Thursday, 13 July, 2006

Kensington – Three Years After

Posted in Pipes & Tobaccos at 2:13 pm by glpease

The Classic Collection has been around for a little over three years, now. Last week, I pulled one of the first production tins of Kensington out of the cellar to see how it was doing. The tin I grabbed was just a little puffy on the bottom, brining greater enthusiasm to the prospect of exploring its contents.

Kensington has continued to be quite popular, though I must confess, it’s never been my first choice from the collection. I’ve always tended to gravitate more toward Piccadilly for a lighter, sweeter blend, or toward Blackpoint for something richer, fuller, more complex. So, after I’d introduced it, I’ve all but ignored it until now, having only smoked from a few tins to ensure consistent quality. That’s not to say it isn’t a great blend, or that I’m not happy with it. It is, and I am, but the others have always seemed to call to me a little louder.

What the hell was I thinking?

After spending a few moments savoring the wonderful aroma that was relased, along with a slight puff, upon pulling the ring, my attention was captured by the wonderful shades of red, orange, brown and black that were presented. Some of the tobaccos were very light when the blend was put up – yellows and straw hues – but, what magic has time wrought? The individual components are still visibly discernable, but the contrast is not as stark as it once was. What was once like spring is now more autumnal. Lovely stuff.

The aroma, though, was what really had me. Beneath the smoky campfiire notes of the Latakia lies wonderful delicate verdant tones of lavender and basil, pronounced fruity aromas of apricot jam and fresh, ripe plums, and woody mid-tones that remind me just a bit of some exotic hardwoods like Padouk. Perhaps it sounds like an olfactory cacophony, but in reality, it’s really quite intoxicating. I could spend hours just sniffing this stuff. I nearly did.

When this first batch was made, in a bit too much of a hurry for release at the big Chicago extraveganza in 2003, the Latakia was still quite fresh from the cutter, and had been a bit over-smoked besides. It didn’t really have enough air time, and was slightly more than a bit too pungent, too acrid. After three years, even incarcerated in its little 2-oz prison cell, it’s far less aggressive; the edges have been rounded off, and it’s working with the blend, rather than figting against it. (Subsequent batches were produced only after the Latakia had settled down a bit. These will be even better!)

In the bowl, this stuff is remarkable. The time has transformed it into a truly wonderful, ripe, complex blend. There’s an underlying slightly tangy sweetness, punctuated by the rich, pleasantly bittersweet notes of oriental leaf, all surfing on the waves of smoke and leather from the Cyprus Latakia. I’ve found it best to do a charring light – toasting the top, bringing a few puffs of smoke through the bowl – and then set the pipe aside for a few minutes. This seems to open up some of the more delicate aromas and flavors, and seems to amplify the overall experience. (I often use this “method” when I’ve got time to really savor a pipe.)

The flavors develop and shift throughout the bowl, continuing to bring something new to the experience. By the half-way point, it’s really starting to sing. Here is where I start to find similarities to the blend that originally inspired it. (One of these days, I’ll reveal the archetypes that encouraged me to develop the collection.) The exotic Balkan character is there, with delightful spices mingling with the sweetness from the Virginias.

If you enjoy this blend, I encourage you to put some away for a few years. I’ve got several tins from different vintages on the shelf, and am looking forward to the next time I pop the lid of one of them. It might be quite soon; the contents of this tin are disappearing at an alarming rate…



  1. Greg, these part blending notes/part retrospectives are very enjoyable.

    Question: how would you define a tobacco vintage, and how can a consumer know? I’ll take my answer off the air. 🙂

  2. glpease said,

    Can you be more specific, Jason? What do you mean by “define a tobacco vintage?”

  3. So, wine vintages are easy: each year there are crops which are harvested for annual bottlings.

    Pipe tobacco is harder, since tobacco buys can be of an arbitrarily large or small scale, and each component tobacco may require replacement in the blend at totally different times. It’s the Ship of Theseus problem.

    I hesitate to mention it, but consider the now-mythical Syrian Latakia which you secured. At some point, you were blending that into all your tobaccos which used Syrian as a component. You would probably argue (and I think you have in the past) that its replacement had such a qualitative impact that it represented a change in vintage. But is this the case for any change?

    I would also add that there’s a transparency issue. As a consumer, I would like to have some insight into each change. Let’s suppose that 9 tinnings of Kensington were made in 2005. The first three used an itentical combination of components, then you ran out of one component and secured replacement tobacco, and that combination was used for the second three. Then you ran out of another component, and it was replaced for the last three. I would think it would be very interesting for some kind of “vintage code” to be incremented after each tobacco substitution[*]. It would give consumers the opportunity to stock their cellars with each vintage so you can make a better effort at vertical tastings.

