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Guide to Pipe Tobacco
Written by Randolph Tracy.

While many a pipe smoker finds, sometime early on in their pipe-smoking experience, one single tobacco that satisfies them completely, there are some of us that are constantly exploring the varied world of pipe tobaccos. The number of pipe tobaccos available today is staggering and it is doubtful that even the most dedicated smoker could sample every 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 its environment with substantial changes in characteristics. Soil type, mineral content, precipitation, humidity, sunlight, temperature, fertilizers… all effect the tobacco plant profoundly. What this means is that crops of the same "type" tobacco will vary dramatically from place to place and even year to year. Think of tobaccos as you would 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 of difference in the quality of pipes available to the pipe smoker today. A fine pipe brings out the best in any tobacco, cooling and mellowing the smoke while allowing the flavor to pass through. One can simply not expect to get the most from a tobacco with a pipe of inferior quality. It is also worth noting that any given pipe will tend to "like" certain tobaccos, just as many individual pipes "don't get along" with certain tobaccos. It takes a fair bit of experimentation to learn which pipes in your collection will give you their best with a particular tobacco.

To make sense out of the bewildering variety of pipe tobaccos, they can be grouped into a few categories and the individual tobacco components themselves described. First, let's take a look at the "raw materials."

Basic types of tobacco

Nicotania Rustica, the original "wild tobacco" plant, was used by the Native Americans (the first pipe-smokers) for their pipes long before Sir Walter Raleigh came to North America. Probably cultivated for thousands of years, it is a small plant, with very 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 very small number produced by Native Americans. As with all tobaccos, the origin of the leaf determines the smoking qualities, and some people today grow their own N. Rustica and get very good results. The closest "modern" equivalent is:

Virginia. This is basically what N. Rustica turned into when large-scale commercial cultivation techniques were used. The leaves are small to medium sized, with the finer grades being tissue-paper-thin. The natural sugar content is high, around 25%, so Virginia tobaccos have a very "sweet" flavor when smoked. The nicotine content is fairly low, generally around 1.5%. They tend to smoke hot, but they also stay lit very well, so if they are smoked very slowly, the smoke is cool, the flavor rich and intensely sweet, and the pipe smoker is very happy. Many very fine pipe tobaccos are 100% Virginia leaf.

Maryland. Similar to Virginia in nicotine content - around 1.3% - but with less than 0.5% sugar, these tobaccos burn cooler and dryer, with a "nutty" flavor and very little sweetness. Rarely used straight, it can cool and "dry" a blend, making it somewhat less sweet.

Burley (used for most Aromatic tobaccos.) This is a "mutant" strain of tobacco, first emerging in 1868, that has come to dominate today's tobacco market. The plants and leaves are at least twice as large as other varieties and the leaves are a very pale green that cures to a pale beige. The nicotine content is high, around 3% - 3.5%, and the sugars are very 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 burning characteristics and flavor. It burns very cool with very little "bite," but it burns somewhat poorly and also with very little flavor (somewhat reminiscent of cardboard.) However, it has the property of "accepting" added flavorings beautifully, so this is the single most popular tobacco for "aromatic" blends, soaking up and holding just about any flavor you care to add. As a result, it dominates the pipe tobacco market as well as the cigarette market, since most pipe tobaccos sold are aromatics.

There are a few "straight" Burley blends around that use high-grade pressed, matured leaf carefully blended, and they are exceptionally "dry," very cool smoking and much appreciated by some pipe-smokers.
   
Kentucky. This is a Burley from Kentucky that has been fire cured. It darkens the leaf and intensifies the flavor. The African version is Malawi leaf, darker and very spicy.

Oriental and Turkish tobaccos. There are quite a number of tobaccos grown in the Middle East that fall under this category, each with very specific flavors and characteristics. They tend to be very 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 very small and the burning characteristics are simply unparalleled. Often added to cigarettes to make them burn better, Oriental tobaccos are what gives many a fine English blend its sophistication and "finish." Varieties include Basma, Izmir, Samsun, Yedidje, Yendje, Cavella, Drama, Xanthi and Bursa. The flavors are quite strong and become bitter and strident if smoked straight, so these tobaccos are used in moderation.

Latakia. Generally speaking, this is the tobacco that makes an English blend "English" (although some will disagree with that definition.) This is basically an Oriental tobacco that has been smoke-cured. Nicotine content is around 1% and sugar content around 10%. The predominant flavor is "smoky," and those of us that love hickory-smoked ham and turkey, or a spicy piece of smoked beef jerky, also love this tobacco. There are many varieties of Latakia, some of higher grade than others. The flavors ranges from "smoky-salty" to "smoky-spicy" to "smoky-sweet." Generally, Cyprian Latakia is milder and sweeter, and Syrian is more pungent and assertive. The burning characteristics are poor and it tends to smoke hot, so straight Latakia is not a very pleasant smoke, although many have tried. The flavor of Latakia is so full and rich that some pipe smokers become quite enamored with it, although the aroma ("room note," to our British cousins) is a bit heavy and nonsmokers may sometimes object. Still, it's nowhere near as acrid as cigarette smoke nor as 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 very pleasing. The amount of Latakia used in blends ranges from 5% to 50%, although at least one ambitious blend uses 70%.

