An in-depth (long-winded, wordy, obsessive, interminable)
exploration of getting to know a new tobacco,
with observations on the review process, in which I smoke an entire tin of
G. L. Pease "Westminster" and document each pipe and the results.



I have been reading about G. L. Pease "Westminster" for some time now, and actually bought two tins when it was first released. I was anxious to try them. I put them away for "a while" to smooth out the blend, and then proceeded to be distracted. For three years.

And now onto the adventure. Why document an entire tin, and every pipe smoked? Because that is the ONLY way to learn enough about a tobacco to be able to form a relatively informed opinion. (In my opinion.) In general, it takes time to get to know a new tobacco. It takes time to find the right pipe in your collection to bring out the best in a tobacco, and it takes time to learn the optimal smoking cadence for a new tobacco. And to make things even more uncertain, certain pipes and tobaccos perform best under certain climactic conditions.

The very idea that someone can smoke ONE BOWL of a particular tobacco and then speak with authority on the subject is therefore pretty darn silly. Sometimes you hit it lucky on the first try, and then you spend a fair bit of time chasing the elusive perfection of that first bowl, but at least you know what that tobacco is capable of at its very best. Depending on the pipe, the weather, the mood and the phase of the moon, a tobacco can exhibit dramatically different characteristics. Sometimes, it can have a dozen completely different personalities, ten of them delightful, one of them a bit finicky, and in the wrong pipe, one of them can be "Hell on Wheels." In fact, the best tobaccos I have smoked seem to be chameleons, in a good way, keeping me surprised and interested, showing new delights with every bowl, and never boring.

First impressions:

Opening the can released a whoosh of air; the tin was over three years old with a slight bulge in the bottom, so that's no surprise. The tin aroma was excellent; clear Latakia notes, a bit of Oriental spice, and subdued Virginia sweetness. In direct sunlight, every bit of tobacco ribbon had a fine, nearly microscopic dusting of glittering sugar crystals; a good sign. The tin's moisture level was close to ideal for the relatively dry evening air. I packed my pipe immediately and prepared for a long walk.

Bowl #1: Stanwell silver-banded, Relief sandblast 3/4 bent billiard, shape #83. I was lucky on the first bowl; the little Stanwell adored this tobacco. The charring light had the typical expected edge, and the Latakia was forward. The smoke soon settled into a round, balanced, classic old-style "full English mixture." Initially, the flavor was dry and nutty, nice fullness, little sweetness but a fine, rounded "Balkan" with everything in good measure. After a few minutes, the sweetness of the Virginias began to build, and that trend continued unabated through the end of the bowl.

Greg Pease describes this as a "full English" but "exquisitely balanced" -- and it is. The Cyprian Latakia is definitely there, but so well proportioned that it adds to the whole rather than overpowering. I can tell he uses an approach which activates taste buds all over the mouth. The flavor profile overall is huge, rich, almost liquid in mouth-filling character, with lots of natural Virginia sweetness, and the perfect amount of Orientals for a bit of spice, nuttiness and cool, even burning.

Burning characteristics were impeccably well-mannered; with nary a gurgle, the bowl proceeded without any fuss (or need for a delight) for nearly an hour, steadily gaining in sweetness and flavor intensity right through to the last few grains of unburned tobacco and some silvery, dust-fine ash.

This was one of those "transcendental" bowls of tobacco that really sings, and I remarked at least a half-dozen times to my walking companion how wonderful this particular smoke was. (The environment counts; it was a perfect cool evening in the high 60s, relative humidity around 40%, walking near a creek with lots of poplars and aspen trees. This does affect the smoke.)

Westminster is not shy with the Latakia, but Greg balances it so well that it works perfectly. There's a sort of "deep" sun-dried-fruit sweetness and intensity to Latakia that only emerges when it's blended exactly right -- too little and it doesn't quite bloom; too much and it's bitter and harsh. Pease finds this elusive balance, and nails it. In decades past, British pipe smokers would talk about the "Plumb Pudding" taste of a fine Latakia Mixture (much to the confusion of us Yanks who had never tasted such an odd Christmas critter) and Westminster exhibits that characteristic beautifully. Maestro Pease is known for taking his time before settling on the final recipe, and it shows. On a scale of 1 to 10, this is a solid 10.

The marvelous flavor of this bowl of tobacco was so rich and lingering that I could still taste it the next morning, even after brushing and flossing the night before. In fact it was still there when I drank cup of strong morning tea. Remarkable, and what a great start.

Bowl #2: Stanwell, black sandblast "Sixtus" in the #208 billiard shape with a hexagonal shank and stem. Superlative burning characteristics, but the deep Virginia sweetness was elusive, until finally peeking shyly out at the very end of the bowl. All the other flavors were there, though, and the Latakia came more to the front, with a very nice smoky-woody note. A bit finicky to keep lit and the nicotine levels were stronger.

