Farewell McClelland

I'm a Virginia/Perique smoker, and my daily smoke for the past ten years has been McClelland's Beacon, a flake of unsurpassed complexity and clean, pure taste. It hasn't been an outrageously popular blend—I think I probably bought more than anyone else over the years. It is my friend and I'll miss it desperately.

If you're like me, the news of McClelland's closing is devastating. Change is hard, and now I need to find a new favorite daily smoke. Castello's "Fiammata" is a contender, as is Escudo, C&D's Sunday Picnic (it ages great), Solani's 633, and Luxury Bullseye Flake by Stokkebye. But it will take some adjustment. I'll need to retrain my mouth, and that's something I've failed at in the past, such as when I tried to retrain it not to blurt out whatever I'm thinking at a given moment. Had I succeeded, I'd probably now be wealthy, living on my own island. It would be called the Island of Chuckoslavakia and smoking would be required. And I would send operatives out into the world to track down and purchase ALL the Beacon.

But reality is harder. McClelland was an irreplaceable boutique tobacco manufacturer and had carved its own specific niche into our community. As highly professional as the company became, it was launched with modest means. McClelland started with five Virginia and five Oriental blends. With no factory, everything was done in a basement by the company's three employees: Carl Ehwa; his wife, Mary (who would much later become Mary McNiel); and their close friend, Bob Benish.

Carl Ehwa is perhaps best known as the author of one of the very finest books on the subject, The Book of Pipes and Tobaccos, published in 1974 and out of print for some time now, though copies may occasionally be found online. Carl and Mary wrote it. I suspect Mary did more of the work than she lets on, though she would never admit it. I don't believe she has ever uttered a word that might potentially diminish another's accomplishments.

Carl lost his job at an electronics store in 1969, and decided it was time to pursue one of his passions: tobacco. He started working for Fred Diebel's tobacco shop in Kansas City. It wasn't long before he was developing new tobacco blends and soon found himself in charge of the small Deibel's tobacco factory. In 1977 he and Mary decided to start their own tobacco manufacturing company.

Bob Benish joined them and they got to work in Carl's grandparents' basement, calling it McClelland Tobacco Company after Carl's grandfather, Dr. McClelland. The famous whale emblem used by McClelland on its regular series tobaccos comes from Mary's family. In 1915, when her father was a young man of 17, he travelled to the U.S. with no money and speaking no English. In the third month of the ocean voyage, his confidence was waning and it seemed immigrating may not have been a good idea, when a pod of whales appeared. "It changed his fear to anticipation," says Mary. Those whales were the most beautiful things he'd ever seen, and his determination to succeed in America was restored.

Symbolic of hope, beauty, rarity, and the freedom to go anywhere and do anything, those whales matched the hopes of this new company and the kind of tobacco it would produce, so the whale became the McClelland emblem.


In 1980, Bob Benish left to pursue his dream of being a baker of fine pastires, and Mike McNiel joined the company. McClelland's packaging also changed in 1980. Previously, a paper overwrap with a wax seal had been used. It was a beautiful presentation, but Mary says it was also used to conceal an obvious flaw: The only way to open a can of McClelland tobacco was with a can opener. But now they found pop-top cans and started stamping the cans with the same nomenclature used throughout the rest of the company's years. Collectors and those who like aged tobacco find it helpful to accurately date a can of McClelland tobacco using the (usually) six numbers stamped on the bottom of each can. The first two numbers represent the product number, such a "27" for Mixture #27. The next two numbers are an internal code designating the batch number, and the last two numbers are the year the tobacco was canned.

In 1982, Carl Ehwa, at age 36, was weight lifting when he suffered a brain aneurism. Afterward, he displayed a gradual deterioration and his personality changed dramatically. His interests changed and he was no longer enthusiastic about tobacco. He took a separate path, leaving for other pursuits until his death at age 50.

