Guide to Pipe
While many a pipe smoker finds, sometime early on in their
experience, one single tobacco that satisfies them completely,
are some of us that are constantly exploring the varied world of
tobaccos. The number of pipe tobaccos available today is
it is doubtful that even the most dedicated smoker could sample
blend that can be found in the world. But, we can certainly try!
Keep in mind that tobacco, far more than most plants, adapts to
environment with substantial changes in characteristics. Soil
mineral content, precipitation, humidity, sunlight, temperature,
fertilizers… all effect the tobacco plant profoundly. What this
is that crops of the same "type" tobacco will vary dramatically
place to place and even year to year. Think of tobaccos as you
grapes used in wine making and you'll get the idea. So, these
descriptions will tend to be a bit general.
It goes without saying - doesn't it? - that there is a great deal
difference in the quality of pipes available to the pipe smoker
A fine pipe brings out the best in any tobacco, cooling and
the smoke while allowing the flavor to pass through. One can not
expect to get the most from a tobacco with a pipe of inferior
It is also worth noting that any given pipe will tend to "like"
tobaccos, just as many individual pipes "don't get along" with
tobaccos. It takes a fair bit of experimentation to learn which
in your collection will give you their best with a particular
To make sense out of the bewildering variety of pipe tobaccos,
be grouped into a few categories and the individual tobacco
themselves described. First, let's take a look at the "raw
"wild tobacco" plant, was used by the Native Americans (the first
pipe-smokers) for their pipes long before Sir Walter Raleigh came
North America. Probably cultivated for thousands of years, it is a
small plant, with strong flavor, a pungent aroma and a fairly high
nicotine content. It tends to burn hot and is not used in any
commercial pipe tobacco blends today, other than a small number
produced by Native Americans. As with all tobaccos, the origin of
leaf determines the smoking qualities, and some people today grow
own N. Rustica and get good results. The closest "modern"
what N. Rustica turned into when large-scale commercial
techniques were used. The leaves are small to medium sized, with
finer grades being tissue-paper-thin. The natural sugar content is
high, around 25%, so Virginia tobaccos have a "sweet" flavor when
smoked. The nicotine content is fairly low, generally around 1.5%.
tend to smoke hot, but they also stay lit well, so if they are
smoked slowly, the smoke is cool, the flavor rich and intensely
sweet, and the pipe smoker is happy. Many fine pipe tobaccos
are 100% Virginia leaf.
in nicotine content - around 1.3% - but with less than 0.5% sugar,
these tobaccos burn cooler and dryer, with a "nutty" flavor and
little sweetness. Rarely used straight, it can cool and "dry" a
making it less sweet.
(used for most
tobaccos.) This is a "mutant" strain of tobacco, first emerging in
1868, that has come to dominate today's tobacco market. The plants
leaves are at least twice as large as other varieties and the
are a pale green that cures to a pale beige. The nicotine content
is high, around 3% - 3.5%, and the sugars are low, around 0.2%.
The plant is robust and the crop yields are high and as a result,
Burley is the mainstay of the American cigarette manufacturers,
although small amounts of Orientals are often added to improve
characteristics and flavor. It burns cool with little "bite,"
but it burns somewhat poorly and also with little inherent flavor
reminiscent of cardboard.) However, it has the property of
added flavorings beautifully, so this is the single most popular
tobacco for "aromatic" blends, soaking up and holding just about
flavor you care to add. As a result, it dominates the pipe tobacco
market as well as the cigarette market, since most pipe tobaccos
There are a few "straight" Burley blends around that use
pressed, matured leaf carefully blended, and they are
"dry," cool smoking and much appreciated by some pipe-smokers.
This is a
from Kentucky that has been fire cured. It darkens the leaf and
intensifies the flavor. The African version is Malawi leaf, darker
Oriental and Turkish tobaccos.
There are quite a number of tobaccos grown in the Middle East that
under this category, each with specific flavors and
characteristics. They tend to be low in nicotine (1%) and have
sugar contents about half that of Virginia, around 12%. The exotic
flavors range from sweet to musky to spicy, with aromas that are
intriguing and varied. The leaves are small and the burning
characteristics are unparalleled. Often added to cigarettes to
make them burn better, Oriental tobaccos are what gives many a
English blend its sophistication and "finish." Varieties include
Izmir, Samsun, Yedidje, Yendje, Cavella, Drama, Xanthi and Bursa.
flavors are quite strong and become bitter and strident if smoked
straight, so these tobaccos are used in moderation.
this is the tobacco that makes an English blend "English"
some will disagree with that definition.) This is basically an
tobacco that has been smoke-cured. Nicotine content is around 1%
sugar content around 10%. The predominant flavor is "smoky," and
of us that love hickory-smoked ham and turkey, or a spicy piece of
smoked beef jerky, also love this tobacco. There are many
Latakia, some of higher grade than others. The flavors ranges from
"smoky-salty" to "smoky-spicy" to "smoky-sweet." Generally,
Latakia is milder and sweeter, and Syrian is more pungent and
assertive. The burning characteristics are poor and it tends to
hot, so straight Latakia is not a pleasant smoke, although many
have tried. The flavor of Latakia is so full and rich that some
smokers become quite enamored with it, although the aroma ("room
to our British cousins) is a bit heavy and nonsmokers may
object. Still, it's nowhere near as acrid as cigarette smoke nor
overpowering and pungent as cigar smoke. Stogies produces an
exceptionally fine English blend called MacThomas, with a generous
measure of Latakia, but a light topping of real French VSOP Brandy
moderates the "room note" so well that most nonsmokers find it to
be pleasing. The amount of Latakia used in blends ranges from 5%
50%, although at least one ambitious blend uses 70%.
