You can't smoke Créme Brûlée.

The Greenhorn’s Plight

Pity the poor greenhorn. They come in many stripes. When I was a kid growing up in Wyoming, my friends and I clutched our stomachs–overcome by hilarity–while watching dudes’ first encounters with horses. I will never forget the time I watched one poor fellow put the wrong foot in a stirrup, swing up, then kick his long-suffering horse square in the head with his other foot. The horse was not amused, but we were.

These days I am more sympathetic to the greenhorn’s plight. The aspiring pipe-smoker faces many barriers to success, the biggest of which is that many tobacconists’ sales people know little about pipes or pipe tobaccos and are unable to be of much help. Most of these people have concentrated on learning about cigars, not pipes, because cigars are where the money is in the retail tobacco business. Often, these sales people may never even have smoked a pipe, themselves.

So, what an aspiring pipe-smoker will receive in advice or guidance reflects assumptions that are often far from what’s true and real about pipe smoking. Where this ignorance really impacts new pipe smokers is in helping them choose pipes and pipe tobaccos that they might enjoy.

Without guidance, those who are new to pipe smoking may easily make  counterproductive, even humiliating choices.  This post is intended to alleviate the situation by offering some guidance on the nuts and bolts of becoming a pipe smoker.

We are our own worst enemies.

Typically, men have a tough time admitting ignorance on a topic about which they have interest. This is particularly true when it comes to “manly” pursuits like drinking and smoking where tastes are gradually acquired. We feel like we’re supposed to know about these things. None of us want to look like greenhorns, especially to our friends. So, rather than owning up to our callow inexperience, we gut it out and learn through doing. This can be a tough road when it comes to either smoking or drinking. As a result, most men I know–myself included–have repeatedly endured worshipping the porcelain god during our rites of passage.

Some 40 years ago I awkwardly began my pipe smoking journey by trying to pose as an experienced pipe man. Later embarrassed, I shortly thereafter betrayed my ignorance by loading my just-purchased pipe with Apricot Arabesque or some other fruity goulash that is best forgotten. The first long draw which an experienced pipe-smoker relishes contrasted starkly to the gagging, coughing fits and watering eyes that I suffered while trying to smoke that vile aromatic, all the time seeking to transmit the collected composure and cool élan of a real pipe man. My performance was a spectacular flop.

I never would have selected that loathsome concoction had the sales person not encouraged me to pry the lids off the bulk tobacco jars to take a whiff of the blends inside. The scents of these blends were as fragrant and exotic as a Bedouin dancer’s hair, freshly rinsed with orange flower water and frankincense. The one I smoked sure didn’t taste like it smelled, however. It tasted more like zombie flatulence.

Tobacco isn’t food.

We humans are wired to rely on our sensory inputs and memories. Aroma is a key aspect of tasting flavors so, absent experience, we assume that smoking will parallel eating. However, the typical aromatic tobacco’s aroma makes promises to the nose that no pipe can keep to the tongue. It is counterintuitive, but nonetheless true.

Unlike eating, when smoking the scent of a blend is disconnected from its flavor. While the smoke may smell pleasant to those who notice its room note, that doesn’t mean it will taste as good as it smells. The opposite is often true; the nastiest smelling tobacco blends will often deliver delicious flavors to the smoker. For example, my wife compares the smell of my latakia-laden English blends to the stench of burning tires while their flavor upon my palate is smoky ambrosia to me.

Ignorance has its consequences.

I recently witnessed yet another typical pipe-newbie’s tobacco-travails while traveling on business. I was happily smoking my pipe in a shop where the sales person knew little about pipes when he asked me to assist him with his customer’s enquiries. After the burly college student plucked a large, rusticated Oom Paul from the display case then purchased it, I suggested a small bowl of Lane’s popular, light aromatic blend, 1-Q,  for his maiden smoke. He opted instead for a brimming bowl of Mango Moonrise or some such tripe, after sniffing blends in the shop’s bulk tobacco jars.

Despite the obvious discomforts he experienced during the first five or so minutes of smoking this calamitous blend in his new pipe, he continued puffing vigorously. He tried to persuade me (and himself) just how satisfying this first smoke was to him. I was skeptical about how long this would last, especially since the longer he smoked, the more he looked like a younger sibling to Shrek. I gave him fifteen minutes. He lasted twenty.

It’s no wonder so many people are put off pipe-smoking early on, given the guidance they receive, the options they have, and the choices they make. We experienced pipe-smokers would hate pipe-smoking, too, if our pipe-smoking  were accomplished with varnished-bowl basket pipes loaded with horrific aromatic tobacco blends.

Don’t believe blend names.

Creme brulee, peach cobbler, key lime pie, or cherry surprise; these may be delicious treats for the dessert plate, but if you think their flavors can be captured in pipe smoke, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise. These blend monikers might as well be Pennzoil, Limburger, or Whale Blubber. It would be better if they were so named, for surely this second set of evocations would come closer to approximating the actual flavors delivered than their dessert-derived counterparts.