Bowl #3: back to the Stanwell #83 which was so congenial to Westminster the first time. I made a tactical blunder: I should know better than to try and evaluate a complex English mixture while I am tired, hungry, cranky, and sitting in a hot car in a Wallmart parking lot. When I get cranky, I puff too fast. I overheated the bowl from the very start, and paid the price. Some Virginia tobaccos don't mind getting a bit overheated; let the pipe cool off, and they calm down and recover. Not so with English mixtures: the Oriental components in particular are prone to getting "burnt" and turning bitter and ashy. After letting the pipe cool, it calmed down enough to smoke well, but the flavors were compromised, not really recovering until the very end of the bowl, which blossomed beautifully, just for a minute or two before finishing.

Bowl #4: Dunhill Root billiard, made in 1938, about a group 3 size. This pipe always smokes well. Predictably, Westminster did very well in this pipe, very full and flavorful, with a more distinctive sense of the various layers and components being evident. There was very little sweetness from the Virginias, but once the pipe was finished, the aftertaste was that of a fine Virginia flake, very sweet and clean. During the bowl, this was all about the Orientals. The main impression was one of nutty, "toasty" flavors, with the faint whiff of a baked sweet bread of some sort, and perhaps a bit of candied tangerine peel. The Latakia was rather subdued, but bringing in the "bass notes" nicely in a supportive role.

(My stint as a wine columnist is peeking through here: "Candied Tangerine Peel?" Forgive me.)

Bowl #5: a patent-number-era Sasieni Four Dot lovat, very petite, perhaps a group 2 in size. Also, the environment duplicated my first bowl. This was back to a solid "ten" in every possible way. Interestingly, if I were blindfolded, I would have guessed that I was smoking a top-grade, aged Virginia flake. The smoke was that sweet and smooth, and the Virginia sweetness bloomed forth immediately -- even the charring light was delicious, which is rare for any tobacco. The Oriental spice flavors leaned more towards cinnamon and cardamom rather than Cumin and Frankincense. The Latakia was very subdued, but added a raisin and fig depth. Overall the flavor profile was very big and mouth-filling. Sorry if I am veering off into wine-speak territory here, but it's a vocabulary that serves. Something about this combination of briar and leaf prompted me to lean toward a very long, slow draw technique, which can work magic for me sometimes. I was filling my mouth with ten-second-long draws, each one intensely sweet and flavorful. The pipe went out a few times toward the end of the bowl, which is unusual for me, but relights were sweet and clean with not even a hint of ashy heat, which, again, is a rare quality. This was another "transcendental" bowl.

Bowl #6: Dunhill Root group 4 billiard, 1973. A mismatch here; the Dunhill -- with a fairly wide bowl -- simply didn't care for this tobacco. Bland and indifferent. This is an excellent pipe and it should have been a great match. However, it was a hot afternoon with rain threatening, and I have never had great results smoking in such weather.

Bowl #7: a Comoy Blue Riband billiard. Again, a hot afternoon, and again, poor results, in what should be a magnificent pipe. I've no doubt that someone accustomed to smoking in these conditions could adjust their technique and get great results, but it has never worked well for me. I will have to try again, on cool, comfortable evenings with the poorly performing pipes. Every one of those substandard bowls was in hot, dry conditions.

Bowl #8: Dunhill shell billiard, 1962. The charring light was an instant burst of pure Latakia flavor, very rich and meaty-salty. Quite good, though this pipe did not bring out the fullest flavors of Westminster. The bowl overall was very "dry" with much more Latakia flavor predominating throughout, almost no Virginia sweetness until the very end when it finally appeared, but only a little. Still, quite well-mannered and very smooth.

Bowl #9: Stanwell sandblast poker, a "Nordic" in the 207 shape. A much larger pipe than any before now in this trial, and it performed beautifully. I am accustomed to any English Mixture requiring a fair bit of finesse to smoke well, but in this pipe, Westminster was as cool and unflappable as could be. I swear I could puff like I was smoking "1Q" and not overheat the pipe. The bowl lasted for over two hours during a wonderful, cool evening walk, and delivered a smooth, consistently rewarding smoke the entire time. Much of the bowl was a bit mild, and I look forward to trying Odyssey, Abingdon, or Maltese Falcon in this pipe; it can certainly handle the biggest "full" blends with no trouble. Even when so thoroughly "tamed," Westminster was excellent in this large poker, and during the last quarter of the bowl, the flavor bloomed more fully, down to the small dottle of only a few little ribbons. Overall, bordering on "transcendental."

Bowl #10: Stanwell billiard Rondo 03. Nope. Wrong pipe for this tobacco. Cool and smooth, but very little flavor.

