•By Tad Gage and Joe Harb•
Altadis (now a part of Imperial Tobacco) has been one of the stalwarts of support for pipe smokers and a point player in fighting antitobacco legislation and taxation. The company’s selection of bulk and tinned tobacco is extensive. The Sutliff line of tinned pipe tobacco represents Altadis’ effort to utilize its ability to obtain, age and process fine leaf to create top-grade blends with a kind of middle-of-the-road appeal. The Sutliff line presents smokers with easy-smoking tobaccos that are very approachable, and a few delivered some intriguing surprises. Joe and I agree that the Sutliff tobaccos are remarkably “fluffy,” rather than “dense.” This soft character makes it easy to pack them densely, but that temptation should be avoided if you want a cool, easy smoke. We also found that while the tobaccos were smokable right from the tin, a couple days of drying generally improved their smoking quality. Joe and I also felt the overly romanticized descriptions of the mixtures on the tins and the Sutliff website did these mixtures a great disservice, depriving smokers of a realistic assessment of the contents and flavor in favor of meaningless descriptions of historical events, laughable superlatives and associations with weird moments of pleasure few of us can relate to, like fox hunts and cruises down the Bosphorus Strait—yikes! Purple prose set aside, we found these to be approachable and interesting tobaccos worthy of more realistic examination.
Gage: Visually, this appears to be a well-balanced medium ribbon of tans and deep brown. The mild tin aroma delivers hints of Oriental leaf sweetness and smoky Latakia, promising a mild and pleasing English-style smoking experience. Easy lighting, it presents a very smooth profile with excellent balance between the Oriental and Latakia leaf, with hints of Virginia and Perique. No Latakia bomb this: The smoke is soft and smooth with no pronounced contribution from any of the tobaccos. I detected a light, almost herbal flavor with a hint of dry earth and thyme. A touch of welcome sweetness comes through from the Virginia leaf. I enjoyed the long finish and pleasant aftertaste. From start to finish, in any size pipe, it delivered a steady, reliable burn and a clean white-ash finish. Interestingly, a very low nicotine content makes it a nice candidate for a long pause between relights (even hours) without telltale bitterness. So if you want a bowl you can puff, set aside and take up later with minimal negative taste impact, this is a great blend. What’s especially appealing about Berkshire is that it truly is mild, but not bland.
Harb: Sutliff describes Berkshire on the label as a rich English mixture. The prime aroma in the tin is sweet and pungent, with the characters of the Oriental tobaccos and Latakia just above that of the Virginias and Perique. Once stoked and burning smoothly, all the tobacco types contributed to the overall flavor profile, but the Latakia emerged more prominently by mid-bowl, defining the character as more of a medium English blend. This makes it a nice blend when you want the pungency and complexity of an English blend without it being overwhelming. Berkshire may be attractive as a change-of-pace blend, as a blend to enjoy when the pipe smoker wants more flavor, or as an introduction to the flavors for which the English blends are known.
Gage: As with so many blends, the marketing for this mixture seeks to ride the coattails of Dunhill’s Early Morning Pipe as an appealing first smoke of the day. While it is most certainly not Early Morning Pipe in composition, it perhaps captures some of the spirit of a soothing blend with which to start the day. Aged Virginia, Turkish, steamed black Cavendish and Latakia offer up a spicy, honeyed aromatic tin aroma dominated by the Cavendish and Latakia. Classified as English in the lineup, it profiles as a light aromatic in my book—not for any top-coating, but simply because it is so mild and influenced by the steamed Cavendish. It is a pleasing mixture that is, indeed, a comfortable morning tobacco or anytime you don’t want something too challenging. It’s a nice way to enjoy a light Cavendish flavor without going all the way to the aromatic side. The flavor has hints of caramel from both the Cavendish and Virginia leaf, and it works very well with the light smoky spice of the Latakia. The sugary bright Virginia burns a trifle hot but is tempered with gentle smoking. I thought this worked particularly well as a short smoke in a small briar, accompanied by a mug of coffee. The short finish with a slightly acrid aftertaste is something of a downer. It’s not a mixture I’d want to smoke as the piece de resistance after a fantastic gourmet dinner, but as a kick-start to the day, even on an empty stomach, it’s a fine selection.
Harb: This blend has a lavish aroma in the tin, with sweetness from Virginia and Oriental tobaccos, and the delicate topping of the Black Cavendish. A light touch of Latakia, barely noticeable in the aroma, rounds out the blend. Once stoked, I enjoyed the interplay between the Latakia and Orientals, which are balanced and harmonious. In the top half of the bowl, the Orientals were more prominent, but by mid-bowl, the pungency of the Latakia lifted the flavor level of the blend. The Burley adds a bit of body to the blend, but it is not overpowering. Sutliff touts Sunrise Smoke as a morning blend to wake up the taste buds, but some smokers may prefer to enjoy this medium English/Oriental blend in the afternoon or early evening.
