Trial by fire : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Trial by fire

•By Tad Gage and Joe Harb•

In this interesting and eclectic tasting, we decided to review some new offerings as well as an established but perhaps not particularly well-known line of tobaccos. Villiger International, based in Switzerland and established in 1888, has long been associated with an excellent line of Dutch-style cigars and dry-cured cigarillos. In recent years, the company has expanded its line of premium long-filler cigars manufactured in the Dominican Republic. Concurrently, the company has teamed up with Peter Stokkebye International, a Danish firm founded in 1882 and one well-known to pipe smokers worldwide. This joint endeavor—Villiger Stokkebye International—has introduced a line of pipe tobaccos blended by Stokkebye and featuring an intriguing combination of English, Danish and Dutch styles.

As long as we were exploring things with historic import, we simply had to try the resurrected Balkan Sobranie Original Mixture, blended by J.F. Germain and distributed by Michael Gold’s Arango Cigar Co.—a firm, I should mention, that is making an admirable effort to expand access to high-quality pipe tobaccos. This is not simply an attempt to recreate a revered old blend, but a rare situation in which the rights to the original formula were obtained and followed. It has always perplexed me how stingy the tobacco companies that own the rights to classic and long-departed blends like John Cotton’s, Baby’s Bottom or Sobranie 759 have been with sharing those formulae so they can be re-created by companies actually willing to blend and sell them. Most of the time, these recipes sit gathering dust in some corporate archive. So it was a treat to sample an authentic re-creation of a classic blend.

Finally, we wanted to review Erik Nording’s Hunter Blend series of pipe tobaccos. The line, blended by McClelland Tobacco, has been around for awhile but hasn’t received the attention we believe it deserves. In fact, the line seems to have been generally unavailable for several years, but the good news is that it’s back, and you’ll find some pleasant surprises if you read on.

Balkan Sobranie Original
Gage: You have to love the tin, which faithfully if not exactly reproduces the old Sobranie artwork, including the Romany women (one smoking a cigar) and the little caravan of wooden wagons. The flat 50-gram tin is appealing, as is the crimped white paper that envelops the tobacco.

Recreating an old blend is always challenging, and Sobranie Original apparently offered a moving target. In the case of Sobranie Original, veteran smokers who puffed on the old stuff in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s say there were regular changes in the blend—particularly in the amount of Latakia used. However, this blend was always an Oriental-forward tobacco, with Latakia used as a condimental flavoring. This current iteration of the blend is an attractively mottled combination of black Latakia, tan and even lightly green Oriental leaf, and a hint of Virginia. The tin aroma delivers the light sweetness of the Oriental leaf. While there is a decided aroma of smoky Latakia, that subsides into the background when smoked.

The medium-fine ribbon cut lights easily and settles in quickly. The cut makes it a great blend for Fred Hanna’s air packing method, in which you cram a plug of tobacco into the pipe but leave a completely tobacco-less section at the very bottom of the bowl. The tobacco burns perfectly, eventually collapsing on itself and smoking cool from start to finish. But it works well with a variety of packing methods, and in large or small briars. It is quite delicate in flavor, and it performed well with more neutral pipe materials like meerschaum, clay and even cob.

Sobranie Original is very pleasant and exceptionally mild and cool smoking. The challenge facing all of today’s blends relying heavily on Orientals is a dearth of high-grade varietal leaf. Sadly, the many types of Oriental and Macedonian leaf that were once available are simply not grown anymore. For this reason, the Oriental leaf in Sobranie Original is a bit mono-dimensional. Yenidje, the “Queen of Orientals,” which played a key role in the old Sobranie Original, seemed to be missing. I wasn’t looking for the musky intensity of the more intense Oriental tobaccos like Basma, because that wasn’t what Sobranie Original was about. Sobranie Original is a credible re-creation and a very fine blend.

Harb: According to the label, this is a reintroduction of the Original Smoking Mixture. There is a temptation to compare any iteration of this well-liked blend to others that have come before it, but such a comparison is not the intent of this review. The tin aroma is definitely that of a rich Oriental blend that also contains some Latakia and a base of Virginia tobaccos. I found the cut to be mixed, with the majority of the tobaccos presented as tangles of long ribbons that were almost a shag cut. In the pipe, the Orientals gave the blend a robust zest on the palate that stimulated with growing waves of intensity, and with a faint bitterness. These are two characteristics that I enjoy. The Virginias in the blend added some sweetness, and the Latakia gave the blend a pungent complexity. The flavor profile was similar throughout the bowl. This blend, The Balkan Sobranie, smoked smooth, rich and dry to a fine gray ash. Even with the thin ribbons, there was little tendency to overheat.