Carl's departure was a devastating loss, but the company continued and years passed. They moved out of the McClelland basement in 1985, due mainly to insurance issues, but it was time. In 1989 they struck some hard times. Mike attributes their survival to the kindness of larger tobacco companies. "We would have been gone in '89 if the guys at Standard Commercial hadn't taken an interest." That help took the shape of sourcing extra-high quality leaf and many financial considerations. "Just from kindness," says Mike. "They liked us and what we were doing."

In 1993, Mary and Mike McNiel were married, and in 1998 they moved to a larger building. McClelland began to thrive. Mary says that the primary interest of McClelland is in developing new products. "It's the creative process that is so invigorating,"

Mary and Mike McNiel of McClelland worked like sled dogs for more than 40 years to maintain the highest quality possible of their products. They worked insane hours, seven days a week. Mike would sit up for 15 hours at a time just making sure the moisture content was right on a particular blend, for example, checking it every five minutes, adjusting fans, being compulsive, which is what was required. For the past several years he has worked in severe pain because of a back injury that would have required too much time away from work to fix.

Mary was the tasting genius of the operation. She can differentiate subtleties that few others recognize, and every blend had to meet with her full approval. "Without Mary," says Mike, "I'd be on the street begging for nickels to buy tobacco." She invented Frog Morton, one of their most popular contributions to pipe tobacco. "I added the Staved Frog Morton," says Mike, "but I needed her. I couldn't get it right. I was smoking and tweaking, going crazy, and finally Mary tasted it and said, 'Do you have some stoved Red Virginia? Go get it. Here's how you should mix it.' And it was exactly right, exactly what I was missing."


Virginia Flakes are probably the most significant contribution the company has made. No one stoved Red Virginias before it, and no one could process high-sugar content leaf in the same way as McClelland. Dark Star, #27 and Blackwoods Flake are all outstanding examples.

Four decades is a long run. It was time to close McClelland's doors for several reasons, including the fact that the McNiels are well into retirement age, new regulations of unknown specific character in the near future, Mike's issues with his back ("I gotta start taking better care of myself") and the changes in availability of the tobacco leaf required by McClelland's proprietary, old world processes.

"We depended on the old ways," says Mike. "But those ways are gone." When subsidies to tobacco farmers stopped, so did the smaller farmers who harvested tobacco by hand, going through the fields several times and picking only those leaves at perfect ripeness. Now harvesting machines do that work. Tobacco auctions stopped in 2000, after the Master Tobacco Settlement made them obsolete. Tobacco became more standardized, with the subtle differences once available no longer taken into full account, differences that McClelland required for maintaining the smoking characteristics that built its reputation.

The McNiels decided to disband the company rather than sell it, primarily because no one else could do things the way they do in a normal business environment. Even should they spend six months training new owners, McClelland could never be the same, and for them, the reputation of the McClelland name is more important than money.

The future will be much different for the McNiels. Mary, who did the artwork for many of the company's tins, including the Frog Morton series, may be attending the Kansas City Art Institute in the very near future. And Mike, who loves "the so-called lower animals," will be working at the Kansas City Zoo. "It's one of my favorite places on Earth," he says. "I called them up and said, 'I'm going to work for you, and I'm going to pay you $10 an hour for the privilege.'" They accepted. It's hard to say no to Mike McNiel.

Pipe smokers the world over owe a great deal to McClelland. It's a company that forged new dimensions in pipe tobacco, and provided untold hours of contentment for pipesmokers of the past two generations. We are fortunate indeed that Mike and Mary McNiel applied their substantial talents to developing tobacco products unlike those ever seen before. We at Smokingpipes.com wish to thank them for their decades of service to the hobby, and I'd like to add my personal thanks, not only for the fine tobaccos, but for the friendship of two wonderfully engaging people. Others around the world share these sentiments, I'm sure. We will all miss McClelland.


Category:   Tobacco Talk
Tagged in:   Editorial McClelland Tobacco

Comments

    • Michael T on March 9, 2018
    • I can't seem to find out anywhere why a producer of some of my favorite tobaccos that I'll have to learn to live without when my supply runs out could go out of business. Please let me know what happened. Many thanks for the pleasure of your great tobaccos.