Gage: I have low expectations for an exclusive black Cavendish tobacco, which tends to smoke bitter, hot and slurpy. Black Swan busted the black Cavendish mold wide open. This intensely black, fluffy concoction combines small shreds of individual leaf and large pieces of flake—certainly black Cavendish to the nth degree. But the quality of the Burley in this mixture, combined with the steaming process Altadis uses and the spartan restraint in adding flavorings, makes this one of the finest black Cavendish blends I’ve had the pleasure to smoke.
The tin aroma is loaded with butter and chocolate, spiked by allspice. What’s promising is that unlike many such dark Cavendish mixtures, it isn’t goopy in the tin and readily falls apart when it’s squished in a ball. This tells me that while there is aromatic casing, a lot of the flavor comes from heavily steamed and pressed Burley. If you pack this tightly, you’ll be punished with frequent re-lightings. Packed loosely, Black Swan burns particularly well for a pure Cavendish mixture. Definitely leave the broken flake and don’t try to rub this out, as the variety of cuts makes this much more complex and interesting than your average ribbon-cut Cavendish. It’s luscious and smoky with potent black Cavendish flavor. In smoking, there is a dense, intense Latakia-like roasting meat character with red wine, currant and butter sauce. While I can honestly say this mixture smokes well in both meerschaum and briar, it really does perform best in a briar. It leaves minimal residual flavor, but I would still recommend smoking this in a briar dedicated to lightly cased Virginias or aromatic blends. The rough cut was particularly appealing in a slightly larger bowl, delivering a level of complexity I’ve seldom experienced with a straight black Cavendish tobacco. This is an exceptional Cavendish that threatens to turn even a Cavendish hater into a Cavendish lover. If you’re a nicotine wimp like me, this is a fine way to enjoy the more intense flavors of rich, dark tobacco with much less of the nicotine punch as you find in Virginia-based blends like Synjeco’s Bad Nun 2 or G.L. Pease’s Jacknife Plug.
Harb: This is a Black Cavendish blend processed by fire curing and steam sweating to make the smoke mild and smooth. It has a sweet topping to give the blend a good aroma and pleasant flavor. Although the cut is coarse, Black Swan was easy to load in a variety of bowl sizes. Once stoked to embers, the smoke was sweet, flavorful and smooth. The smoke leaves a nice room aroma that may tend to linger. The tobacco, although moist, burned smoothly and evenly and was pretty much the same throughout the bowl.
Gage: This riot of tobacco color features black Cavendish, Perique and plenty of bright yellow flue-cured Virginia, as well as some aged red Virginia and Burley. But Perique is what this blend is all about. Presented as a selection comparable to Dunhill’s Elizabethan, I’d say that it does profile Elizabethan in character, although it’s a distinctly different blend to my palate. That said, it’s quite interesting. While the dark Perique isn’t particularly apparent in this dappled tan and blond mixture, its red wine and balsamic vinegar aroma is quite apparent the moment you open the tin. This relatively fine ribbon cut lights quickly and debuts with a pretty serious peppery kick, but it settles down quickly. It smokes clean and dry and really delivers in a meerschaum, where the earthy undertones come through.
This is a real tour de force for those who want a tobacco that delivers loads of Perique flavor. I love Perique—as in, I will smoke good Perique straight and really enjoy it. The flavor of fine Perique walks that line between molasses, balsamic vinegar, gourmet peppercorns and oil drained from a 1962 Ford F-150 pickup that was rode hard and put up wet. While this may seem strange, it’s no different than attributing the slight aroma of old socks to well-aged cheese or a classic Bordeaux wine.
What I really liked about Golden Age is its use of copious amounts of Perique. So, if you like more than a subtle dose of fine Perique in a Va-Per blend, this is a must-try. I found it smoked clean and dry. The other tobaccos in the mixture sang a short, complementary aria and departed off-stage. I couldn’t tell you the percentage of Perique this mixture contains, but I’m guessing it’s more than the usual 2 percent in most Va-Per blends. This is a Perique lover’s dream
tobacco—possibly the sleeper in the entire Sutliff line.
Harb: The label describes the contents of Golden Age as darkened tobaccos with Perique. In the tin, the aroma has a sweet nuttiness with an underlying smokiness. The Perique adds higher sour/tart notes, and it is this character that comes through the smoke at first light. Golden Age is a well-balanced combination of tobaccos chosen for their high and low flavor elements, and as I progressed through the bowl, there was a nice sweetness that bound all the elements together. The Burley and Perique contents give the blend a medium level of body, but some may find the level more than medium. Golden Age is a cool-burning blend that is flavorful and pleasant, and it showed no tendency to overheat or bite.
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