I write this knowing that whale blubber and limburger devotées deserve better treatment from me (if not an outright apology) for associating their gastronomical favorites with these fruity outrages. Naïveté comes in many forms, including expectations that any pipe tobacco, whatsoever, will taste like your mother’s pinochle potluck dessert.

You can’t smoke crème brûlée.

You can’t smoke cherries jubilee, either. I don’t care what it says on the jar or the tin. These names have one purpose only: to persuade the young or inexperienced pipe smoker to purchase the blend. Acolytes of P.T. Barnum, the scalawags who flog these blends believe that there is, indeed, a sucker born every minute. They count on that sucker sucking a pipe.

I am baffled as to why anyone ever thought it would be a good idea to slap Auntie Tillie’s county-fair-ribbon-contender dessert name onto a tobacco tin. Apple Blueberry Surprise. Peach Crumble. I haven’t come across a Mincemeat blend yet, but I’m sure it’s only because I haven’t looked hard enough. When I set match to leaf in my favorite briar, I doubt that the flavor might transport me to my old Wyoming home if only the smoke stream were redolent of venison, raisins, and rum. It might, if a smoke stream could deliver those flavors, but it won’t.

Can you imagine cigars with these names? At my tobacco haunt, were someone to ask for a fruity figurado, there would be such sniggering abuse heaped upon the prospective buyer that he would likely long for the good ol’ days when being tarred and feathered was the worst one might encounter for committing such a gaffe.

Next: Be Careful Who You Listen To.

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Reader Comments (11)

Yes Neill...I believe you hit the nail squarely on the head. There is indeed an inverse relationship between the way a tobacco smells and the way it tastes. My ex-wife used to claim that my Latakia blends, "smell like an outhouse on fire." When an acquaintance learns that I'm a pipesmoker they will invariably say that they LOVE the smell of a pipe. This is usually code for, "I like the smell of Captain Black." Although there are pipesters that smoke aromatics exclusively, most will eventually opt for more natural tobacco blends.
Aromatics are probably the reason that most people begin smoking a pipe, and the reason they quit smoking a pipe. As for me, I prefer to smoke my virginias and latakias, and enjoy someone else's fruity fragrance from afar.

January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohn Brill
Great article for the newbie. And a refresher for those like me who on rare occasions dare think about dabbling in a couple of aromatics just for the taste of it. LOL! Imagine that. One Christmas, Dad gave me my first pipe, a Grabow, and two packs of Prince Albert, basic tobacco. I didn't have to go through the tobacco jar gauntlet at Tobacco Village in Wilmington, DE, (still in business today),in my early years.

However, I CAN see how daunting those first trips to a B&M would be for a person new to the pipe. Those jars really do smell good. Somehow though, the aroma of latakia always intrigued me so you have an idea which direction my tastes went. Also, I must say that tin /package art played a part in some of my early choices. I mean. like, Balkan Sobranie had tin art that just told me THIS is the real stuff. There was something mysterious, historical, and quaint about that type of art that simply captivated me and took me to the register with it in hand. Troost was an interesting package too. Borkum Riff rum flavor was another that I remember. Douwe Egbert's House Of Edgeworth had a 'ring' to it that maybe only I heard at the time?

I am truly grateful to Dad for introducing me to basic tobacco. Again, I really can sympathize with newbies and wish they would ask even more questions
January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTony Suvie
Thanks for sharing these observations, Neill. No doubt, many brothers and sisters of the briar have bought a blend on smell only and been disappointed. Albeit more decades ago than I care to remember, I know I have!

By the way, your spouse clearly has an uncanny ability to identify and labeling the scent of components in certain blends. However, rather than comparing the smell of Latakia to burning tires, my spouse insists it smells like smoldering goat dung. The first time she said that, I reacted appreciatively, "Wow, in your previous life as a goatherd, you must have burned a lot of dung to recognize that!" Much to my surprise, this didn't help changing her mind about banning the smoking of Coyote Classic, Squadron Leader and York Full Mixture in the house. Yet, not all’s lost! As the Latakia in GLP's Chelsea Morning seems too subtle for her to discern, I continue enjoying it at home, so far without comments.
January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterHenk Gauw
Oh, that poor horse...!

I was so disappointed as a beginning pipesmoker. I'd take my pipe out of my mouth to smell the lovely room note, of Dan Vanilla Honeydew or Peterson Sweet Killarnery, then start to smoke again and wonder what I was doing wrong.
January 30, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBrigid
Neill, my sentiments exactly! My local tobacconist is a very knowledgeable and au courant pipe man, with decades of experience. Unfortunately, as of late, he has some serious health issues, and has out of necessity hired a pseudo tobacconist to manage the shop.

I cringe when I witness some of the recommendations he makes, when someone new to the hobby makes an inquiry. Most likely, after being misinformed,they will conclude that the pipe cannot compare to their beloved cigars.

