An Interview with Russ Ouellette, Tobacconist Extraordinare

Image courtesy of Pipes Magazine, provided by Russ Ouellette. All rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Pipes Magazine, provided by Russ Ouelette. All rights reserved.

With an illustrious career as perhaps one of the world’s premiere tobacconists, it was my pleasure to interview Russ Ouellette for our special feature.  You’ve probably tasted at least one of his blends if your interest in the fine hobby of pipe smoking has taken you away from over-the-counter brands; with more than 25 years worth of experience in his field, he is one of the most highly in-demand tobacconists in the world.  I know that I even I, personally as an only-occasionally pipe smoker, have sampled and enjoyed a few of his many creations.  He’s the resident tobacco expert at Pipes & Cigars, and you can peruse his articles on the ins-and-outs of pipe tobacco and the blending process, or even email him to ask him a question.  Coordinating our schedules was difficult; as you can imagine, he’s a busy man, and this all took place while I was doing National Novel Writing Month, so we had to settle for an email interview.  However, I found him to friendly, approachable, and always happy to discuss his passion.

So tell me a little about yourself! Who is Russ Ouellette the man?

I’m a longtime pipe smoker who began blending tobaccos in the mid to late seventies. I’m originally from the area around Albany, NY.  I now live in Bethlehem, PA.  I’m 58 years old, with four grown daughters. My usual tag line is “Cheers”! My favorite hobby is golf.

I don’t really know how one becomes a tobacconist. What made you decide on this career?  How long did it take you to study for it?  Is there a period of apprenticeship?

There’s no formal training to do what I do. I picked up the information here and there, a bit at a time. I did this because it’s one of the loves of my life.

Well, that strikes me as the best reason to do anything!  And you’ve developed quite a reputation as a tobacconist and maker of fine tobacco blends. What do you think is the secret of your success?

I’d credit my palate. I know what tastes right to me. Little else enters into it.

Spoken like a true gentleman of the briar!  So, you do blends for a lot of different labels; Standard Tobacco Co. of Pennsylvania, Hearth and Home (from Pipes & Cigars and,) Match, Brigadier Black, Missouri MeerschaumNew York Pipe Club, Sherlock Holmes Pipe Club (which I understand has been incorporated into Scotty’s Bulk Blend, according to the forums,) Spectre Pipe Tobacco, and your own brand. Did they come to you or did you approach them?

Hearth & Home was my creation, based upon the wants of the public. The Marquee Series was my vision of the best I could create. The RO Series are based upon my own tastes. I approached Missouri Meerschaum, but Standard Tobacco of Pennsylvania approached me.

So let’s say that a pipe smoker wanted to purchase your blends but could only do so from one of the companies you blend for. In order to help him make an informed decision, in simple terms, how would you describe the overarching “characteristic” element of each of the labels you blend for?  In other words, what differentiates a Russ Ouellette tobacco from a Hearth and Home tobacco?

There are no overarching characteristics. I blend to the wants of our customers. If there’s one thing that I strive for, it’s balance.

Makes sense to me!  Okay, so how do you come up with the creative names you use for your blends? (Some of my favourite names were Fire Storm, Cerberus, and War Horse.)

We have fun playing around with names. Sometimes they’re whimsical, other times they’re meant to invoke a feeling.

Perhaps you could give us some insight into your process. From start to finish, please tell us how a Russ Ouellette masterpiece is created.

It depends upon what I’m trying to accomplish. If I’m trying to fill a hole in our lineup or making a “clone”, I have a clear image of what I want. Other times, I’m looking for a “feel” more than anything else.

Not going to give away any of your trade secrets, eh? 😉  Okay, fair enough.  What is your personal favourite of the blends you have created thus far, and why?

In English style blends, it’s Magnum Opus, my recreation of my old favorite. My newest blend, under my own brand is Fire Storm, which I enjoy because it reminds me of a Nicaraguan cigar.

Probably explains why that’s one of my favourites too!  Cool!  So what’s your favourite pipe?

My favorite is a Gabrieli bamboo from my good friend, Dan Chlebove.

Nice!  And do you have PAD like most of the other pipe smokers I know?

Of course. If I had unlimited resources, I’d own thousands of pipes.

What do you generally smoke yourself?

Latakia blends and Virginia/Periques, mostly.

Makes sense, considering how many of your tobaccos are known for those elements.  Okay, what is your favourite tobacco aside from the ones you’ve created?

Probably Dunhill London Mixture.

Yeah, I like that one too (mmm, Turkish!)  So what’s next for you? What can we expect in the near future, and where do you see yourself in five or ten years?

God only knows. I’m always looking forward to the next challenge.

And I would expect nothing else from one of the premiere blenders in the business!  Well, thank you so much for spending some time answering these.  We appreciate it!

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