In his 1908 apologetical work, Orthodoxy, G.K. Chesterton alludes to an idea that he had long had for a story: an English sailor sets out for an Island in the South Pacific, but through a navigational error lands back in England itself, believing that he had found an undiscovered country. In Chesterton's mind, such an error could be the happiest of accidents; the journey would join together all the excitement of traveling abroad with the joy of coming home. In many respects, Chesterton's is an apt metaphor for G.L. Pease's "Old London Series."
For the past decade, Pease has been at the forefront of the artisanal tobacco revival, regularly producing blends that set the standard for modern smokers — many of them, especially recently, have debuted in this series. I think Greg himself, however, would be the first to admit that the blending techniques showcased in the Old London tobaccos are actually a return to an older form of tobacco production. "My intention," he writes, "was to turn back the clock and use traditional methods to produce mixtures reminiscent of those that haven't been around for decades, but modern in their formulations." The common element among all of the blends, of course, is that they are pressed before finally being tinned as flakes, broken flakes, or cakes. The novelty of these blends lies in part, therefore, in their traditionalism. Like Chesterton's sailor, the smoker who sets out to explore the series will be greeted by blends that deliver both the exotic pleasures of the unknown and the familiar comforts of cherished blends.
The lightest Latakia blend in the series, Chelsea Morning is perfectly suited for a morning smoke, but I was surprised by how satisfying it was in the afternoon or even after dinner. While the Latakia is light, its presence and the blend itself are a bit more assertive than I expected based upon reviews and reputation. The blend is sweet and salty with just a touch of richness from the Perique. Many blends of this style seem to lack complexity, depth, and richness. Not Chelsea Morning. Like a good Cotes-du-Rhone, it manages to be rich and relatively light at the same time. I was also impressed by the creaminess of the smoke. I'd give this one a slight edge over Piccadilly as a light English mixture. My only real quibble with the blend was that it occasionally became a bit too peppery for my taste in an English, but this seemed to be the case only in particular pipes.
Meridian came to me highly recommended by Jeremy Reeves, head blender and production manager for Cornell & Diehl. Like Chelsea Morning, Meridian begins its life as a flake that gets tumbled until it's not quite a ribbon. The Latakia here is more prominent than in Chelsea Morning, delivering the characteristic English smokiness and leather. But it's the orientals that are really amplified. Meridian is, thus, a spicier and tangier blend than I had anticipated, sometimes to my chagrin. I suspect that there's a little Perique in the blend, as I often experienced some pepperiness on the retrohale. On the whole, Meridian is a good blend that I could easily see becoming an all day smoke for English devotees. It's in no way a bad blend, but it provided me with fewer memorable smokes than the other English mixtures in the series. However, that fact probably tells us more about the remarkable quality of the other blends than it does about Meridian itself.
There are three full Latakia blends in the Old London series: Quiet Nights, Lagonda, and Gaslight — a holy trinity of Latakia, if you will. Each manages to be big in different ways. For well over a year now, Quiet Nights has been my go to blend when I'm in the mood for a full-bodied English. I think it's better than a certain other celebrated English (one that starts with a "P" and rhymes with "Penzance"). It's a full-bodied Latakia blend, but it's certainly not monochromatic. It has a ripe, dark sweetness that reminds me of my first sip of wine at the age of 18 — a bottle that experienced oenophiles at the table assured me was really good. For me, this rich fruitiness is the blend's most distinctive characteristic. As the bowl progresses, that sweetness is balanced nicely by the piquant interplay of the Perique and Orientals. The smoke itself is silky and rich. While I find that most Latakia blends perform best in wider bowls, I enjoyed Quiet Nights most in taller, narrower chambers after fully rubbing out the flakes. A good smoke at any time, I appreciate this blend most on one of those titular quiet nights when I can get lost in thought.
Like Quiet Nights, Lagonda is a full-bodied Latakia blend. The cut resembles that of Chelsea Morning and Meridian, but even in the tin note, it's clear that there's going to be a lot more smoky bliss in Lagonda. Of the three full-bodied Latakia blends in the series, Lagonda is the most traditional — its predominant flavors are campfire, peat, and spice. There was also, surprisingly, a very subtle fruitiness that was discernible when sipped slowly. Lagonda is a big blend, but it's not a dramatic powerhouse. It is large, deliberate, and elegant. The roomnote was the most incense-like of any of the English or Balkan mixtures in the series. Among other Pease blends, it reminds me most of Abingdon in fullness and flavor profile, but the pressing and cutting of the blend certainly make it unique.
