G.L. Pease Bankside — Available Tuesday, November 8th at 6:00 p.m. ET
The Kansas City pipe show used to annually host a remarkable pipe-carving competition that created seven-day sets of North American pipes. It was good for the carvers, whose pipes were all pictured in Pipes and tobaccos magazine, which photographed each entry and published its image with the carver's contact information along with an article about the contest and the show. Each year, a different shape was chosen. The winning seven pipes were housed in a custom, hand-made pipe display commissioned by the Greater Kansas City Pipe Club. It was spectacular.
It's evident why this contest was popular. The quality and value of the pipes submitted were frankly astonishing, and the number of entries was impressive. Those entrusted to judge these pipes had to be known and trusted by the pipe community; they had to be knowledgeable and experienced and able to support their points of view.
I was working for Pipes and tobaccos at the time and was a silent observer when the panel of three judges would deliberate over the pipes. It was intensely interesting to see pipes critiqued down to their smallest details, not as a criticism of a carver, but to determine how accurately a piece adhered to the shape standards and guidelines, and to examine execution, finish, proportion, functionality, and dozens of other criteria, in the same way as a professional critic might assess a dramatic or musical performance or a culinary dish.
Unfortunately, I've never looked at another shank transition the same way since then, and a handful of pipes that I'd once thought perfect in my collection were revealed to be otherwise. That's what I get for looking too closely. Microscopic inspection is too much for any pipe. There are no perfect pipes, but there are pipes that are close. I learned much of what I know about assessing pipes and their craftsmanship from listening to the judges at the Kansas City show.
A portrait of Greg Pease by Artur Lopes
Greg Pease was one of the judges in 2015, when the shape rendered was the Cavalier. It's a difficult shape with lots of room for interpretation, and Greg particularly arrested my attention as he talked about the attributes of each pipe, the history of the shape, and the functionality of a smoking instrument with a capped reservoir for removing moisture. He was well educated on every aspect.
When it came to the final few pipes, attention to minute detail was required. Greg identified particularly excellent elements as well as some that were bothersome. He reasoned what was right for this shape in every category, expressed rational assessments in terms of funneling at the lip button, shank/bowl transition, finish execution, and myriad other considerations, and articulated his thoughts on the proportions of different elements that contributed to the pipe as a whole. It was impressive to witness.
Greg throws himself into his interests, and he's brilliant, so he's good at whatever he attempts, from building working siege machines like trebuchets to designing and building guitar amplifiers. He does everything meticulously and at a lofty level of professionalism. And he is undeterred by challenges.
His pipe expertise as demonstrated at the Kansas City show is the result of pursuing an interest to levels most would not consider, and it doesn't end there. He's designed pipes for established pipe makers like Larry Roush, Peter Heeschen, and Nate King, pipe makers who recognize Greg's artistic talents and deep understanding of pipe design. Perhaps more impressive than his pipe expertise, however, is the artistic side of his nature, one attribute of which is his aptitude for creating stunning photographs, particularly of pipes. His recent work may be seen on Instagram. His photos have influenced other pipe photographers as well, his style appreciated among the most experienced and gifted.
The point is that Greg is a modern Renaissance Man who could be successful in any profession he wished, but nothing is as important to him as pipe tobacco. Pipe tobacco takes precedence over all of his other fascinations, and his skill in the medium is profound. His curiosity is inexhaustible, and that curiosity demands meticulous experimentation. We all know the result. He has developed some of the most classic and important blends of the 21st century. Tobacco is where he focuses his attention, and tobacco is where his most impressive talent manifests.
At the Blending Table
Subjects that excite Greg are many, but it's when he's discussing tobacco that he is most invested — he's happiest as an artist, a smoker, a pipe geek, and even more so as a blender. When Greg talks about Bankside, his passion is evident. Bankside seems to have invigorated him with sparkles of glee, confidence, and the satisfaction of an artist who has delivered a memorable performance.
"In a nutshell," says Greg, "I am super stoked."
