Borkum Riff Bourbon Whiskey, yet again

I did a review of this about a year ago. I almost never – OK, never – throw out tobacco. Even if I don’t like it, I’ll stick it in a jar and let it sit. Sometimes I find that my tastes or my technique change, and I like it better later on. Sometimes I find that some age really improves the blend. And honestly, some I tried early on I just didn’t really know how to smoke yet. So last night I broke out the jar of Borkum Riff and tried it again.

Once again, it started out innocuously enough. As I’ve changed my smoking habits quite a bit, I took it easier this time around and paid attention to keeping it burning relatively cool and slow. I’m still not a fan. I checked to see what’s in this blend; they say Virginia and Cavendish, but it used to contain Burley as well. I would believe that. I’m really finding that I’m not a big fan of Burley, and this seems to have some in it. I don’t know. What I do know is why it scores less than 2 stars on that site, and about the same on It really isn’t very good. I’m down to the last 3/4 ounce or so. It may just get dumped into the scraps jar, or I may try mixing it with some VA flake or something to see if it’s got anything at all to offer.

Overall, I think it may at its core just be some fairly decent tobacco ruined by heavy-handed topping.

Bye-Bye, Bimmer

After a couple years of BMW ownership I parted ways with my ’18 540i XDrive last Friday. Its replacement is a 2020 F150 Platinum.

The G30 BMW was a nice enough car. It never was the equal of the Mercedes in sound suppression, comfort, or speed. It was however perfectly reliable, with none of the increasingly irritating shortcomings of the much older Mercedes. Everything worked; the cruise didn’t panic at random times, the radio and nav worked well, and it did get about 30 MPG at highway speeds. I never spent a single day fixing anything; it just worked. Of course it was an 11 year newer car that had been properly maintained, so that was certainly to be expected. So the ownership experience was much better, even if the car was not quite in the same class – rightly so, since the S-class is a full on luxury sedan and the 5-series is an executive sedan.

The F150 is a mix of pure utility and unabashed opulence. The cabin is big enough to pitch a tent. The electronics are pretty much up to date — not perfect, but quite good. It’s remarkably quiet in the cabin. I can of course use it as a pickup, which is really one of the two things that made me pull the trigger on swapping out the BMW for the truck. The other was ride comfort on long trips. While the BMW was quite comfortable (as was the Mercedes before it), that comfort was good for about 2-3 hours at most. After that I’d start to get some pain in my right hip, and by the time we hit the 4 hour mark it was on fire. A 14 hour day driving the old F150 (which needs a new home still) had no such discomfort.

The climate controls in the Ford are a welcome change, too. Both of the German cars had rather anemic air conditioning that struggled with full sun and hot days. The F150 will just about freeze you out if that’s what you want, and it’s the very first vehicle in which the seat cooling/ventilation actually works well enough that you can feel it. I’ve also got little things that American car makers include almost as stock items and for inexplicable reasons the Germans either refuse to allow at all, or charge stupid amounts of money to enable – like remote start and Apple Car Play.

Yes, I’ll miss the acceleration of the V-12 and the I-6; even the 375 HP Ecoboost doesn’t haul the huge bulk of the pickup all that fast. It’s plenty quick for a pickup, of course, and I’m OK with trading some of the neck-snapping capability that was so seldom used, for the cargo space that is frequently required. I even get to do some towing tomorrow.

Tobacco harvest, 2023

Yesterday (10/6/23) I harvested all of my remaining tobacco plants, as there were frost warnings for overnight and this morning. I cut most of the VA leaves off the stalks and bundled them until I can get my curing kiln finished and get them in there. I leaf harvested some of the Turkish, then stalk harvested the rest – whether I hang the stalks or cut the leaves ff remains to be seen. I am keeping the VA and Samsun separate, though I haven’t kept the bright VA separate from the TN Red Leaf or Ontario Bold.

Hearth & Home White Knight

This has become one of my favorite tobaccos. It’s a Balkan of substance; not overpowering with Latakia or Oriental, but a good blend that just ticks all the boxes for me. It’s got that unique flavor from the Oriental tobacco that I find I really enjoy. The tin note is a delight as well, at least if you’re into smoky, English and Balkan style mixtures..

It’s very close in its flavor to Sutliff’s Balkan Sobranie Original Mix Match. The differences between the two are subtle but do exist. I’ll digress for just a moment and talk about both of these. White Knight is a tinned tobacco, sold under the Hearth & Home brand. It’s a consistent, high quality ribbon cut product that is perfect (other than needing a bit of drying time) right out of the tin.