What a shame, as he does a great disservice to his employer as well as the hobby!
January 31, 2013 | Registered CommenterDutch
You make a good point Neill that all men believe they can master "manly" pursuits without advice. A shooting instructor has said he prefers to coach women as they listen and do what he says, whereas men all think they were born as John Wayne. I was fortunate in joining a professional office full of pipe smokers and that mentoring saved me years of misery (wasn't a bad way of learning the profession either!).

More difficult to find a mentor nowadays and, as stated, most B&M's can't help; perhaps internet pipe smoking forums are the places to advise new pipe smokers to visit?
January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJimbo44
I think this is a great post. For starters, it's a basic truth that humans smell something before they even want to lick it (dogs, on the other hand, even with their keen sense of smell, seem to enjoy the nastier things). Part of this has come through evolution. If it smells like it's either rotten or triggers an olfactory memory that was unpleasant, we'll leave it be. Most of us were drawn to pipe smoking because of the scent of a pipe; a pleasant scent. Everyone desires a blend to taste like it smells. Heck, if most aromatics actually did, my mother would have probably been smoking a pipe during my delivery, or at least shortly thereafter.

It's disappointing - there really isn't any other accurate word - for a new pipe smoker to open a jar of something that smells like a blue ribbon champion at a county fair only to not get it. This is probably the first time in their lives that they can't trust their nose. Everyone knows you can't taste food if your nose is plugged (or stuffed), so when something smells fantastic enough to stick a fork in, they puff with anticipation and hope. I've talked with many new smokers about this subject having to explain that while blueberry cobbler might be awesome, it's going to change if it's burned (as happens in a pipe). Sadly, many people buy a pipe and some cordial tobacco only to give it up after a few attempts.

For obvious marketing purposes, most tobacco shops will re-name a bulk blend in a jar to make it sound more exciting or only locally available. Down in Charleston, SC, there was a shop a few years ago that I frequented that labeled all of their jars with either names of people, streets, or historic sites which is not uncommon. It makes people sniff and want to get some, for sure. Hopefully they'll even buy extra thinking they can't get it anywhere else. Some shops actually do blend tobaccos, but most don't.

While it's true that you can't derive the expected flavor from aromatics, there are a few I'll still recommend to people searching because they have good tobacco components after the aroma burns off. Cornell & Diehl's Autumn Evening is a Red Virginia blend topped with maple. MacBaren Vanilla Cream smells great and some of the flavor does come through. But....of all the tobaccos I've yet tried.....there is only ONE that seems to taste like it smells in the jar: McClelland Walnut Liqueur. I've never have guessed it at the time, but most of the earthy sweet flavors carry through the smoke.

Still: I'm mainly a Virginia man.
January 31, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAdam Davidson
Most aromatics are the white zinfandel of the tobacco world.
January 31, 2013 | Registered CommenterJ.J.H.
I've noticed a trend from newcomers at club meetings. Middle aged men who are either trying to quit cigs or are trying to smoke something other than cigars, that their significant others can tolerate. With all the anti anything smoke, we are being pushed into our private locations more and more. Unfortunately as Neill points out, the best tasting blends smell horrible to the wife or husband etc.

I can't say any more than has already been pointed out. It is an old tradition to recommend newbies goopy "smells fruity" aromatics. However, in our current day and age, I see newbies requesting it not because it's the best tasting, but because it may allow them to smoke indoors without getting kicked out into the cold from stinking up the house.
February 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAdam
Great article! Two comments on Jimbo44's remarks and also Adam's. Jimbo, I have often taken newbies shooting for their first time. Did so last Saturday, in fact. And I wholeheartedly concur with your friend; it is MUCH easier to instruct women just starting shooting than it is men. There are occasions where macho and watching too many movies can be counterproductive, and shooting guns and smoking pipes are among them.

I was pleased to see Adam Davidson's mention of C&D's "Autumn Evening". He called me one day telling me about it, and said "It's like when we walk into Cracker Barrel during the winter, smelling the fire and maple syrup". I'm a usual Latakia lover and on occasion, good Virginias. As a friend of Adam's, I went to the shop and bought a small tin of Autumn Evening, and have since bought a decent amount of it. It proves to me that some aromatics can actually be wonderful. Not many, but a few. But overall, you gave great advice!
February 5, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterBigAl
Great article, Neill. You've pretty much described my first pipe smoking experiences. Your article reminded me of how awkward and timid I felt the first time I stepped into a pipe/cigar shop to purchase my first pipe and tobacco. The tobacconist directed me to a terrible blend they called Ginger Snap. And snap it did. The worst tongue bite I ever experienced. It left me unable to smoke for several days. If it weren't for my stubbornness, I would never have taught myself to enjoy the pipe the way I do today. That being said, I have found a few good aromatics that I enjoy on occasion; namely Dan's DaVinci and Reiner's Professional. Unfortunately for me, I did run the gamut of awful, deceitful fruit pies and cobblers of which you speak. I'm primarily a Virginia man these days but to get here took a great deal of will. I'm convinced that the majority of experienced pipe smokers must be some of the most stubborn folks on the planet if for no other reason than the mere fact that we've endured these early trials of our hobby.
February 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterWayne Teipen

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