Trial by Fire : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Trial by Fire

by Tad Gage and Joe Harb     With the prospect of a slight fall cooling in the air, we have tracked down some familiar and newer tobaccos that invite contemplation of the changing seasons and thoughts of a time in the not-too-distant future when the summer’s heat will be a slightly romanticized and cherished memory. Many of us endured broiling summer heat that took a little edge off the desire to puff our pipes. But cooler times are upon us, so it’s the perfect time to explore some enticing and savory blends that invite us to enjoy the somewhat comforting slowdown that comes with a change of seasons. We’ve included two “throwdown” Balkan Sobranie 759 blends from McClelland and Hearth & Home (blender Russ Oullette), a relatively new Solani tobacco and a few additional offerings from Oullette. A brief note on the H&H blends: recently, Altadis took over the blending and tinning of many Hearth & Home tobaccos, with a new-look tin and increased distribution opportunities. Oullette said his classic H&H blends from Altadis will continue to feature the same base tobaccos he used in the past so there would be no change in taste. His H&H Marquee series will continue to be blended and tinned by Cornell & Diehl and is only available through website. The H&H tobaccos featured here are all Marquee series.

Solani Aged Burley Flake

Gage: In keeping with the theme of fall, is there anything more appealing than the toasty, musky aroma of autumn leaves or the sweet smell of harvested and baled hay? These sliced flakes offer a virtuoso visual palette. Dark brown aged Kentucky, bright white Burleys from Brazil and golden African Malawi Burley swirl together in perfectly cut slices that look like a combination of a pile of autumn leaves and a photograph of Jupiter. Like Jupiter, the taste is out of this world. Perfectly moist out of the tin, you can prepare the flakes in a number of ways: cubed, lightly rubbed out, torn in strips or left as whole flakes. I felt the tobacco burned better and required less relighting when lightly rubbed out than as larger flakes, with no appreciable difference in taste.

Aged Burley Flake is another fine Solani offering from Rudiger Will, imported by Monjure Interational. Will—who must have one of the best tobacco slicing machines on the planet—has created an artisan product. The quality of the flakes is on par with other Will products like Reiner Long Golden Flake. I could default to the usual description of this Burley product as “earthy,” and while it does have that quality, smoking this tobacco is more like burying yourself in a mound of hay that has been sitting in a field under the sun for a couple of weeks. There is nothing quite like the sweet, vegetal and light cocoa (not from any aromatic addition!) taste this tobacco delivers.

With the demise of Edgeworth Sliced and Orlik’s Dark Kentucky Flakes, the two artisan Burley flakes left standing are Solani’s product and Esoterica’s Stonehaven (blended by J.F. Germain & Son, even though this incorporates some Virginia leaf). Aged Burley Flake delivers a mellowness that borders on sweetness—not a sugary sweetness, but more the sweetness of good earth, growing plants and a wafting of barnyard homeyness. It’s grassy and haylike, with loamy forest and mushroom overtones. This elegant tobacco should appeal even to those who don’t generally care for Burley. If you plan to make it an occasional treat rather than a regular tobacco, I’d recommend storing the flakes in a small Mason or Ball jar to preserve the moisture. It loses a lot of subtlety if the flakes become dry.

Harb: In this blend, aged Burley has been toasted and specially processed for sweetness, then layered to form a flake. The flakes were a bit moist in the tin and had a light sweet and fruity aroma not usually expected with Burley blends. After a bit of air drying, the flakes broke apart and rubbed out easily. The special process used, the aging and the toasting gives the Burley a welcome depth of flavor with some complexity with no topping, and a medium aggression on the palate. Aged Burley Flake burned evenly and slowly for a cool smoke, with the same flavor characters staying to the end.

McClelland Blue Mountain

Gage: One of the Balkan Sobranie 759 “Throwdown” blends, Blue Mountain reflects Mary and Mike McNiel’s efforts to dissect and match the makeup of that old blend. The result is a very dark, slightly rustic medium ribbon cut with a pungent Latakia tin aroma. Interestingly, the blend utilizes only McClelland’s fine stock of Cyprian Latakia (no Syrian), which is appropriate when matching the 1980s 759 mixture. I’ve always wondered if 759 ever utilized Syrian Latakia or whether it was always Cyprian. Friends say it has been an exclusively Cyprian Latakia mixture since at least the 1960s. The moisture content of a freshly opened tin is fine to slightly moist and can certainly be dried for a couple of days. However, these tobaccos are rich in oils, so aggressive drying will seriously diminish the flavor.