The bulk product (which I’ll refer to as BSOMM from here out, just to save a few electrons) is sold by Sutliff. Sutliff also makes Hearth & Home blends. The two tobaccos come from the same manufacturer. It’s been argued that BSOMM and White Knight are one and the same; I disagree. While the two have very similar flavor profiles, White Knight seems to be a little higher quality product. It’s usually cut better and more consistently, and its flavor is more fully developed. BSOMM seems e bit less carefully produced; the last bag I opened had a huge clump of uncut leaf in it. I’ve found chunks of stem (well, OK, not a stem; more likely a chunk of vein or midrib) and other inconsistencies that I don’t find nearly as often in White Knight. The flavor is also just a little bit milder; it may do well after a couple of months in a jar.

As I write this, I’ve been working my way through a couple ounces of BSOMM and a tin of White Knight, both received a couple of months back from I’ve been alternating the two for comparison. Why do that? Well, in the quantities I would order for long term use, White Knight costs roughly three times as much per ounce. The question is whether the savings is worth the differences between the two. Honestly, I can find so little difference between them that I’ll probably keep a jar full of BSOMM on hand after the White Knight is gone.

Using Nomorobo to block calls in Asterisk

Nomorobo is a fantastic service. It’s not perfect; plenty of illegal phone spammers are using throwaway numbers and/or illegally spoofing caller ID numbers to make calls that appear to be from random numbers — usually in your own area code. Short of using a strict whitelist, I don’t see a real way to get rid of those. Using Nomorobo, though, will dramatically cut down on the number of junk calls you will receive.

There’s a little problem, though… while many phone providers offer the service (we’ve been using Ooma), they don’t appear to offer the service to individuals or small businesses who run their own phones.

I ran my own Asterisk PBX for several years, supporting our home phones as well as a separate line I used for work, and even a toll-free number for my side business. Life was good for quite a while, but eventually it got to be quite a hassle trying to keep up with all the junk calls. Then my VOIP carrier changed their pricing to make them much less attractive from a cost standpoint. Eventually we switched to Ooma. They’ve been good, but not without issues. The Telo Air occasionally loses communication with the mothership, and if you don’t see the red light you won’t know that your phones aren’t working. The cost has gone up, now running over $20 per month for the Ooma Premier, which includes what I consider to be some pretty basic features — like call blocking, for example.

Now we have some family members who need a home phone, but I just can’t bear to see them get roped into paying really stupid monthly costs for a simple phone line. That, and our Ooma service is getting more expensive and (it seems) less reliable by the year. Time to switch back. But how can I keep Nomorobo? It would be a tough sell to do without that!

Well, Twilio to the rescue! They offer a Nomorobo lookup API that costs a tiny amount per lookup — $.003, or 0.3 cents per incoming call lookup. Conversely, that’s 333 lookups per dollar. Not bad, I’ll gladly pay that to avoid taking telemarketing or scam robocalls. Now, if only we could get Nomorobo to list all of the numbers used by political “push polls”, recorded messages, and other political campaign silliness!

Twilio’s call rates are not outrageously high either, and their monthly costs for DIDs (phone numbers) are pretty reasonable. The only thing I’ll fault them on is too much hassle to set up CNAM for your outbound calls, so unless you go through that process everything shows up as the number only with no CID name. Flowroute is MUCH better for this, so I route most of my outbound calls through them.

So — how to get Asterisk to do the lookup? After several hours of playing around with this, I found that it’s pretty easy to do. While it wouldn’t be terribly helpful (or smart) for me to post my entire dialplan here, I’ll include enough to get you going. I put this very near the top of the context I use for incoming calls from PSTN trunks. There’s no sense in burning CPU cycles on a call if you’re just going to drop it anyway.

First, you’ll need a Twilio account. They’re even nice enough to give you some credit on your account if you’re new, and it’s enough for quite a bit of learning and development work. I funded my account so I can use them for international calls — they’re ridiculously cheap for most destinations. They’re also a good solution if you want to get DIDs in countries outside the US.

Once you have a Twilio account established, use your account SID and auth token to set CURLOPT() with your username and password. This will be used in the next line to make the curl call to the API:

same = n,Set(CURLOPT(userpwd)=username:password)

Now, make the call to Twilio’s API to get the spam score. The result is a block of JSON that gets saved as TWILIO_RESULT:

same = n,Set(TWILIO_RESULT=${CURL("${CALLERID(num)}?AddOns=nomorobo_spamscore")})

Since we’ve got a block of JSON, we’ll need to extract the one wee bit we need. Fortunately Asterisk has a solution for that as well, so we don’t need to resort to anything drastic like a shell command:

same = n,Set(SPAMSCORE=${JSON_DECODE(TWILIO_RESULT,add_ons.results.nomorobo_spamscore.result.score)})

