Tobacco Pouches
July 2, 2004 2:11 PM   Subscribe

I'm taking up (tobacco) pipe smoking. (No lectures, please.) I was wondering if anyone else here enjoys a good smoke now and then? If so, what are your favorite blends? Pipes? What should I look for in a tobacco pouch-- leather, vinyl?

Right now, my experience is limited to corncob pipes and vanilla tobacco, if that helps.
posted by keswick to Shopping (16 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I used to putt around with a pipe occassionally in college. The tobacco store in that town had a blend called "Isle of Skye" that was magnificent. I don't know if it was a house blend or if they bought it from someone, but I can't recommend it highly enough.

The best thing to do is find a tobacco store with knowledgable staff (advice that goes well for cigars too). It'll save you a lot of time and energy, and maybe money.
posted by Ufez Jones at 3:03 PM on July 2, 2004 is a good all-around reference, and is a great place to find blends you might like. Since you like vanilla tobacco, you might try Blue Note which is one of the most popular aromatics.

Personally, I like unflavored (or very lightly flavored) tobaccos the best. My favorite is currently McCranie's Red Flake, a really nice red Virginia. Dunhill blends are also good; I'd try Early Morning Pipe as a gentle introduction.

And one hint that will enhance your smoking experience immeasurably: let your pipe 'rest' for a day or two after smoking it. This might necessitate having several pipes depending on how often you smoke, but it gives you a much cooler, more flavorful smoke. Also consider picking up a decent quality briar (ebay is good for doing this cheaply, and you can read about cleaning and sterilizing pipes at Corncobs are perfectly fine, but a briar really enhances the flavor of good tobaccos.
posted by nixxon at 3:28 PM on July 2, 2004

I have tried the Nat Sherman blends and have always been pleased (also, this is a good store for Ufez's suggestion as they do know their stuff), although the real secret is to simply always have fresh tobacco. Most pipe blends taste great when they're fresh and most taste lousy when they get even just a little stale, independant of the brand.
posted by milovoo at 3:31 PM on July 2, 2004

Also, "Isle of Skye" is a somewhat famous brand / blend, that I think has been discontinued, although maybe it's a common name. See my above suggestion for why I don't recommend buying it now.
posted by milovoo at 3:38 PM on July 2, 2004

My dad smoked a pipe forever and smoked Swishers Cherry Blend, probably a very cheap thing he bought at the local drug store. When I went to college our dorm floor all started pipe smoking (Hey it was the 80s, it hides pot smoke!). Anyway, we down to the local tobacoo store on the Pearl Street Mall and had the sales dude show us the way. They had a locally blended cherry tobacco that rocked. I haven't smoked for years but still miss that smell. I suggest you go to the local tobacco store and ask. If anyone will give you suggestion on how/what to smoke with no judgements, it will be a tobacco vendor.
posted by majikwah at 4:06 PM on July 2, 2004

nixxon: Excellent point.
I remember my dad's smoking stand, a table in the living room where he kept about 15 or so pipes in steady rotation to make sure they didn't get to hot to smoke.
And make sure you get a good lighter and keep lots of pipe filters around. Despite the flavor of pipe tobacco, you're going to want to take a few preventive measures for your future and make sure you use a filter in your pipe to trap some of the tar and nicotine.
Jeez, I miss smoking.
posted by majikwah at 4:09 PM on July 2, 2004

I'm a recreational pipe smoker, myself. Pipe smokers could go on for hours about their favorite pipes, tobacs, techniques, and so on -- your questions aren't exactly easy to get a concise answer to, especially since so much is based entirely on preference.

So, here's a few tips, trying to give you as much objectivity, and as little opinion, as possible:

BUY A GOOD PIPE. This is the single best thing you can do to make sure that your experience is an enjoyable one. There is no real "best" shape -- shape and feel are a very personal thing, and one man's best is another's worst. There are a few simple mechanical things you should look for, although checking some may be hard depending on how much your tobacconist lets you handle the pipes beforehand. If they don't let you do much at alll, find a new tobacconist.

First, make sure the pipe feels good in your hand. There's no "right" grip -- most people hold the bowl, but some hold the stem. If your tobacconist will let you, and you don't mind, take a couple GENTLE drags through it -- air should flow through freely without any real whistling; if it sounds like a windstorm in there, put it down.