The blend delivers flavors of deeply roasted meat, wood smoke and rich soil from the Latakia and Orientals, while the Virginia leaf contributed a black-currant jam character. The blend has undercurrents of sweetness from the aged red and orange Virginias I believe McClelland used: just enough to support the Latakia and Oriental tobaccos but not enough to establish their own voice. The Oriental leaf lends a pleasing yeasty character to the mixture. It’s hard to chase a legendary tobacco, especially when the last tins were produced nearly two decades ago. But the McNiels’ careful analysis of the mixture and the use of top-notch aged leaf certainly produced a worthy remake of a classic.

Harb: Blue Mountain is another of the contestant blends in the Balkan Sobranie throwdown in Chicago and was the winning blend in the People’s Choice voting as the blend most closely resembling the aged Balkan Sobranie sample. The composition is medium-tan ribbons and clumps of dark brown to black tobaccos in roughly a 30 percent to 70 percent ratio. The aroma in the tin is sweet and spicy, with the distinct character of Latakia. Once charred, the flavor was lightly sweet and spicy, with a leathery note of rich Latakia. The Orientals slowly developed and built up as I progressed to mid-bowl. Past mid-bowl, the Orientals faded slightly, letting the Latakia flavor participate more in the smoke, but toward the bottom of the bowl, the Orientals had seasoned the underlying tobaccos for a more intense finish. Blue Mountain would satisfy those who relish the Oriental blends, but it would also attract those looking for a slant toward an English-style blend.

H&H Marquee Black House 

Gage: Blender Russ Oullette took a very different approach to the throwdown challenge. Working off the character of the blend rather than the exact composition, he created a mixture that captured the bold character of 759 while taking Black House in a very different direction. While the blend incorporates the traditional elements of Cyprian Latakia, Virginias and Orientals, it also features Kentucky Burley and toasted black Cavendish—certainly tobaccos not found in the original mixture. Not as laden with Latakia as Sobranie 759, the mixture has a soft tin aroma that carries nearly as much Burley and Oriental aroma as it does Latakia.

Still, when stoked up, it’s clearly a stout, full Balkan blend. Featuring outstanding smoke volume and easy to keep lit, all the tobaccos in Black House contribute different flavors. The Virginias lend little sweetness to the mixture, the Oriental leaf and Burley deliver up toast and roasted nuts, while the black Cavendish adds a distinctive black pepper element. The result is an interesting American-style Balkan mixture with an appealing flavor—a tip of the cowboy hat to the English Bowler that was Sobranie 759.

Harb: This is one of the contestant blends developed for the Balkan Sobranie throwdown held during the Chicago Show in May, and it was the judges’ choice as the blend most closely resembling the aged Balkan Sobranie sample. It is a mix of light to medium-brown tobaccos in roughly a 50-50 ratio. The aroma is slightly sweet and spicy, with a light earthiness and smokiness of Latakia. At the charring light, the smoke was lightly sweet, pungent and spicy in one tasting, but less spicy in another tasting. The character of the Latakia was underneath the Orientals. As I progressed to mid-bowl, I enjoyed the slight bitterness that developed and the way the Orientals continued to dominate the blend. Black House is rich and flavorful, smokes smooth and dry, and leaves a nice soft ash. It is a definite must-try if you like good Oriental blends.

H&H Marquee Sweet & Savory

Gage: This was not one of those “love at first light” mixtures for me. Although the blend features an array of tobaccos, including Virginias, Orientals, Perique and dark-fired Kentucky Burley, the relatively uniform tan color and slightly dusty tin aroma didn’t offer a lot of promise. My first bowl smoked easily enough, with good moisture content, nice smoke volume and a toasty, lightly nutty profile. Even with the dark-fired Burley, I found the nicotine impact to be minimal.