Now we use that result to drop the call if it’s spam. A simple Hangup(2) tells the caller that their call was rejected:

same = n,GotoIf($[ ${SPAMSCORE} = 1]?dropcall)

Later in the dialplan, after we’ve done the whole “call the user, drop to voicemail if they don’t answer, yadda yadda yadda” we have this:

same = n(dropcall),Hangup(21)

The Hangup(21) tells that their call was rejected. There are other, even more creative codes to use… like these (list courtesy of

  • 1 – Unallocated number
  • 22 – Number changed
  • 27 – Destination out of order
  • 38 – Network out of order

Kramer’s Father Dempsey

I’ve tried a number of English and Balkan blends over the past several months. For those who don’t know, different types of tobacco each have their own unique flavor profile. Virginia is quite different from Burley; Latakia is quite distinct, and Turkish or Oriental leaves are different still. There are differences in the leaves themselves, then there are differences in how the leaves are dried, cured, and so on.

An English blend is typically Virginia tobacco blended with Latakia, which is a smoke cured leaf that comes from Cyprus. It was at one time produced mainly in Syria, but due to decades of war and other factors Syrian Latakia hasn’t been available in quite a while, and quite likely never will be again. The tobacco leaves are cured by hanging them in a shed with a fire pit burning various types of resinous, fragrant wood native to the region where the tobacco is grown. This produces a very distinct, rich, smoky aroma that carries over to the flavor of the tobacco when smoked. If you’re a fan of Islay Scotch (or even Johnny Walker Black Label), you’ll like Latakia.

If you add some Oriental or Turkish to it, you’ve got a Balkan blend. Orientals are small leaf, sun cured tobaccos and are quite fragrant. They tend to have a slight note of what I can only describe as an “incense” like flavor. That flavor is present to varying degrees in different blends, and when it’s there’ it’s quite distinct. My favorites have a hint of it, not an overpowering amount.

I ordered an ounce* of Father Dempsey to try just based on having seen quite a few favorable reviews in various places. Based on the descriptions I was reading, it seemed like it might be a blend I’d enjoy. It’s typically described as a full bodied English blend. One of the more raved about English blends is called Squadron Leader, which I’ve tried. It’s nice, but honestly I find it a bit too mild. I’m not a fan of overly strong tobacco, especially those blends with high nicotine content, but I do smoke English blends for the flavor. Father Dempsey is a notch or two more full bodied, and I find that it really holds its own.

I do love my Balkan blends; there are times when I really want that unique, slightly incense-y flavor of the Oriental leaf. Then there are times when I’m just in the mood for something with a little different character. That’s when Father Dempsey, or Squadron Leader, or some Navy flake or even an aromatic like 1-Q is nice to have on hand. I have to say, though, that I may end up keeping a good stock of Father Dempsey on hand. I could see it being something I’d reach for pretty regularly. I really enjoy an assertive Balkan like White Knight when I’ve got the time to relax and enjoy it. There are times, however, when something a little less “forward” is called for, and Father Dempsey seems to be a blend that just fits in perfectly. I can see why people tend to rave about it.

* If you’re not a pipe smoker, the idea of ordering an ounce may not mean much to you. Pipe tobacco is generally available in either tins or pouches, or in bulk. Tins and pouches are generally 50 grams (1.75 oz), with some exceptions. 100g and larger tins and tubs are not uncommon. Bulk tobacco can be ordered by the ounce, or even by the pound. An ounce is pretty much a sample size. At a bit over 28 grams, and roughly 3-5 grams per bowl, an ounce bag will give you enough tobacco for roughly six to maybe ten or twelve average sized pipe bowls.

Hearth & Home Black House

I tried this tobacco based on some reviews and suggestions from r/PipeTobacco Reddit users. It’s supposed to be a close match for the original Balkan Sobranie, though most people think White Knight (also from Hearth & Home) is better. From what I’ve read, H&H developed two different blends to try to match the old Sobranie blend. One was wildly popular with pipe smokers, the other won an award from other tobacco blenders. Or so the story goes.

It’s a ribbon cut mixture, with a good smoky tin note. I’ve smoked about half the tin now. I like it fine, but I really do like White Knight better. This seems to me to be more of a straight English blend; it’s got more “substance” to it than, say, Squadron Leader, but lacks that little hint of incense (for lack of a better word) that I get from a more Oriental forward blend like White Knight or Sutliff’s Sobranie match. I’m not sorry I tried it; it’s a good solid blend and I do enjoy it. That said, it’s not high on my re-order list. Tinned tobaccos are generally more expensive than bulk blends – usually double the cost or more. This one is no exception, and there are bulk blends I like as much or better.