His enthusiasm is partly because Bankside hearkens to the great days of tobacco. "Pipe tobacco's golden days were in the '60s and earlier," he says, "when tobaccos seemed to be richer. There was more focus on deeper flavors. I think back to some of the things that I remember, like Three Nuns or Capstan Blue, as Virginias with a lot of character and body and depth. I wanted to move in that direction but in a way that was fresh. Bankside brings that classic profile into a modern interpretation."
That's an interesting theme in Greg's creations. The Old London series, for example, reaches another time, conjuring images of gas lamps and paneled smoking rooms. Bankside's approach is more modern, though still built on a foundation of the traditional.
This new direction for G.L. Pease tobaccos, says Greg, explores "a new approach in terms of presentation and in terms of artistic direction." As an art lover, Greg has spent much of his life behind a camera, exploring different photographic approaches to his favorite subjects. "My talent as a painter or as somebody who draws is definitely lacking, so photography has been my way of expressing myself visually. But I've always had a fascination for abstract expressionism, mid-century modern art, and even Eastern European poster art."
To that end, Bankside's tin art is reflective of mid-20th-century art. As the tobacco is a modernist reinterpretation of the classic Virginia/Perique blend, the tin itself highlights the avant-garde and defiant themes of the modern era. Bankside's name is taken from the London art district and the industrial building that houses the Tate Modern museum of art, its architecture seen abstracted on the tin.
The building projects an industrial personality. During construction, it was often referred to as an Industrial Cathedral, and its design echoes the striking combination of the raw and the refined that characterized architecture and industrial spaces throughout the 20th century. "There's an interesting juxtaposition there," says Greg. "Some of the most beautiful pieces of art in the world are housed inside this very industrial, almost Brutalist-looking brick building. And I think its contiguity is reflected in the blend, and in the art as well with muted color palettes and contrasting hard-line geometric shapes, thick brush strokes, and bold typefaces." The tin art recreates the iconic view of the Tate from across the Thames and abstracts it, converting the Millennium bridge into rolling lines, shapes, and curves.
It's an appropriate pairing of concepts: modernist art and the modern reinterpretation of the archetypal Virginia/Perique flake. From a bold, traditional canvas of Red and Bright Virginias and genuine St. James Perique from 31 Farms in St. James Parish, emerge subtle, contrasting strokes of dark-fired Kentucky and Latakia tobaccos that produce smoky undertones supporting rich notes of sweet cream and citrus zest.
A Modernist Reinterpretation of the Virginia/Perique Flake
Greg says that the idea came together quickly once he and Jeremy Reeves, Head Blender for Cornell & Diehl, started discussing it. C&D manufactures G.L. Pease tobaccos, so Jeremy was an important contributor.
"Jeremy and I work very closely on new ideas," says Greg, "and he's been great about delivering prototypes quickly and responding to changes that I want to make. We've worked together so much on different projects that we understand each other. I provide the direction I'm considering and the formula. Jeremy makes it happen, and it comes out the way I want it. I respect his attention to detail and quality control."
Their synergy worked well for Bankside, which is a blend with endless nuance. "We all have different palates and different expectations," says Greg. "For me, the refinement of this and its interplay of all the flavors of the different components is just beautifully balanced; it's creamy, it's interesting, and it has these subtle, sweet notes that present with just a bit of smokiness and a lot of complexity. There's a lot to hold your attention, and it evolves through the bowl beautifully. When I smoked the prototype blend, the main problem I had was that I'd reach the bottom of the bowl too soon, when I still wanted more. I hope other people find something similar in their experiences with it."
As for aging potential, "it's going to be fabulous. Just based on how long I've had the prototypes and how I've been tasting them throughout the months, it's going to be fabulous. Two or three years from now, it's going to be just magical. Over the long term, too. I see it as something that's great in the short term but will also hold up nicely over long aging of five-to-10 years. After 10 years, changes will be very slow. It's always fascinated me how, after the tobacco is put in the tin, the first few months make a huge difference, and then it starts to slow down after two-to-five years."