on one farm only -- in the Saint James Parish of Louisiana, this
potent, heavily fermented "spice" tobacco of high nicotine content
approaching 4% - with virtually no sugars, and a strong flavor
somewhat elusive. Some describe it as "peppery," others as
others as "pungent." It is not suitable for smoking straight,
Alister Crowley was reported to have smoked straight Perique
with Rum (and that explains a great deal, if you know anything
Crowley.) The nicotine content alone will just about knock you
out, and it smokes hot. However, in small amounts, that "elusive"
the quality of mixing with other flavors beautifully, adding
complexity, "roundness," and actually moderating Virginia tobaccos
they are "smoother" and "mellower." (It can be likened to the
Truffle mushroom; tasting mostly of garlic-laced pungent mushroom
itself, it is the essential ingredient to paté, somehow bringing
flavors together in a synergy that is more than the sum if its
Perique is generally no more than 3% to 10% of a blend, although
is at least one blend that uses almost 50%. Pressed, matured
cake with Perique is a classic pipe tobacco with an extensive and
eminent pedigree. Most experienced pipe smokers find this style of
blend to be satisfying. However, one must learn to ignore the
aroma that first emerges from the freshly-opened tin; it is quite
strong and has overtones of vinegar as a result of the maturing
process. The flavor and "room note" are devoid of this
MacClelland has now introduced a Virginia-based "Perique-like"
fermented tobacco, and the results in their Royal Cajun series are
than a type of tobacco, this method of treating tobacco was
the 1600s by a Dutch ship's captain of the same name,
many discoveries are. Take a tobacco - any tobacco - compress and
it, and you have Cavendish. Pressing for longer periods turns the
tobacco darker, as does using more heat. There is also "toasted
Cavendish" which describes tobaccos darkened by heat alone. This
is interchangeable with "stoving." Cavendish is also used to
specific "cut" of tobacco, fairly large pieces of short length.
term is used most often today to describe Burley pressed with
to heavy amounts of additives in the form of flavored sugar syrups
glycerins or propylene glycol. But there are also straight
Cavendish tobaccos, devoid of any additives, smooth, cool,
full-flavored and sweet. And if that weren't confusing enough, the
steam injection method which produces jet-black leaf is also
Cavendish. Lane's "BCA" is probably the best-known version of this
treatment and it graces the shelf of virtually every good
shop in North America.
While there are many different ways to define pipe tobaccos, the
following loose categories are generally accepted: Aromatic, Virginia, and English.
Burley and treated with flavored sugar syrups, these are the
predominant pipe tobaccos in America today. Fine examples of
aromatic pipe tobacco are produced by a number of companies, among
Lane, MacClelland, Cornell and Diehl, and Peter Stokkebye.
High-grade Burley with high-quality food-grade additives,
blended, makes for a pleasant, flavorful, satisfying smoke that
surrounding populace enjoys almost as much as the smoker. Lane's
is a good blend to start with.
Cheap Burley with cheap additives makes for a fried mouth, a
tongue, and a frustrated pipe smoker. More than a few pipe smokers
sworn that they will never smoke an aromatic again as a result. It
sad fact that the majority of pipe tobaccos sold in America today
into the latter category.
The difficulty with Burley-based aromatics is that they do not
burn well, going out easily and often. The fact that they are cool
mild tends to attract inexperienced pipe smokers to their charms
flavor and aroma, and many a pipe smoker develops the habit of
rather "fast and furious" in order to keep the Burley lit. This is
a problem until Virginia or English tobaccos are tried, though
when smoked too fast, are hot, harsh, acrid and unpleasant. It
experience to smoke any kind of pipe tobacco well, and the
pipe smoker adjusts their smoking style to match the tobacco at
Quite a number of experienced pipe smokers avoid flavored aromatic
tobaccos altogether, as their discerning palates are not pleased
cloying sweetness of flavored sugar syrups. These schooled
of bowl and leaf look exclusively to Virginia and English blends
the "oldest" style pipe tobaccos around. For those unfamiliar with
smoking these tobaccos, the pertinent advice is, "slow down!"
comprised of pure Virginia leaf, sometimes with various other leaf
added, these tobaccos are generally sweet, rich in flavor,
and thankfully easy to keep lit because they will burn hot and
an inexperienced smoker starts puffing too vigorously. Smoked
slowly, they are an eminently satisfying experience.
The MacClelland company of Kansas City is widely considered to be
premier manufacturer of fine Virginia tobaccos today. They
made the fine Ashton line of tinned tobacco for that
justly-famous pipe-making firm, and have recently reclaimed the
Ashton blends for their own.