    • Adam O'Neill on March 9, 2018
    • @Michael T It's not so much that they went out of business, but rather decided to close their doors due to a number of outside factors. We'll definitely miss their blends as well though, Michael.

    • CSM on March 9, 2018
    • I believe they couldn't get their hands on the high quality leaf they were looking for anymore. Due to government garbage affecting the industry through strict regulation and growers becoming fewer. They lost their epic red VA supply. Syrian Latakia ran out. Combination of things I think. At least that's what I know. They'd rather close shop than deal with the FDA hassle of new prdoucts and decline in quality of product.

    • Michael T on March 10, 2018
    • I had a feeling the government might have had something to do with it. I hadn't thought of the quality of leaf problem. It's a shame that such a harmless and peaceful hobby is being harassed so badly. There are plenty of real harmful places for them to look for trouble than pipe smoking.

    • Marc on March 10, 2018
    • I have to wonder how all of McClellands blends suddenly disappeared from online stores and reappeared on ebay. I smell a rat, to say the least. One with dirty cheese.

    • David Mandelstamm on March 12, 2018
    • Sometimes life is just no fair! McClelland had become my favorite, due to the unmatched quality, variety of blends, and a certain rare finesse, especially with their Virginia tobaccos. Few other blenders have been able to produce such flavorful and agreeable tobaccos while keeping within the mild to medium range. While I enjoy SOME of the C&D and Pease blends, many are just too strong for my taste (often just plain harsh!) Hopefully, I will figure things out, but I will miss Dominican Glory Maduro, as well as the 2015 and 2020 bulk blends. Not to mention, Frog Morton, with its soft and refined Latakia leaf.

    • Phil Yearout on March 12, 2018
    • I searched for years and finally found "my Arcadia". I frankly do not know what I will do without British Woods.

    • Michael T on March 12, 2018
    • I'm not sure if they can or will sell they're tobacco recipes but it sure would be a wonderful thing for all us lovers of the McClelland blends. Let's keep our fingers crossed.

    • Peter Beetier on March 12, 2018
    • Would you suggest some blends that might make a good substitute for the Frog Morton void. I recently got back to smoking a pipe after a 47 year abstinence. Frog Morton Cellar was my welcome back tobacco and has been my favorite ever since. I recently got to love the other three as well. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

    • Michael T on March 12, 2018
    • Honestly I'm not sure. I've smoked so many different blends that I can't remember them all. Quite often for info I go to TobaccoReviews.com and see what other people have to say about a blend and sometimes they will say what it is similar too. Also I'm sure that the good and knowledgeable folks at Smokingpipes would be happy to make some suggestions. If you find one please let us all know. Thanks

    • Jack Smith on March 13, 2018
    • What happened to Bob?

    • Chuck S. on March 13, 2018
    • Jack Smith: Oops. I omitted that important information, but have put it in the text now. Bob Benish left McClelland in 1980 when presented with an opportunity to work in a field he loved even more than tobacco: Baking. He was an expert pastry chef.

    • Mando Jimmy on March 17, 2018
    • Thank you for this. Amid all of the clamor about McClelland's demise, it's good to know some more of the history of the company and the people behind it. Their products have been a welcome addition to a lot of walks around the neighborhood and pleasant evenings on the back porch.

      As much as I'll miss their blends, I'm sort of glad that they didn't sell to one of the "big boys" like they probably could have, just to see the quality drop.

      I was lucky enough to find a copy of The Book of Pipes and Tobaccos in a used bookstore a few years back. Terrific book, beautifully done.

      I will not take this opportunity to gloat about the unopened tin of Beacon from 2009 I have in the cellar.

    • Marc from Norfolk, Virginia on March 18, 2018
    • Tudor Castle is my favorite pipe tobacco and I will miss it tremendously. I applaud the McNeils for believing that their reputation is more important than money. I wish them well in the future endeavors.