Lessons learned: Maple syrup

Here’s a quick recap of the lessons I learned during our first year of maple tree tapping and maple syrup production. It’s my to-do list for next January.

  • Be prepared. I need to make sure I have everything I’ll need lined up ahead of time, cleaned, sanitized, and ready to go early. I’m pretty sure we missed a week, possibly two, of the sap run this year. Better to be ready in January.
  • I need to have two or three dedicated maple sap buckets, with airtight lids and at least 1/2 gallon markings, to hold at least a couple days worth of sap.
  • A hydrometer is a must. Trying to accurately measure the temperature of a small quantity of maple syrup is hard. The temperatures also seem to be a terrible way to estimate sugar content. I bought a hydrometer this year, and for next year I’ll have a testing cup on hand as well.
  • For the sap, a refractometer would be helpful to know the sugar content so I know what to expect when boiling it. Not essential, but they’re cheap so I’ll probably buy one.
  • Have plenty of propane; make sure there are at least two full tanks on hand.
  • Have bottles and labels on hand for the finished product.
  • More spiles and bags, unless I switch to plastic drip lines and containers on the ground (which would probably be better anyway).
  • A boiling pan with more surface area would be better. I’ve got a year to explore better evaporating options. I don’t want to go overboard, but maybe there’s a better option.
  • I may set up a small RO system. It would cost some to set up, but would greatly reduce the boiling time and save on propane. I’ve got time to investigate and decide whether I want to set one up. Next year I’ll have at least 6 taps going in 6 trees — four here, two at a rental house we own.

Consummate Gentleman revisited

As I stand here in the garage enjoying a pipe full of what was the first English blend I ever tried, I thought I’d follow up on my first post about this fine tobacco.

Since that summer evening when I first cracked open that tin – it was also the first vacuum sealed tin I had ever bought – I’ve come nearly to the end of that 50 g. I’ve explored a number of other English and several Balkan blends. I’ve enjoyed them all, but Consummate Gentleman never disappoints. It’s always smooth, not overpowering. The Latakia plays more of a supporting role, never trying to take the spotlight. I can appreciate the sweeter, slightly grassy Virginia while still getting that wonderful smoky undertone. Since it’s mostly Virginias, it will reward a slow, leisurely smoke and remind you somewhat harshly if you rush it.

So, with all that said… will I buy more? It’s hard to say. Right now I’ve got over a dozen tobaccos on hand, all in small quantities while I sort out what I like and what I don’t (I’m looking at you, Bayou Morning, and your buddy Haunted Bookshop too). I’d like to narrow it down to a few blends that I particularly like and can stock up on. This is one I like, but I’m not sure I’m in love with it. Time will tell. I will say, if you’re thinking about dipping your toes into English blends you could do worse than this one.

Our first batch of maple syrup!

After all the “learning curve” experiences over the past couple of weeks, we’ve finally got our first batch ready to bottle.

Using the turkey fryer to boil down the sap was a big step. There are faster and better ways, but this is what is practical right now. Ideally I’d like to have a 2′ square or 2 x 3 syrup pan, but that’s a purpose-specific item that would cost a lot and take up a lot of room for eleven-plus months of the year. The fryer does a passable job, and I’ve learned to just let it go until the sap is very nearly syrup before finishing it on the stove. The first time I emptied the stock pot there was still too much water; it took a couple of hours to boil down on the stove. Last night I brought in the second run; it was very close to being “done” when I poured it into the pan.

After sorting through our thermometers, I found one digital kitchen thermometer that reads in half-degree increments well past the point where our maple sugar would turn into maple candy. That has made the process so much easier and better. I can reliably get the temperature right where it needs to be. Unfortunately, I’m still not sure whether I’ve got it right. The resulting syrup seemed a bit thin to me. I ordered a maple syrup hydrometer from Amazon (they’re not expensive). Once it arrived, it confirmed my suspicion that the sugar content was a little low. I had to boil it a few more minutes, bringing the temperature up to 221 F. The next step will be to bottle the 2 quarts we have finished.

We have far more syrup than I ever imagined we’d get. Remember, when I started this I figured maybe I’d get enough maple syrup to anoint a stack or two of pancakes. Well, we’ve got about half a gallon now and there will be more. We’ve got nothing to store it in long term, and I’d like to share some with friends and family. Half a gallon is way more syrup than we’d use in a year. I ordered some maple syrup bottles and am working on ideas for a label to stick on them. Until then… yeah, I got impatient and bottled the first batch in these flask-shaped 375 ml bottles. As I write this they’re sitting in a pan pasteurizing before I put the caps on.

Pasteurizing the bottles before capping
Cooling down while I ponder how to label the bottles