Perique. Grown exclusively -- on one farm only -- in the Saint James Parish of Louisiana, this is a potent, heavily fermented "spice" tobacco of high nicotine content - approaching 4% - with virtually no sugars, and a strong flavor that is somewhat elusive. Some describe it as "peppery," others as "spicy," others as "pungent." It is not suitable for smoking straight, although Alister Crowley was reported to have smoked straight Perique soaked with Rum (and that explains a great deal, if you know anything about Crowley.) The nicotine content alone will just about knock you out and it is very hot. However, in small amounts, that "elusive" flavor has the quality of mixing with other flavors beautifully, adding depth, complexity, "roundness," and actually moderating Virginia tobaccos so they are "smoother" and "mellower." (It can be likened to the famous Truffle mushroom; tasting mostly of garlic-laced pungent mushroom by itself, it is the essential ingredient to paté, somehow bringing flavors together in a synergy that is more than the sum if its parts.) Perique is generally no more than 3% to 10% of a blend, although there is at least one blend that uses almost 50%. Pressed, matured Virginia 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 very 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 characteristic. MacClelland has now introduced a Virginia-based "Perique-like" fermented tobacco, and the results in their Royal Cajun series are promising.

Cavendish. A process rather than a type of tobacco, this method of treating tobacco was invented in the 1600s by a Dutch ship's captain of the same name, accidentally, as many discoveries are. Take a tobacco - any tobacco - compress and heat 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 term is interchangeable with "stoving." Cavendish is also used to describe a specific "cut" of tobacco, fairly large pieces of short length. The term is used most often today to describe Burley pressed with moderate to heavy amounts of additives in the form of flavored sugar syrups and glycerins or propylene glycol. But there are also straight Virginia 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 called a Cavendish. Lane's "BCA" is probably the best-known version of this treatment and it graces the shelf of virtually every good pipe-tobacco shop in North America.

Pipe Tobacco Blends

While there are many different ways to define pipe tobaccos, the following loose categories are generally accepted: Aromatic, Virginia, and English.

Aromatic. Generally made of Burley and treated with flavored sugar syrups, these are the predominant pipe tobaccos in America today. Fine examples of excellent aromatic pipe tobacco are produced by a number of companies, among them Lane, MacClelland, Cornell and Diehl, and Peter Stokkebye.

High-grade Burley with high-quality food-grade additives, skillfully blended, makes for a pleasant, flavorful, satisfying smoke that the surrounding populace enjoys almost as much as the smoker. Lane's "1Q" is a good blend to start with.

Cheap Burley with cheap additives makes for a fried mouth, a charred tongue, and a frustrated pipe smoker. More than a few pipe smokers have sworn that they will never smoke an aromatic again as a result. It is a sad fact that the majority of pipe tobaccos sold in America today fall into the latter category.

The difficulty with Burley-based aromatics is that they do not tend to burn well, going out easily and often. The fact that they are cool and mild tends to attract inexperienced pipe smokers to their charms of flavor and aroma, and many a pipe smoker develops the habit of puffing rather "fast and furious" in order to keep the Burley lit. This is not a problem until Virginia or English tobaccos are tried, though these, when smoked too fast, are hot, harsh, acrid and unpleasant. It takes experience to smoke any kind of pipe tobacco well, and the practiced pipe smoker adjusts their smoking style to match the tobacco at hand.

Quite a number of experienced pipe smokers avoid flavored aromatic tobaccos altogether, as their discerning palates are not pleased by the cloying sweetness of flavored sugar syrups. These schooled aficionados of bowl and leaf look exclusively to Virginia and English blends for their pleasure.

Virginia. These are probably the "oldest" style pipe tobaccos around. For those unfamiliar with smoking these tobaccos, the pertinent advice is, "slow down!" Sometimes comprised of pure Virginia leaf, sometimes with various other leaf added, these tobaccos are generally very sweet, very rich in flavor, and thankfully easy to keep lit because they will burn hot and harsh if an inexperienced smoker starts puffing too vigorously. Smoked VERY slowly, they are an eminently satisfying experience.

The MacClelland company of Kansas City is widely considered to be a premier manufacturer of fine Virginia tobaccos today. They formerly made the  fine Ashton line of tinned tobacco for that justly-famous pipe-making firm, and have recently reclaimed the old Ashton blends for their own.

