestants

The contestants this year are Steven Books of the House of Calabash, Dick Silverman of Chief Catoonah, and Leonard Wortzel of Lane Limited.

The judges

2012 Throwdown Judge Marty PulversLast year’s Throwdown winner, Russ Ouellette, will move to the judge’s bench where he will be joined by Marty Pulvers and yours truly. I can’t wait to experience the tobaccos that the blender-contestants create in response to the John Cotton Throwdown. Must-have blends will be coming to our cellars soon.

How it works

Here’s how it works. Judges and blenders are given identical samples of 28 year old John Cotton 1&2 tobacco. The blenders use all their skills to come as close as they can to the original blend. Naturally, this is an aged tobacco with unknown ingredients and can’t be cloned, but that is the challenge for the blenders. Their blends will be compared to the original sample and evaluated on 4 criteria:  Taste, Look, Aroma and Overall Smoking Qualities.

This will be a blind test. The judges won’t know whose blend is whose because the entries will be identified as X, Y and Z.

In the weeks leading up to the show the judges will sample the contestants’ entries on a blind basis, deciding how close each comes to the original John Cotton 1&2. Contestant blends will be evaluated by each judge and given up to 100 points. Results will be totaled by the organizers before a lively panel discussion between the blenders and judges. Finally, the judge’s choice for the Grand Prize Winner will be revealed at the conclusion of the hour long event.

When and where - Arrive early!

The 2012 John Cotton Throwdown will take place at the Chicago Pipe Show in the Pheasant Run smoking tent at 5pm on Saturday, May 5th.  Everyone at the show is welcome to attend but a full tent is expected so early arrival is advised. 

The People’s Choice award will be repeated, as well. The two awards are substantively different. Whereas the Throwdown Grand Prize is given to the blender who the judges determine has come the closest to recreating John Cotton No. 1&2, the People’s Choice Award is given to the blender whose submission is best liked by those who compare the three blend submissions. Judges and blenders will have the original John Cotton No. 1&2 benchmark sample. Due to a limited quantity of the original benchmark, show attenders will not have the benchmark sample.

Sutliff Tobaccos, this year’s John Cotton Throwdown sponsor.Free samples of the three contestant tobaccos will be distributed in the MegaCenter on Friday and Saturday morning until supplies are gone.

A ballot will accompany each sample packet so that show attendees can vote for their favorite of the three blends. Votes will be tallied and a People’s Choice Award will be presented to the winner and announced during the Throwdown event.

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Reader Comments (17)

I'm looking forward to trying some skilled attempts to recreate one of my old favorites. It will also be fun to be involved without fretting over the outcome. I have a double-fired porcelain pipe to test the blends in, and plenty of seltzer to cleanse my palate.

Do you think that the three of us were selected because of our facial hair?

March 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRuss Ouellette
Russ, it may have been a consideration as we can easily disguise ourselves afterwards by shaving.
March 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterNeill Archer Roan
Very cool. Should be interesting with new blenders participating.
March 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Stephen
Great news Neill. The premise of the Throwdown is clear and ethical- not to mention a whole bunch of fun. I just finished a tin of Black House. It now occupies a top-shelf position in my smoking repertoire. This is enough justification for the Throwdown in my book. I care not a bean that the sample tin was not made by the House of Sobranie or that it was aged. It sure was an inspiring tin, though, if Blue Mountain and Black House are any measure!

What pipes will you use this time in your judging, Neill?

BTW, glad to be a member here and that some good news occasioned my first post.
March 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterMike Di Peppino
Hello Neill,

This reminds me of my first years of pipe smoking. This blend was one of the favorite tobaccos from my late grandfather, who introduced me to pipe smoking. From time to time he let me taste that tobacco. I did not find this tobacco nice then. Maybe because I had no experience with tobaccos with Latakia in them.

I remember that he had also rectangular tins with this blend. I don't remember if they were from an earlier time. I only remember he had those tins in his stock. I have still one of this rectangular tins.