Bowl #11: Dunhill Cumberland billiard group 2, 1980. A very small pipe, thin walls and only 5 ½" overall, but it handled Westminster like a champion. An interesting mineral quality to the smoke, with distinct layers of full flavors, focused on the Orientals, with only a hint of sweetness from the Virginias. The Latakia was in perfect balance, and the overall flavor profile was similar to a dry, nutty Virginia, reminiscent of Rattray's Brown Clunee or Gawith Best Brown Flake. Truly excellent.

Bowl #12: Sasieni four-dot Stamford, rusticated lovat. I have trouble dating Sasienis precisely, but this is an old one. The flavor has distinct layers and a dry, nutty profile. More Latakia forward, subdued Virginias, not very sweet at all, and excellent. More of a classic British Latakia Mixture / "Balkan" in character.

Bowl #13: Nording 1/2 bent #3, medium sized but with thick walls. An excellent smoke, sweeter, rich, velvety, lighter on the Latakia, extremely slow burning and cool. This pipe was designed for a 9mm filter, which I did not use, nor did I use an "adapter." Instead, I elected to allow the large inner chamber to act a bit like a Peterson and do some "condensing" magic. It works for me.

Bowl #14: Back to the Comoy's Blue Riband billiard, this time on a 62 degree evening walk. Better than the hot afternoon, but still not a good match. Some pipes just don't respond well to some tobaccos. The somewhat wide bowl may be the reason.

Bowl #15: W. O. Larsen Super 98, the shape some describe as a "pickaxe." Bone dry and only a vague nutty flavor for the first half of the bowl, and then it opened up and bloomed towards the end. In this pipe, Westminster is "finicky" and needs to be smoked carefully, but can reward.

Bowl #16: Larsen Copenhagen Super 83. (A bulldog cutty, very elegant, and there is no "W. O." in the stamping.) Well- mannered and smooth, but it was a bit "ashy" through much of the bowl. I suspect this was an error in packing; I will have to try again using the patient, "many layers of small pinches" method to avoid the tunneling-through burn that makes things ashy for me. Still, a very nice, classic "Balkan" style smoke, quite Latakia-forward, dry with very little sweetness. Toward the bottom of the bowl, a relight brought a cigar-like body and richness.

Bowl #17: Castello Old Antiquari, a very large billiard (KKK size.) I suspected that this pipe, with its relatively wide bowl, might not do well with Westminster. I was correct; it was ashy, temperamental, and lacking in flavor. A disappointing finish for this final bowl of the tin, but only because I know Westminster can be so brilliant in the right pipe.

Conclusions:

My own experience seems to lean toward smoking Westminster in a relatively narrow bowl, and smaller pipes can really shine with this tobacco, even pipes with very thin walls. I must admit however that one large pipe did extremely well, so it's just a "trend," not a hard and fast "rule." Westminster is a tobacco blended for pipe smokers with finesse to their technique, and it will reward the smoker who can "treat it like a lady." Flavors are complex, deep and dramatically different from pipe to pipe, but in any pipe you can expect to immediately recognize the Latakia in there. In a pipe indifferent to its charms, it's "merely" an excellent traditional Balkan blend in the tradition of the old-line houses. At its best, its genuinely amazing.

I have heard some tobaccos described as "needing" a very high-end pipe to bring out their best; while two of the Dunhills performed very well with Westminster, the other two Dunhills were indifferent -- not bad, just not deeply flavorful. (Smoked on a different day, in different weather, they no doubt would have performed differently.) Some of the best performers were mid-line Stanwells. Westminster certainly does not require an expensive, high-end pipe to perform well. Overall, more than half the pipes I tried convinced me to smoke Westminster in them again (four delivered a stunningly great smoke,) and the other half ranged from quite good (if unexciting) to only four clear mismatch experiences. Of course, once a mismatch has been identified, it can be avoided in the future, and you can focus on thoroughly enjoying the pipes that have proven themselves with a particular tobacco.

As for any "definitive" conclusion regarding Westminster, I can only say that it ranks among the finest English Mixtures I have ever smoked, and that includes experience spanning the last four decades. This does not surprise me in the least: Greg Pease is famous for producing blends at this level across his entire range.

If you keep hearing about the "Good Old Days" of the long-lost house-blended Dunhill mixtures, of Rattray back when they were the "real thing," of Sullivan Powell and company, don't fret. The "Good Old Days" are now, and Gregory Pease is leading the parade. No, Westminster is not identical to the old Dunhill London Mixture, which was the inspiration for this excellent blend. It is different. But the quality, the attention to detail, the masterful touch of balance and sophistication equal anything ever produced. Smoked with some finesse in the right pipe, and on the right day, it is fully capable of producing a "Religious Experience" smoke.