Nording Hunter Blend Beagle
Gage: I love to get input from my pipe aficionado friends, and when I got a glowing recommendation of this blend from one of my pals who has tried every Virginia tobacco on Earth, I needed no more incentive to suggest the entire line for review. This is a truly overlooked tobacco that Virginia fans should buy, smoke and cellar. In the tin, this lightly broken Virginia-Perique flake has a fudgy aroma and density. Flecks of golden-orange Virginias are visible in the sliced cakes. It is not particularly moist, but it is dense. This combination flake and pre-rubbed tobacco begs to be loaded into your pipe with large chunks and a few of the rubbed-out flakes to facilitate lighting and burning.

From the start, Beagle simply bays with Virginia depth. It burns exceptionally cool for any all-Virginia blend, delivering loads of raisin and bittersweet chocolate flavor. If you find the intense flavors of some of McClelland’s heavily stoved mixtures like Christmas Cheer or Dark Star daunting, this will give you all the sweetness and character without quite so much tang. Besides that absolutely unique flavor of quality stoved Virginia, it offered hints of dark chocolate and dried cherries.

The citrusy flavor of the unstoved orange Virginia leaf is evident in the first half of the smoke. But in the second half, the very smooth Perique became a more assertive component of the flavor profile, while the orange Virginia brightness subsided. Beagle is somewhat similar to Beacon Extra (an excellent McClelland product incorporating stoved Virginia and Perique), but also distinctive, with less pronounced Perique. The cake aging sets up this mixture to deliver when purchased, but this is one that should sing if you give it a couple years of cellaring.

Harb: Produced by McClelland for the Nording series, Beagle is a partially broken flake that features matured orange and red Virginias that are spiced with Louisiana Perique. The Virginias give the aroma a rich sweet and citrus note, and the Perique lends tartness to the aroma. Once charred, a citrus flavor emerged that was nicely complemented by the mellowness of the red Virginia. The overall flavor level continued to develop depth toward mid-bowl, and the Perique blossomed as I progressed further down the bowl for a nice finish. On a second tasting, I let the blend dry more and got a light chocolate note, with the Perique emerging earlier in the bowl. Beagle is a smooth blend with body that is not overwhelming, and it smoked dry with no bite.

Nording Hunter Blend Retriever
Gage: With meaty chunks of black Cavendish offset by fine and medium ribbon-cut Virginia, this aromatic blend delivers a light honey and caramel tin aroma without masking the smell of aged Virginia leaf. The light casing meant the tobacco didn’t clump when pinched together, and it’s always nice to smoke an aromatic that still smells like tobacco. This dappled mixture packs easily and lights just like a nonaromatic. It seems most of the aromatic flavor is carried by the cake-aged Cavendish, which provided a pleasing duet between the honey-vanilla taste of the Cavendish and more straightforward Virginia tobacco flavors. The topping was light enough that it left very little scent in the tobacco bowl and burned cleanly to the end every time.

Nording Hunter Blend Fox Hound
Gage: This blend is an English wolf in a Danish sheep’s clothing. Clearly, the association with Danish pipemaker Erik Nording conjures up thoughts of Danish aromatic tobaccos. But if you’re looking for a medium-bodied English blend with superb Cyprian Latakia and top-notch Oriental and Turkish tobaccos, this is worth tracking down. The tin aroma is almost sweet—not from aromatic toppings but from the medium ribbon-cut tobacco itself. It’s simply excellent, beautifully aged leaf from the McClelland storehouse.

The premium-grade Latakia in Fox Hound has a smoky sweetness and none of the harshness found in some Latakia mixtures. It smelled so sweet, in fact, that despite it not being in the description, I wondered whether there was a bit of lightly cased black Cavendish sprinkled in. A sure way to tell is nibble the tobacco, and after going through numerous black nuggets, they were all Latakia. The Oriental and Turkish tobaccos deliver complex notes of musk and hay and an almost Virginia-like sweetness. Oriental leaf can be exceptionally sweet, if it’s the right stuff. If you enjoy a medium English blend and take the time to track this down, you’ll be in for a pleasant surprise.

Harb: Nording’s Fox Hound is described as a mild English-style blend featuring Cyprian Latakia and Orientals. The aroma from the tin is light, with the pungent Latakia nicely combined with the sweet and piquant Orientals. Once stoked to embers, it is the spice and tang of the Orientals that emerge as the primary flavors, with the smoky flavor of the Latakia underneath. This flavor profile remains the same through most of the bowl, with the Latakia contributing more at the finish. Fox Hound smoked smooth and dry to a soft gray ash. The intensity of flavor is mild, which would make this an all-day smoke for some. Fox Hound is a definite recommendation for your to-try list.