Varieties of Virginias can range from brilliant yellow to brick red in color, depending on curing techniques. Virginia tobaccos are often "stoved" (baked) until dark brown or black. This mellows the flavor and cools the smoking characteristics and also reduces the sugar content somewhat. When Virginia tobaccos are pressed into blocks and allowed to "mature" (fermentation, from slight to full) the flavors become richer, more complex and somewhat less sweet. MacClelland Dark Star is an exceptional pressed, stoved Virginia flake tobacco of superb flavor, as is Rattray's Dark Fragrant, which is renowned for its overtones of raisins, plumbs, chocolate and tea, all as a natural result of aging pure stoved Virginia leaf of top quality.

Among the pipe tobaccos that contain 100% Virginia, MacClelland Brindle Flake is a classic pressed flake of the finest aged leaf. Ditto MacBaren Virginia No. 1. Rattray's makes several famous tobaccos in this category, ranging from sweet in Hal o' The Wind to dry in Brown Clunee.

A touch of Burley cools the smoke - helpful for those who simply can't keep from puffing vigorously - and reduces the sweetness, adding nut flavors. MacBaren's Scottish Mixture has some burley added and is a complex smoke with less sweetness and a hint of pecan-caramel flavor that takes time to develop: be patient, this tobacco is at its best in the bottom half of the bowl.

A touch of flavored cavendish adds interest. MacBaren's Dark Twist is a fine example of a naturally sweet Virginia with Cavendish.

A bit of Orientals adds a spicy flavor and moderates the sweetness. 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. Rich, nutty, sweet, full and complex, these are exceptional pipe tobaccos. As mentioned above, the pouch-aroma of pressed matured Virginia cake is reminiscent of vinegar as a result of the maturation process, but the flavor and "room note" is devoid of this, so first-time smokers of this Heavenly concoction need to "have faith" and ignore the pouch-aroma. MacClelland Black Parrot is a fine example of this style, as is Dunhill Elizabethan, and also the famous Escudo. Esoterica Dunbar and GLP Haddo's Delight are both fine Virginia / Perique blends than have not been pressed, and they have "brighter" citrus flavors.

(An aside; many experienced pipe smokers will not go to great lengths to "rub out" a pressed-flake pipe tobacco. Simply crumble it just barely enough so that the bowl can be packed - not too tightly - and light. The first lighting will need to be a bit more thorough than with loose tobaccos, but once lit, it will burn very well with a richer flavor than if it has been rubbed out.)

English / Balkan blends. We Americans call these "English Blends" but the British simply call them "Mixtures." If one may think of Virginia blends as being the "Queen" of pipe tobaccos, then Balkan blends are certainly the "King." Less sweet by far, more "masculine" in character, and often very 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, "slow down!" Smoked slowly, they are marvelous and relaxing. Smoked too fast, they lose all their flavor and become hot and harsh. These blends contain Latakia in smaller or larger amounts, adding that compelling, rich "smoky" flavor in less or greater measure. Virginias will add sweetness and richness, stoved Virginias a complexity and "plumb-like" flavor. Orientals will add a variety of spicy exotic flavors and aromas and smooth burning characteristics. Perique will add "roundness" and bring other flavors together into a unified whole. Maryland will add a dry, nutty flavor. Burley will moderate and cool the mixture into a milder form, and flavored Cavendish tobaccos will add variety and moderate the "room note" into an aroma more pleasing to most nonsmokers.

There are a fantastic variety of Balkan-style tobaccos available today, all of them loved by someone. Some excellent ones with broad appeal to consider are MacClelland Old Dog and Celebrated Sovereign, both rich and full-flavored with moderate Latakia, stoved Virginias for sweetness and Orientals for fine, slow burning. Balkan Sasieni is a very fine "classic" styled medium-full Latakia mixture, as is Dunhill Standard Mixture Medium and Dunhill Early Morning Pipe. MacClelland Frog Morton is an exceptionally full-flavored mixture with lots of high-grade Latakia and stoved Virginias and Orientals, with a soft, 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 sliced-cake mixture with Turkish, Virginia, Orientals and a bit of Burley. Esoterica's Margate is a classic full mixture, rich and satisfying, with similar nods to Dunhill My Mixture #965. Rattray's Red Rapparee is a classic blend with interesting spicy notes. Gregory Pease (GLP) has been blending superb mixtures -- of many styles -- for years now, with the intent of recapturing the great blends of the old-school tobacconist houses long gone. He has succeeded brilliantly.

Cornell and Diehl's Pirate Kake - containing 70% Latakia - is, needless to say, very full-flavored, and causes the pipe smoker to spontaneously say, "Arrrrrr!"

This humble guide is merely a starting point for your explorations into the fascinating world of pipe tobacco blends. Be adventurous. Keep an open mind. Be patient. Compare notes with other pipe smokers. And most of all, enjoy.