Among the qualities of G.L. Pease blends is their remarkable balance. "Balance is a quality that I always strive for in a blend, but I was really careful when creating Bankside not to overwhelm the subtle character of the Virginias or the Perique. Perique is an interesting tobacco. It can be very dominant in a blend, or it can be an enhancer of a blend in very small amounts. I wanted the Perique to come through but not dominate the smoking experience, the same way I approached the Latakia as well. I wanted it present but not dominant, and that's really where the balance originates."
Bankside contains excellent flue-cured Brights and mature Reds with genuine Saint James Perique, providing remarkably rich, dark fruit flavors. Then there's a little Burley to stabilize the blend, and a splash of Cavendish for body and to help carry those remarkable flavors. A trace of Latakia and Dark-Fired Kentucky provide a whisper of beguiling smokiness — not strident, not insistent as in many Latakia blends, but attenuated, delicate, and refined.
"The Latakia is very subdued," says Greg. "It's almost like pouring a great bourbon into a smoked glass. It reveals notes of oak and vanilla, and there's a tiny hint of char, just a glimmer of smokiness. But it's an important supporting element. Latakia and Dark-Fired Kentucky share characteristics, but they're also very different because of their base leaves and the woods used in the fire-curing process. I've always found Dark-Fired to have a beautiful, very floral character that Latakia doesn't. It adds a note of that deeper, almost sweet smokiness that Latakia has, that leathery character. It adds an extra dimension that opens up beautifully in the smoking experience and in the aroma, which is wonderful in the tin and in the room."
The pressing process for this flake tobacco is also an essential component. "It marries all that complexity nicely, in a way that interweaves all of the elements, so the experience evolves. The pressing jump-starts the aging process a little bit as well. Out of the gate, it feels more like aged tobacco. It's so nicely integrated, and it holds together really beautifully; it's very cohesive."
Bankside is a tobacco that is more than the sum of its parts, and it provides a smoking experience beyond cursory anticipation. It will appeal to lovers of Virginia/Periques, of course, and additionally may appeal to those who gravitate to Latakia mixtures, though that smoky element is not to the degree most are accustomed to. Subtlety and contrast are the defining characteristics of this blend. There is sweetness, "but it isn't emphasized," says Greg. "It's balanced by a definite meaty, savory quality, so it never becomes shrill or loud. Far from it. It's mellow, subdued, easy to smoke, but packed with enough complexity for an almost new experience whenever it's enjoyed."
The Zeitgeist Collection
Greg is so enthusiastic about the new art direction and blend personality that he intends to expand on it. Bankside is only the first blend for a planned series: the G.L Pease Zeitgeist Collection, a series of tobaccos evoking the spirit of different modern periods.
"The Collection will be a celebration of culture more than of a specific style of or movement in art, and more expansive than that," Greg says. "I think that every blend in the Zeitgeist series will represent or acknowledge a moment in time and space, connecting with a particular location, period, or cultural milieu. It's an artist series in some respects, but it's more. There are plenty of ideas for the future."
Though Greg has not revealed specifics about future blends to join Bankside in the Zeitgeist Collection, his overarching themes will provide clues. Bankside will appeal to those who already know the refinement of G.L. Pease tobaccos, though it is a unique experience. Many different audiences will appreciate the blend's deft interplay and balance of components.
For those who primarily pursue Latakia blends, Bankside may nurture an appreciation for Virginias previously unexplored. For Virginia smokers, it's a blend that can introduce Latakia as a delicate flavoring rather than a dominant force. Those who smoke primarily Aromatics may find the sweet synthesis of divergent components to be compelling and even irresistible. Best of all, we have a new tobacco to explore while waiting for additional blends in the Zeitgeist Collection, each arriving from a distant time or place or culture, and all originating from the imagination of Gregory Pease.
Bankside. Available Tuesday, November 8th at 6:00 p.m. ET