    • publictakeover on March 21, 2018
    • Obviously, blaming the government for McClelland tobaccos closing their doors is a mistake. It has NOTHING to do with the government. These are really the top shelf of all the American pipe tobaccos, because of the quality of the leaf and the work and attention the blenders put in to making their products.
      Beacon was the first McClelland blend I smoked, back in the '90s. That was one hell of a delicious flake! I'll never forget the tin aroma! Perfect.
      Fortunately I stocked up on Anniversary and Virginias/Orientals before they closed up shop. Once the word started getting out that they were closing, everything vanished from the stores' shelves.
      I had hoped C&D would reach McC's level of quality, but I don't think they quite have, although C&D make a number of fantastic blends.
      It was the overall quality that always distinguished McClelland's from all the others.
      It's cool that these folks have new chapters open in their lives, too. I wish them all the best life has to offer.

    • ImJustPeachy on April 21, 2018
    • I just logged on to buy a few more tins of Dark Star and Old Dog, and I’m greeted with this horrific news? I’m consumed by a combination of rage and depression over this. Makes me want to give up pipe smoking all together.

      Shit...I feel like shit.

    • Joe on May 5, 2018
    • any suggestions for a replacement for Beacon Extra? I sure can't find anything that compares.....

    • patrick oneill on May 6, 2018
    • I smoked 5100 for over 25 years. does anyone know of a suitable replacement?

    • Mike Di Peppino on May 9, 2018
    • My admiration for the McNiels and their brand is deep, nearly awe.

      Rarely does the closing of a business or the loss of products bring a lump to my throat. McClelland closing shop has me choked-up.

      I'll miss the release of Christmas Cheer every late summer, St. James Woods, 2015, Beacon, and several club blends. I'll miss them dearly.

      Even more, I will miss the weight, the imprint, the gravitational force of the McNiels' endeavor itself. It is hard to reasonably doubt that tobacco manufacturers and blenders, small concerns and the large consortium alike, envied and coveted the purity of the craft and output McClelland gave us and improved upon, year after year, decade upon decade.

      One more laud. The public self-control and class exhibited by Mary and Mike towards anonymous tobacco "experts" on the internet and social media is also a fine example to emulate.
      I qualify with "public self-control" because I do not have the pleasure knowing either Mike or Mary. I do not doubt their private comportment is any less appropriate than their public personas.

      Well done, McClelland Tobacco Company. You will be fondly missed.

    • Jon on July 18, 2018
    • Beautiful article

    • Michael on September 9, 2018
    • Does anyone have a large batch they want to sell at a discount. Perhaps 20-50 100 gram tins of Frog Morton's Cellar ?

      Also - if the main issue is being unable to secure quality labor intensive tobacco why not just import Virginia from Eastern Europe?

      The import tariff could be as high as 350% (you can thank the US tobacco industry for the trade protectionism) however the price overseas would make up for it. People always pay more for quality. Always. McClelland has enough of a following where the tins could sell at $20, $30 per tin - and it would be still profitable. People are paying $50-$100 on Ebay right now.

      The agent would simply be overseas vs. at a U.S. Auction.

      I put this forward as a solution to continuing the core Frog Morton blends. Cellar, Bayou, Froggie on the town, etc.

      These blends are of the highest quality and cannot be replaced. However, you can still import high quality tobacco.

    • Dave on October 1, 2018
    • No more Captain Cool. Not sure how I’ll carry on.

    • Dale E on February 18, 2019
    • I’ve been a Diebel’s customer since I bought my first pipe and tobacco at their old Metcalf South store in the fall of 1971. I quit buying Diebel’s blends because after Carl and Bob left my favorites were no more, and I felt that the others had gone downhill. Just my own feeling. And, some of the staff who I relied upon and helped me with my new hobby (Doug Dean, David Windsor) defected to Open their own concerns. I still miss those early days when it was a new adventure.

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