Unfortunately I don't know how to post a picture from such a tin.
March 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHuub Hendrikx
This is an exciting concept that I'm glad to see has become a bit of tradition for the show. The Pipe smoking community will benefit greatly from this year's competition. Bravo..!!
March 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFred Bass
Love the Judges Panel. All great guys whom I have a great deal of respect for.
March 13, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdan
Great post, as usual. This will be my first Chicago Show and on top of everything else to do and see I can't wait to experience the throwdown. As a newcomer to the pipe I never had the pleasure of enjoying the Balkan or John Cotton, but if they merit the distinction of being replicated then I'm excited to see what the contestants create!

Any suggestions on what kind of pipe would be best to test the samples? I'm inclined to think it'd be best to smoke each in a fresh cob, but would the experience of the tobacco be sacrificed by the small size/shape of a cob?
March 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJ. Carr
My money will be on Dick Siverman! Finally got a chance to meet him at the NY Pipe Show this past Saturday.

Very nice fella and he gave out some very nice samples.
March 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDoverPipes
Mike, I'm still pondering which pipes I will use in judging the contestant blends.

However, I am leaning toward using four vintage Comoy billiards – three Blue Ribands and one Select Straight Grain – for the process. These pipes all have the same chamber geometry; they are all wonderful old briar; and they are all wonderful smokers. I've noticed that they have very similar smoking properties.

I will also be giving my clay pipes another try. My fellow judge, Russ Ouellette uses clays in formulating his blends. I hope to learn from Russ how to use a clay pipe in appraising blends.

Stay tuned.
March 14, 2012 | Registered CommenterNeill Archer Roan
This is a "way cool" event. I think it greatly benefits a show to have a signature event that separates their show from the others.
March 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDan Coomer
Just wondering, will the winning blends become available for the masses?
March 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrian Stephen

If last year's Throwdown can be considered a reliable predictor of outcomes, then the answer is yes.

There are some differences in the contestants, however. Two of the contestants are smaller firms than last year's group. Because we don't know what tobaccos they will use as components, we don't know how readily available the recipe components will be or how much of the components exists for broader production. One outcome might be that the blends may be produced, but only available as a limited edition.

The manufacturing or distribution capacity the contestants have or will have are also factors that could affect the extent to which winning blends are available to a broader public.

I think we are all hopeful that they do become available. It would seem that it is in everybody's interest that they are produced for a broader audience.
March 15, 2012 | Registered CommenterNeill Archer Roan
Last year's Throwdown was a wonderful event and a great addition to the Chicago experience. I'm looking forward to this year's. Thanks to everyone involved for all the hard work. I can only imagine how much effort goes into event like this.
March 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTim
Apparently, John Cotton's Mixtures were amongst Christopher Morley's favorite tobacco blends. In his story Kathleen, the John Cotton Mixtures received several laudatory mentions. I'll be looking forward to the results of this contest, just as I did the outcome of the Balkan Sobranie Throwdown.
March 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTerry Carpenter
I started pipe smoking in high school in 1960. Naturally, I gravitated to the popular blends at the time, Cherry Blend and Mixture 79. Two years later, I'm a freshman in college and an upper class fraternity brother sees I'm a pipe smoker and, when he finds out what I'm smoking, says "try this" as he hands me a tin of John Cotton No. 2 Mild. From the first puff, I knew I had been instantly transported to a different, more magical world. I've been an English/Latakia/Balkan blend smoker ever since, and I'll never forget my first puff of John Cotton. I cannot remember ever seeing the No. 1 blend for sale, but since I assume there's at least a family resemblance, I am enthusiastically looking forward to the throwdown.
March 21, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMark Weitz
Seriously wondering what on earth possessed Marty Pulvers to agree to this nonsense. Recreating disappeared blends is a futile excercise, given that those people who smoked it years ago have experienced nose-memory shifts since then - none of them remember it in the same way, and what forefronts for each of them is different.
Last year's throwdown was a good illustration. McClelland's Blue Mountain is nothing at all like the old Balkan Sobranie black label. But it is a damned fine tobacco in its own right, and minutes after lighting up the sample I had been given, I rushed off to the tobacconist to buy out all of his tins, determined that my fellow pipe-smokers wouldn't get any. At least not for a while. That was a decision that each subsequent bowlfull validated. I have since then stockpiled quite a bit.
In any case, I await the results of this ridiculous competition with bated breath, and keenly look forward to tasting the results. Note that I still have several tins of John Cotton's various offerings from the seventies and very early eighties stashed away, so, if need be, comparison material.
April 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAtboth

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