    To make it consumer friendly, perhaps these vintage codes are Season-Year pairs for when the tobacco vintage was first made. You can imagine that “Kensington, Winter 2006 vintage” sounds more interesting to a consumer than “Kensington, Vintage #206”.

    [*] Or, if not every substitution, every meaningful substitution, as defined by the blender.

  4. David O'Flaherty said,

    I also greatly enjoy these essays and would love to see you do one someday for what I think is your moodiest creation and my personal favorite, Cairo. It’s quite the late night smoke.

  5. Frank Smith said,

    Dear Greg,

    Read with great interest your experience with a first run tin of Kensington. Especially the little teaser that someday you might reveal the inspiration for the blend.

    Taking a break from my Lake District mistresses a bit ago, I acquired an 11 month old tin of Kensington. It was (to my somewhat suspect) olfactory system, Ardath’s State Express London Mixture to at least three decimal places. Don’t care if that was the inspiration or not, I love the stuff. Will buy lots more as soon as I get lots more money (you know, a couple of bucks).

    Continued success, health and happiness,


  6. Tom Brown said,

    Kensington, fresh, was distincly different from the rest of the Classic Collecion; I once compared it to one of three sisters I knew in my youth who looked entirely different from her older siblings.

    Three years on (equivalent to 35 years in human terms) Kensington retains the same distinctiveness: softer, more elusive, more agreeable. But just as as interesting, and much more approachable.

    A pure delight.

    Tom Brown

  7. Marc L said,

    I always thought that Kensington was the most underated blend of the collection. It is one of my favorites.

  8. glpease said,

    Nice to see all these comment. I agree that Kensington doesn’t get the attention it deserves, especially now that I’ve tasted an “old” tin. Who knows? Maybe this will inspire people to give it a try, either again, of for the first time.

    I’ve been giving Jason’s thoughs about vintage dating some thought. We strive for conistency, and accept that there may be times that I have to make some small change to compensate for different sources of leaf, different crops, and so on.

    In other words, to return to my usual wine analogy, I work somewhere between vintage bottled varietal wines, and bulk produced jug wine. The jug wine producer will select grapes and control vinification and blending to produce a wine that is nearly identical, batch after batch, year after year.

    The vintage producer will select the best grapes from that year’s harvest, and make the finest wine possible, expresing the vintage to the best of their stylistic interpretation and abilities.

    I’m somewhere in the middle, though slightly more on the vintage producer side of things. I’m concerned about consistency in taste and aroma, but also about ensuring highest quality. If leaf comes along that is significantly better than what’s been used, the blend might be adjusted slightly to accommodate the new leaf. This is usually complete transparent to the consumer, and here’s where a vintage date might bite back.

    Not long ago, I changed the graphics on the label of my Original Mixtures tins (the blue ones). That was the ONLY change, yet, I got email, and heard the whispering around the water cooler, that “The old blend was better.” Huh? “You know, the one with the pipes on the label isn’t as good as the one with the plain background. Why’d you change the blend?”

    Conversely, the venerable old Balkan Sobranie went through many significant changes between the 70s and the 90s when it fell off the US market, and only a few people seemed to notice.

    People often don’t notice, or ignore real change, and perceive change when it doesn’t exist. So, while the idea of creating some sort of vintage dating is an interesting one, I’d probably end up fighting more fires, and spending too much time consoling those who feel betrayed that I “Changed the blend.”

  9. Greg and fellows:

    I just got done with my first 8 oz. bag of Kensington. After a few 2 oz tins, I was hooked, and it has since become “my” tobacco…meaning I have finally found what I consider the last tobacco I will have to try. After some 10 years of sampling, Kensington forced me to just simply stop. Since my first tin of it, my desire to try new tobaccos has simply disappeared, unconciously went away…wow. I now smoke two blends 95% of the time. Kensington and Blackpoint. Yes, I’ve still got other open tins in my humidor, but they will never get the attention they deserve after my experience with Kensington.

    Here’s what I enjoy the most: With the charring light, it’s the “soft popping sweetness” in my mouth makes my mouth water just right to sample the initial taste of the tobacco. It puts that smile to my face that no other tobacco has been able to maintain over time. Kensing ton is definitely the “sleeper” in the series, and has aged well for me. The 8 oz bag I just finished is dated November 2, 2004. The next bag I’m opening is dated the same. It’ll be interesting to see if there are any subtle changes in being unopened for a few years.

    Kensington is smoked in the morning, afternoon, and evenings before dinner. Blackpoint is used for after meals, during movies, and while drinking wine, dark beer, or Scotch. Fortunatley for my liver, Kensington is smoked much more than Blackpoint but you get my “drift.”

    I was excited to read about all your thoughts about Kensington. I simply had to invest some time in agreeing and giving you all my thoughts.

    Keep up the wonderful work, Greg.

    Tony Espeseth

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