Sutliff blender Carl McAllister retires : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Sutliff blender Carl McAllister retires

A temp job became the American dream

by William C. Nelson

Carl McAllister knows he’s a lucky guy. While employed with Sutliff Tobacco Company as chief blender and manager of quality control, the Blacksburg, Virginia, native (“King of Aromatics,” he is called) always stayed current on economic trends.

He was alive to the disquieting changes in the American job market these past four decades. McAllister knows what a vanishing privilege it is to enjoy employment security in a job he loved, with the same employer at the same location, for 37 years. Today he enjoys the rewards of that life in retirement: McAllister’s last day on the job at Sutliff was January 30.

mcc“I more or less lived the American dream because of Sutliff,” McAllister says as he relaxes, pipe in hand, in the living room of the north Richmond, Virginia, home he shares with his wife, Sandra. “When I found my job with Sutliff after I was out of college, I thought it would be temporary, but it turned into my life’s work.” It is an impressive life’s work indeed, one that McAllister has left us pipe lovers to enjoy.

He never kept count but figures his legacy at Sutliff amounts to blends by the hundreds that he created for his employer’s catalog and for the company’s bulk-buying clients. McAllister is the listed blender for
92 entries in the database. Of those blends, 21 carry four of four stars; 53 carry three stars. But his impact on pipe tobaccos, the art of tobacco flavoring and the propagation of pipe-smoking enjoyment extends beyond the blends he designed. McAllister has also long served as a willing mentor and ambassador in the wider industry—a man whose daily presence will be missed, not only for the prodigious talent he brought to blending but also for his patience and kindness and generosity of spirit. We pipe smokers are lucky that we got him, because it was by no means a cinch that McAllister would end up blending tobaccos.

He might have gone to work almost anywhere. After all, even if a man knows early in life that tobacco blending is the career for him, how does he go about making such a career happen? Even McAllister says he would not know how to advise a young person who harbored such an interest. “There aren’t many blenders around, even if you count the ones known for only a few blends,” he says. So here was a wonderful career that wasn’t ever really planned at all. Carl McAllister’s working life at Sutliff resulted from pure serendipity.

“I started smoking a pipe in the Air Force in the 1960s,” McAllister says. Based at Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base in Oklahoma, he started fooling around with pipe smoking in much the same way many of us do, with inexpensive pipes and the worst possible choices of tobacco. Then a co-worker at the air base offered him a taste of something a bit more complex and refined than the simple codger Burley he had been smoking: a sample of Sutliff Mixture No. 79. “If you had told me then that one day it would be my job to reformulate that very blend, I’d have thought you were crazy. It’s just the quirkiest thing, how it all worked out,” McAllister says.

After he finished his hitch in the Air Force in 1969, McAllister attended Virginia Commonwealth University on the GI Bill, earning a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1975. “I wanted to be an industrial psychologist, and in a roundabout way I achieved what I was going after because I did end up supervising people on the production line at Sutliff,” he says. With that degree in hand, McAllister spent a couple of years in various minor jobs, but the requirements of life began pressing, and he woke up one day “needing to pay some bills,” he recalls. So he walked into a temporary employment agency hoping to raise his income level, and Sutliff Tobacco Company came into his life. McAllister started as a blender’s assistant in August 1977. The job became permanent, and soon enough he found himself promoted to assistant foreman. Then he made foreman, and finally, in 2000, he came to head up research and development and quality control. “I learned blending from a man named Earnest Goodson,” McAllister says. “Ernie and I hit it off right away. He was an ex-GI with roots in southwestern Virginia, where my family is from. So I was his assistant until he retired around 1982. Then I took over as blender.”

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Category: Fall 2015, Feature Article

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