Next, if possible, pass a pipe cleaner through the stem and into the bowl. It should be possible to pass a cleaner all the way through. If not, you have a poorly aligned bit, and cleaning the pipe well will be hard. Put it down.

Third, peer inside the bowl, into the bottom, where the air hole comes in. The hole should be clean and smooth, and come in very near the absolute bottom of the bowl. If it's more than, say 1/8" above the floor of the bowl you will never manage to smoke the pipe all the way, it will not cake right, and the taste will degrade with use. This is a frequent problem with Dr. Grabows, so look at one of them, if you want to see what a bad airhole looks like.

Last, make sure that the exterior of the bowl is waxed, not varnished. It should have a matte sheen on it; a glassy shine is the indication of a layer of varnish. A varnished pipe does not breathe well, leading to a hot and unpleasant smoke. Put it down.

If you check all four of those points out, you should have a decent pipe. How much to spend depends on whether you buy a brand name or manage to find a decent basket pipe. Basket pipes can be terrible, but they can also be very good and come with a very good price. I'd say you should expect to spend somewhere between $30 (for a top of the line basket pipe) and $75 (for a good, but not designer, name brand) for your first pipe. Any more probably is not well advised.

Now, it's much harder to give concrete advice for tobacco. If you'll find a tobacconist who'll let you smoke a sample, great. Otherwise, the best you're left with is smelling, which is a poor way to make your choice -- a tobacco can, and often does, smoke much differently from how it smells in the tin.

There are several broad styles of tobacco, but most broadly they can be divided into the English and aromatic types. English types are naught but pure tobacco, and often quite strong and heady. Aromatics types are lighter, and contain flavor and scent additives. Neither type is better than the other; it's a matter of taste. (The big exception to this classification is the "pure" or "straight" Virginia, which is nothing but Virginia tobacco, but is nothing like a real "English")

What is better, though, is a tobacco that contains little to no propylene glycol (common referred to as "PG"). This is , essentially, antifreeze, and is used as a medium for delivering the flavoring agents in aromatics, as well as for its properties as a humectant to keep cheap, bulk-manufactured tobacco moist longer. It also effects the flavor and smoking properties of tobacco, and makes it generally unpleasant.

It's a little hard to detect PG in a tobacco without smoking it, unfortunately. The best thing to do is to never buy any tobacco that comes in a pouch; there are plenty of tinned tobaccos that have PG in them, but these tend to be easier to spot, based on price.

Getting long... more to come.
posted by jammer at 4:24 PM on July 2, 2004 [5 favorites]

So, you know how to pick a *good* tobacco, but how do you pick one you like? The best thing to do, in my opinion, is to find a deal on a sampler from a reputed blender. Cornell and Diehl have a widely recommended one -- 5 blends for $32 or 8 for $40, and their blends tend to be very good. I'd go ahead and order one of those.

One thing to remember, while you're in your sampling period -- and I don't think any pipe smoker ever fully leaves the sampling period; no matter how much you love your daily smoke, you always try new things hoping to find something even better -- is that it takes a pipe several bowls-full to break in to any new mix. Don't open up your shiny new sampler and immediately go pouch hopping, trying one of each. Try to smoke at least an ounce of any one tobacco before moving on to the next, so you can get an idea of what it's really like.

Very early in your pipe smoking career you're certain to run into the reams of mythology regarding breaking in a new pipe. Every pipe smoking has a different break-in procedure; some of them are comically baroque. The most sane advice I've found, which works for me, is to make sure your first pipe is pre-carbonized; this will take some, but not all, of the pain out of the break-in process. The rest is just patience and care.

You'll hear lots of advice about things you should or shouldn't coat your bowl with during the break-in. Don't listen to any of it. The only thing that should be in your bowl during its first smoke is tobacco. What you do need to pay attention to is the amount -- a new bowl has very little protection from built up carbon layers, and can easily be damaged; it also lacks the benefits that this built-up accumulation of carbon (called "cake") gives you, most importantly heat control and moisture absorption, so your first smokes with a new pipe probably will be a little harsh. Don't give up.