Varieties of Virginias can range from brilliant yellow to brick
color, depending on curing techniques. Virginia tobaccos are often
"stoved" (baked) until dark brown or black. This mellows the
cools the smoking characteristics and also reduces the sugar
somewhat. When Virginia tobaccos are pressed into blocks and
"mature" (fermentation, from slight to full) the flavors become
more complex and somewhat less sweet. MacClelland Dark Star is an
exceptional pressed, stoved Virginia flake tobacco of superb
is Rattray's Dark Fragrant, which is renowned for its overtones of
raisins, plumbs, chocolate and tea, all as a natural result of
pure stoved Virginia leaf of top quality.
Among the pipe tobaccos that contain 100% Virginia, MacClelland
Flake is a classic pressed flake of the finest aged leaf. Ditto
MacBaren Virginia No. 1. Rattray's makes several famous tobaccos
this category, ranging from sweet in Hal o' The Wind to dry in
A touch of Burley cools the smoke - helpful for those who have not
yet developed a disciplined puffing technique - and reduces the
sweetness, adding nut
flavors. MacBaren's Scottish Mixture has some burley added and is
complex smoke with less sweetness and a hint of pecan-caramel
that takes time to develop: be patient, this tobacco is at its
the bottom half of the bowl.
A touch of flavored cavendish adds interest. MacBaren's Dark Twist
fine example of a naturally sweet Virginia with Cavendish.
A bit of Orientals adds a spicy flavor and moderates the
MacClelland Pebblecut is a fine example of this old style.
Another classic pipe tobacco style is Virginia mixed with a small
amount of Perique, pressed into cakes, matured and then sliced.
nutty, sweet, full and complex, these are exceptional pipe
mentioned above, the pouch-aroma of pressed matured Virginia cake
reminiscent of vinegar as a result of the maturation process, but
flavor and "room note" is devoid of this, so first-time smokers of
Heavenly concoction need to "have faith" and ignore the
MacClelland Black Parrot is a fine example of this style, as is
Elizabethan, and also the famous Escudo. Esoterica Dunbar and GLP
Haddo's Delight are both fine Virginia / Perique blends than have
been pressed, and they have "brighter" citrus flavors.
(An aside; many experienced pipe smokers will not go to great
to "rub out" a pressed-flake pipe tobacco. Simply crumble it just
barely enough so that the bowl can be packed - not too tightly -
light. The first lighting will need to be a bit more thorough than
loose tobaccos, but once lit, it will burn well with a richer
flavor than if it has been rubbed out.)
English / Balkan blends.
Americans call these "English Blends" but the British simply call
"Mixtures." If one may
think of Virginia blends as being the "Queen" of pipe tobaccos,
Balkan blends are certainly the "King." Less sweet by far, more
"masculine" in character, and often rich and full-flavored, these
blends are prized and adored by experienced pipe-smokers the world
over. Again, for those trying English blends for the first time,
down!" Smoked slowly, they are marvelous and relaxing. Smoked too
they lose all their flavor and become hot and harsh. These blends
contain Latakia in smaller or larger amounts, adding that
rich "smoky" flavor in less or greater measure. Virginias will add
sweetness and richness, stoved Virginias a complexity and
flavor. Orientals will add a variety of spicy exotic flavors and
and smooth burning characteristics. Perique will add "roundness"
bring other flavors together into a unified whole. Maryland will
dry, nutty flavor. Burley will moderate and cool the mixture into
milder form, and flavored Cavendish tobaccos will add variety and
moderate the "room note" into an aroma more pleasing to most
There are a fantastic variety of Balkan-style tobaccos available
today, all of them loved by someone. Some excellent ones with
appeal to consider are MacClelland Old Dog and Celebrated
both rich and full-flavored with moderate Latakia, stoved
sweetness and Orientals for fine, slow burning. Balkan Sasieni is
a fine "classic" styled medium-full Latakia mixture, as is Dunhill
Standard Mixture Medium and Dunhill Early Morning Pipe.
Frog Morton is a full-flavored mixture with lots of
high-grade Latakia and stoved Virginias and Orientals, with a
sweet, rich, smoky flavor that many consider to be among the best
available. Esoterica's Penzance, often considered to be among the
finest pipe tobaccos in the world, is a medium-full Latakia
mixture with Turkish, Virginia, Orientals and a bit of Burley.
Esoterica's Margate is a classic full mixture, rich and
with similar nods to Dunhill My Mixture #965. Rattray's Red
a classic blend with interesting spicy notes. Gregory Pease (GLP)
been blending superb mixtures -- of many styles -- for years now,
the intent of
recapturing the great blends of the old-school tobacconist houses
gone. He has succeeded brilliantly.
Cornell and Diehl's Pirate Kake - containing 70% Latakia - is,
to say, full-flavored, and causes the pipe smoker to spontaneously
This humble guide is merely a starting point for your explorations
the fascinating world of pipe tobacco blends. Be adventurous. Keep
open mind. Be patient. Compare notes with other pipe smokers. And
of all, enjoy.