Of course, one date is never enough and so a second bowl was consumed. I started to pick up nuances I couldn’t assign specific flavors to: it was just appealing. After about the fourth date with Sweet & Savory, I realized how comforting and easy this blend was to smoke. I never found much sweetness, but something about the mixture kept calling me back. In the end, I’d say the appeal is akin to some of the old-timey drugstore blends, only with the complexity of taste and quality of tobaccos that appeal to a more sophisticated palate.

Harb: Yellow and red Virginias are the base tobaccos for this blend, lending a sweet aroma and flavor to the smoke. Dark-fired Burley is added to give the blend body, and Yenidje, Basma and Perique are added for spice and complexity. The result is a delicately spiced savory blend that is different and pleasant. None of the tobaccos added to the base are in a high-enough proportion to mask or subdue any of the other components. Rather, they work together to give the blend a delicate depth of flavor and complexity, and the dark Burley provides a lightly increased level of body. The Virginias are cut as short, thin ribbons, so caution is recommended to keep the temperature in control with a soft, smooth puffing rhythm.

H&H Marquee Magnum Opus

Gage: Once in a while, a skilled blender will develop a blend that simply raises the bar. This is the case with Magnum Opus. As delightful as many of Oullette’s blends are, this mixture is one of those real home runs that a blender can’t always dictate. Sometimes, it just happens. Out of the tin, this attractive mottled mixture of black Latakia, medium- and light-
colored Orientals, a smattering of Virginia leaf and a small dose of Perique is certainly not a unique combination. But in the correct proportions, these tobaccos can yield something magical. I won’t even try to diagnose the percentages of tobaccos utilized in this blend, but it all adds up to deliciousness.

The basic medium-cut ribbon is easy to pack and light, delivering significant smoke volume. Although the blender discusses separate contributions of Orientals like Izmir, Yendije and such, I couldn’t isolate any specific flavor profiles. A deep red wine character toyed with a wonderfully sweet and slightly musky character of excellent Oriental tobacco. Yes, there was that wonderful resonance of earthy barnyard (all the good and nothing of the bad) that offers the refreshing and pungent difference of a fine Oriental tobacco.

I thought this mixture did particularly well when allowed to rest 10 minutes or so after the charring light. This brief interlude, if you have the time, allows the Orientals to develop more sweetness and complexity. In addition, the mixture develops some lightly tart citrus flavors about halfway down the bowl. The medium ribbon cut is consistently good in any size pipe. I enjoyed the fresh, tangy aspect right from the tin, but it should age successfully for several years, allowing the Latakia to soften even further and the Virginias to gain a bit more prominence.

Harb: Hearth & Home combines yellow Virginia with Izmir, Basma, Yenidje and Perique as the base of this blend, then adds a moderate amount of Cyprian Latakia to create a medium to full English blend that has a good level of complexity and flavor. The tin aroma has the smoky earthiness of Latakia with underlying sweetness and a fruity note from the Orientals. At first light, Magnum Opus was sweet and spicy, but once stoked to embers, the Latakia emerged as dominant in the flavor profile. I liked the way the Orientals came to the forefront by mid-bowl, giving the blend more of a Balkan character. Magnum Opus is a good choice for the Latakia lovers as well as those who want a flavorful English/Balkan blend that doesn’t sacrifice the delicate character of the exotic Orientals. A must-try blend.

H&H Marquee Steamroller

Gage: Blended specifically for those who just can’t get enough nicotine in their pipe tobacco, Steamroller is aptly named. A hodgepodge of Virginia, dark Burleys, unflavored black Cavendish, Latakia and Perique, this mixture, when smoked, is like getting hit head-on by a freight train at full throttle. Described as Hearth & Home’s strongest tobacco, whatever taste or nuance may be present was completely lost on me. I felt like I was sampling a science project in which pure tar and nicotine was distilled into a dish I was then required to lick. Those with stronger stomachs than me may be able to find flavor in this blend. Not for the faint of heart.