For your first bowl, you shouldn't pack it any more than one quarter full. Smoke it as cool as possible, and be sure to smoke all the way -- cake forms from the bottom of the bowl up, and if you never get a good cake in the bottom of the bowl, you'll never have a good cake, period. This is why you check the location of the air hole on a new pipe; you can't smoke below the air hole. Go ahead. Try it.

After your first bowl, let your pipe rest at least a day. Then, smoke another, with a little more tobacco this time. Some folks jump to half a bowl, some go more for a third -- do whatever seems right, just don't load it up all the way, and be sure to smoke it all.

After several partial bowls, you can then go up to a full bowl. At this point, it's not as important to smoke it all, but it's still a good idea, at first. If you find yourself unable to finish a bowl, don't empty it; just let it burn out naturally and put it aside. If it's a good tobacco, it will taste as good, or better, when you next pick it up to finish it off.

The actual mechanics of the smoking are something you will have to pick up with practice, like any non-trivial physical skill. THe most important thing to a good smoke, though, is a good pack; the standard advice here is to fill the bowl half full, pack gently, fill half of what's left empty, pack a bit more firmly, then fill whatever's re-empties, and pack even more firmly. You can test your pack by drawing on the pipe before you light it -- you should have some resistance there, but it shouldn't be like sucking a milkshake through a straw.

A pack that is too lose can be fixed by adding more tobacco (if you wish) and re-packing. One that is too tight, however, is best fixed by dumping it all out and starting over.

Once you're packed, next comes the light. Whatever you use to like, don't use a cigarette lighter -- the taste is bad, and you'll burn your fingers. Matches are traditional, but I find a good butane pipe lighter is best. "Good" ones can be incredibly expensive, but you can find refillable plastic ones for about $5 in a good smoke shop.

If you've ever smoked a cigar, the initial char is alot like that -- apply even heat all around the bowl (be careful not to burn the top of the bowl itself, though!), while puffing repeatedly on the pipe. This is the sport where it's easiet to give yourself tongue bite, though, so be careful you don't puff too much. I like to char twice, tamping after each one, before I give it a real light.

I mentioned tongue bite above. If you do not know what that is, you will soon; every pipe smoker learns early what that particular kind of pain is. Basically, all tobacco contains some degree of moisture. When you smoke, the moisture escapes as steam. If you smoke a pipe too hot, the heated steam will make its way into your mouth and scaled your tongue -- it feels almost as though something sharp is jabbing into your tongue.

Fortunately, tongue bite is simple to avoid. The key to avoiding it, and to getting a pleasant smoke in general, is to smoke cool. Pace your puffs slowly. When you puff, your tobacco should glow gently, but go dim almost as soon as you stop puffing -- if you ever get a self-sustaining red ember, like the "cherry" on a cigarette, you're smoking too hot. Put the pipe down for a few minutes and let it cool off, or you will feel bite. As a general rule, you should be able to hold the bowl of your pipe against your cheek for 10 seconds without it being uncomfortable. If you can't, it's too hot, and you should let it cool.

One common mistake among new smokers is to smoke too rapidly to try to keep the pipe from going out. Don't do this. If the pipe dies, let it. Pipes go out. It happens. There is absolutely nothing wrong with relighting several times during even a short smoke. A tobacco that's too wet will make this worse, but even a dry tobacco will go out if you let it.

If, like me, you're a former cigarette smoker, you'll be tempted to puff too deeply. In several foreign languages, you don't "smoke" a pipe, you "sip" it, and this is precisely what you should do. Don't take any mouth-filling drags off your pipe. Instead, just puff in a little smoke, almost like you're taking a sip of a hot drink, and let it roll around in your mouth for a while, then exhale it.

One other thing to be careful of, which I learned through my own experience more than the warnings of others, is that if you take huge drags, it becomes easier to accidentally exhale some of the smoke through your nose. Depending on your tolerance to tobacco and smoke, this can give you a sore throat. This used to happen to me, until I realized what I was doing and why. I think that this is also a problem that is more common amongst former cigarette smokers.

Now, here's a helpful tip: Once you're done with your pipe, don't shake it out right away. Instead, make sure it's extinguished, then put your thumb over the opening in the bowl and shake it around a bit. When you look inside, there should be a nice gray coat of ash on everything. You want this. This will make your cake form faster and more evenly.