Villiger 1888 Cocktail Hour
Gage: Nobody does spun cut tobacco like Stokkebye, and I love those wonderful little disks. So popping the 50-gram tin and peeling back the crimped paper covering to reveal luscious circles of tobacco immediately got my attention. The mixture is a combination of disks and loose fine-cut ribbons, and I would probably have preferred all disks I could rub out myself, but I’m being picky. It seems Cocktail Hour is a cuvee of tobaccos: flue-cured Virginias from the U.S. and Brazil, African Malawi-grown Virginia leaf, and toppings of chocolate and pineapple.

It had a rustic, haylike tin aroma. Thankfully, in smoking this mixture, the topping flavor was positively nonexistent. It just tasted like great, straightforward Virginia goodness. The addition of the hearty Brazilian and Malawi tobaccos gives the blend some spicy punch and complexity reminiscent of a Virginia-Perique blend. The flavors were consistent from the first light to a smooth finish. I found a few hours of drying in the tin facilitated an even burn while ensuring enough moisture to promote a cool and easy burn.

Harb: This blend is presented as thin disks of dark-fired and sun-cured tobaccos. The tin aroma has a hint of chocolate and a sweet, light topping. The disks are easy to rub out and yield very thin ribbons that are easy to load. For the first tasting, I rubbed out the disks too finely, which promoted a fast, hot burn. On the second tasting, I didn’t rub them out as much, and this helped to maintain a slower, cooler burn rate. Cocktail Hour delivered a delicate flavor of chocolate and honey that continued to develop down the bowl and had a medium body level. I got a bit more flavor in a meerschaum pipe, which I think better matched the delicate flavors of this blend. It is not just for the cocktail hour; this blend can be enjoyed any time of the day and may be an all-day blend for some pipe smokers.

Villiger 1888 Early Day
Gage: Seems like everyone has their take on Dunhill’s Early Morning Pipe. Villiger’s medium fine cut shows off relatively balanced proportions of Latakia, several Virginias and a blend of Orientals. While the tin aroma was dominated by Latakia, it was a smaller component in the flavor. The Oriental leaf tasted almost like Burley, with an earthy and haylike quality, while the Virginia tobaccos lacked a sweetness that might have added balance to the mixture. Unfortunately, the Latakia lent as much of a charcoal taste as the trademark campfire smokiness, leaving behind a dusty aftertaste.

 Harb: This blend is described as a classic English blend that includes Virginia, Oriental and Latakia tobaccos, and the tin aroma highlights a light pungency of the Latakia that is combined by spiciness from the Orientals and an underlying sweet mellowness from the Virginias.

The smoky Latakia was noticeable, but to my palate, it was the spices of the Orientals that were more prominent, with the Latakia and Virginia included in the flavor profile but participating under the Orientals. I found that the character of Early Day was consistent throughout the bowl, with the Latakia slightly more intense at the finish than it was during the majority of the bowl. The components are well balanced, so the blend is smooth. I would classify it more as an Oriental blend with a medium complexity and flavor level that would make it a good crossover blend for those seeking a change of pace from the more intense English blends.

Villiger 1888 Mid-Day
Gage: This short-ribbon mixture of tan and golden Virginias, Burley and a sprinkling of black Cavendish has a potent tin aroma of coconut, vanilla and raspberry. The mixture lit easily and the topping, which is listed as vanilla and exotic fruit, did not overpower the complexity of the base tobaccos. The Cavendish provided a lightly sweet accent to the Burley and Virginia. The topping flavor seemed closer to honey and raspberry. Mid-Day is definitely a Danish-style aromatic mixture, but one that shows enough restraint to let you taste the interesting blend of tobaccos. Still, this is definitely a mixture that needs to be smoked in a dedicated aromatic pipe, as it does leave behind some flavors. However, it burns clean and dry like an uncased tobacco.

 Harb: Mid-Day is another blend that is presented as fine ribbons, and it has a prominent vanillalike fruity aroma with a faint hint of coconut when the tin is opened. It needed to be dried a bit to minimize the tendency to overheat. The blend includes a touch of Oriental leaf that adds a delicate complexity, but the Oriental character wasn’t obvious until most of the topping had burned off. Mid-Day is a very smooth aromatic blend that has lots of flavor and sweetness and is a blend that produces a pleasant room note, particularly during the first half of the bowl. Once the aromatic character began to fade around mid-bowl, the flavors of the underlying tobacco emerged.

Please see the rest of the spring issue’s tobacco reviews in the pages of P&T magazine or in our online edition.


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Category: Spring 2012, Trial by Fire

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