Harb: Steamroller is described as the strongest blend made for the Hearth & Home lineup. It is composed of red Virginia, two different types of dark Burley, unflavored black Cavendish, Perique and Latakia, which is a light note in the aroma. The fruits of their efforts are apparent at first light, with the blend delivering a lot of body and depth of flavor. The depth toned down a bit by mid-bowl and became smooth but still aggressive on the palate. Pipe smokers looking for a blend with a kick will enjoy Steamroller.

H&H Marquee Lakeland Brickle

Gage: Do you smoke this tobacco or eat it with whipped cream? This big, chunky hunk of crumble cake tobacco looks, feels and smells like a gooey, buttery, caramel brownie lightly seasoned with rose water. A Lakeland-style blend isn’t familiar to me, although it seems to reflect a style developed in Northwest England’s Lake District, or Lakeland. Samuel Gawith and Gawith, Hoggarth & Co. are the only makers I know to have used the moniker for tobaccos. But the general idea is a fairly assertive Virginia blend with floral, spice and vanilla flavorings.

Oullette used the concept as a springboard to develop a tobacco with more complexity, more manageable strength and less perfume and soapiness than is often associated with the Lakeland style. Despite being exceptionally dense and moist, Brickle rubs out readily and burns well. It can be dried down a bit after rubbing out, but with natural flavorings and no humectants, it will dry out quickly. As Lakeland Brickle is available only in vacuum-sealed bags at this time, H&H recommends transferring to a Mason jar or zip-seal bag after opening. I preferred keeping it relatively moist and fully rubbing out the chunks. It’s too dense to slice or leave chunky.

Brickle is unabashedly aromatic. However, the aged Virginia and dark Burleys—caked under pressure—deliver significant sweetness and spice that would be appealing even without the flavoring. The rose and tonquin/vanilla top notes lend tones of orange peel, caramel, maple syrup and butter. What I really liked was as I puffed this blend, I concentrated more on the blend than the flavorings. Unlike some Lakeland-style blends, I found the nicotine entirely tolerable—even minimal. Although the toppings are natural and delicate, I would probably restrict this blend to meerschaums or briars dedicated to aromatic blends.

Harb: This blend combines red Virginia and dark Burley that is flavored with tonquin and scented with rose essence. It is then heat-treated under pressure, formed into a crumble cake and presented as thin slices. Once broken and rubbed out, the loose shards of tobacco are of a varied coarse cut. The flavors came through at first light as sweet and tart. The flavorings have been added with a light touch so that the underlying flavor of tobacco comes through. Once stoked to embers, the character of the Virginias emerges and the dark Burley adds both depth and body to the blend. Lakeland Brickle smoked smooth and dry, without the soapiness of other Lakeland-type blends. By mid-bowl, the flavorings began to fade, leaving the tobacco character to complete an enjoyable smoking experience.

H&H Lakeland Brickle Fortissimo

Gage: The addition of Perique and hints of lavender, clove and juniper berry to slightly bolder Burleys result in a blend with a bit more spice than regular Brickle. While the original tends to be more floral, Fortissimo reminded me of the spiced whiskey liqueur Drambuie or hazelnut-based amaretto. In fact, either of these liqueurs would be a marvelous accompaniment to Fortissimo. Processed in the same dense crumble cake fashion as the original, Fortissimo is a bit like a spiced crème brulee—creamy, lightly sweet and smoky. I definitely picked up the clove and lavender.

Purist English mixture smokers might recoil from the idea of a tobacco with so many flavorings. But a few aromatics come to mind that transcend the norm, such as the mango-nut-flavored Ashton Rainy Day, Cornell & Diehl’s Apricots & Cream or Bob’s Chocolate Flake by Gawith, Hoggarth & Co. Both H&H Lakeland blends have more than enough character to satisfy both aromatic and English blend lovers.

Harb: This is a modification of the Lakeland Brickle to satisfy those who want more flavor and aroma. Perique, juniper, lavender and clove have been added with a light touch to avoid the soapiness some don’t care for. Processed similarly to the Brickle, the blend is fruitier, sweeter and more flowery, and it has a bit more flavor depth and body. The flavors don’t fade as much as with the Brickle and remain in the smoke to the end. I think of this blend more as a variation rather than as a duplication of the Lakeland style. P&T

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Category: Fall 2011, Tobacco Articles, Trial by Fire

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