Once you've shaken the bowl around, pass a pipe cleaner or three through the bit into the bowl until they start to come out clean. Then put the pipe down and let it sit until it has cooled. Never take your pipe apart when it's hot. I'm sure you've gotten that warning already, but it's worth hearing again. Once the pipe has cooled, you can take the stem off and clean the joint there a little bit. I like to leave the ash-coat in my bowl.

This probably sounds like alot of advice to dump all at once. Don't worry about it. Pipe smoking is one of those things that is best done in a zen state of mind. Sit back, relax, puff slowly, and enjoy your new hobby.
posted by jammer at 4:58 PM on July 2, 2004 [4 favorites]

(Damn, that's alot of text. Like I said... pipe smokers love to talk about their hobby.)

Finally, here are some much more subjective suggestions:

Go to the pipesmokers2 group on Yahoo groups and join. It's a very active and friendly community that will bend over backwards to help someone out. I don't really have time to keep up with all the messages, but whenever I've had a question, they've delivered an answer, and fast.

If you think you'd prefer aromatic tobaccos, try McClellands blends. They tend to be mild, and very light on the additives, although they do ship a bit wet, and can do with a little drying. Their Deep Hollow and Virginia Woods are two favorites of mine. However, even if you don't think you'll like them, you owe it to yourself to try a real English blend. Dunhill's My Mixture 965 is an excellent middle of the road choice here.

You can read lots of tobacco reviews at, uh, That's the single best site I've found for use when trying to decide on a new smoke.

Oh... one acronym you'll probably run into that might need a little explanation is "BoB" ... it simply stands for "Brother/Brotherhood of the Briar", and is just a chummy way to refer to other pipe smokers.

Buh. That's about all I can come up with right now. Relax, enjoy, and watch your wallet. You'll find youself dropping into your favorite tobacconist to look at new pipes sooner than you think...
posted by jammer at 5:06 PM on July 2, 2004 [3 favorites]

One last post... I just remembered that you mentioned corn cob pipes... they are excellent, and a great way to try new tobaccos as you don't have to worry about breaking them in, and can throw them out if they get messed up. But you should try a real briar once you decide you're going to stick with it -- they lend a distinct flavor to things that I miss when it's not there.

Like I said, though, it's all a matter of preference. Screw what everyone says, and do what you enjoy. Some people spend all their lives smoking drug store cherry tobacco out of a cheap Grabow, and never have a problem with it. More power to 'em.

OK, I shut up now, I promise.
posted by jammer at 5:09 PM on July 2, 2004 [1 favorite]

Jammer, that was a fantastic answer.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 5:23 PM on July 2, 2004

Now that's an answer!
posted by milovoo at 5:25 PM on July 2, 2004

I too have a tobacco pipe, which I enjoy. Jammer is spot on with just about all of his information. A few points - Personally, I often will exhale through my nose, but I've always taken deep drags, I actually *enjoy* the sensation jammer is describing. Also, at least in my experience, tobacco is cheap, $2 or $3 an ounce. Spend $15 and get more than you'll need for a long time.
posted by cohappy at 5:28 PM on July 2, 2004

Having never smoked a pipe, I can't confirm whether the result of tongue bite is the same as burning one's tongue (or hard palate) on hot food or drink but, if so, here's a surefire cure:

Put a few teaspoons of granulated sugar onto your tongue and work it against the roof of your mouth until the sugar has dissolved. Not only will this alleviate the pain, but also eliminates the sensation of a physical "bump" on your tongue. If the burn is particularly bad and returns, repeat the process. Nigh miraculous, this.
posted by Danelope at 6:00 PM on July 2, 2004

Fantastic answer(s), jammer. Thank you. This is why Ask MeFi works -- together, we know many times what any of us know individually.
posted by gleuschk at 1:47 PM on July 3, 2004

(No lectures, please.)

I think jammer's answer deserves a sidebar mention,
or is the general populous here too rabidly anti-smoking?

It has my vote.
posted by milovoo at 7:35 PM on July 3, 2004

« Older Firefox font foo   |   Looking for suggestions on Internet based... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.