I first smoked a sample of Gaslight just before it was released in 2013, and based upon that bowl alone I added half a pound to my cellar. I immediately loved the smoky, rich, and almost petrol-like character of the blend. But I did not thoughtfully or purposefully smoke Gaslight until it appeared again in this journey through the Pease blends. As I approached Gaslight, I wondered seriously if there was anything else to say. Better palates than mine had already given the blend high marks, and it quickly shot to the top of our best-selling tobacco list after its release. I prepared the blend just as Greg recommends: I sliced the cake into very thin flakes, then rubbed it into a fine shag. I loaded a relatively small pipe and sat down to enjoy what had already become a celebrated blend. But I was in for a surprise. I'm not sure anyone has identified what I consider to be a defining component of this lovely blend. Since no one else has named it, I won't either. I don't care much for surprises, but I care deeply about preserving mysteries — something we could all do with a little more of in life. Gaslight is good. Really good. And it doesn't matter why.
There are a few Pease blends that are difficult to fit in our usual tobacco classes. Is Haddo's Delight, for example, a VaPer? Yes, in the strictest sense, but that doesn't really capture the full picture of what the blend is. I think Sextant is similar. It contains Latakia and orientals, but it is not an English or a Balkan. The most similar tobacco that I know of is Samuel Gawith's Navy Flake. I think of Sextant as a very American, artisanal take on that excellent blend. The blend is complex, with each component — Virginia, Latakia, and dark-fired — making itself known in turn. The rum harmonizes these components into a delicious whole and brings an added sweetness. I enjoy this blend best on a warm spring evening with a good cocktail, preferably something rum based like a Dark and Stormy.
The winner of our 2015 Spring Showdown, Navigator is my favorite blend in the Old London series. Red and bright Virginias, subtly sweetened by the addition of a bit of dark rum, form the base of this blend. But my favorite component is the dark fired Kentucky, which lends richness, strength, and body. As soon as the first sunny day of spring comes around, I crack open a tin of Navigator. I keep one open for the remainder of the summer and fall. Pease is justly celebrated for his skill as a blender of English and Balkan mixtures. They don't call him Lord Latakia for nothing. But his skill at working with dark fired leaf is just as successful, if less remarked upon. Navigator, Sextant, Cumberland, Sixpence, and several of the blends in the Fog City Selection (more on those to come) all employ this condimental leaf with a deft hand. No blender working today uses the leaf with more skill to better ends.
Sixpence is the youngest entrant in the Old London Series. While it has only been on the market for eight months as of this writing, Sixpence has already become a standard in many discerning smokers' rotations. I've already given my two cents on Sixpence elsewhere, but a blend this good is worth revisiting. When I first rubbed out one of the slightly sticky flakes, I was struck by just how much bright Virginia there is in this blend. Sweet and citrusy Virginias take the lead upon the initial light producing a lively, piquant smoke. While that brightness remains throughout the bowl, it is joined by the richer tones of Perique and dark fired Kentucky. These flavors are harmonized by the addition of the anise-like sweetness of the liqueur topping. I think there's great potential here for aging, making me regret that I have yet to add a substantial number of tins to my cellar.
At this point in my journey through the Pease blends, there are more tins behind me than before me. By my quick reckoning, I'm just shy of the two-thirds mark. From that perspective, I feel confident in writing that the Old London Series is Pease's best. The blends themselves are creative, unique, and enjoyable. But I suppose what I appreciate most about the series is the commitment to old school blending techniques that each tobacco in this line represents. I'm sure there are faster, cheaper, less laborious ways to produce a tobacco, perhaps even a tasty tobacco. In this series, however, we see a near fanatical approach to making blends that aren't just good, but blends that are special.
If you haven't sampled many blends from the Old London series, or haven't taken the time to smoke through the line, I'd encourage you to do so. In fact, I envy you the chance to smoke through these tobaccos for the first time. You're likely to find a blend that offers a new treat, but with all the homey goodness of days gone by.