Trial by fire : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Trial by fire


by Tad Gage and Joe Harb

We’re taking a close look at Cornell & Diehl’s tobacco series honoring groundbreaking African-American members of the military. It also gives us the chance to review First Responders. Originally named Tribute, this blend was created by Greg Pease for C&D as a tribute to those who responded to the September 11 crisis and to raise funds for the families of September 11 victims. It has been recently reissued as First Responders. We’re also pleased to have an opportunity to review Crooked Lane, a new blend created by Mark Stewart, Craig Tarler and Chris Tarler, who has assumed leadership of the company following the passing of his father this past September.
It’s also a pleasure to help celebrate McClelland Tobacco Co.’s 35th anniversary by reviewing its newest blends, Virginia-based Stave Aged 35 and Frog Morton’s Cellar. Both mixtures feature a rare 23.6 percent sugar content orange Virginia leaf and a unique incorporation of barrel staves cut from charred oak barrels used to age fine whiskeys. A 1-inch chunk of stave is included in each tin—all-American Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey for Stave Aged 35 and whiskey of undisclosed origin for FM’s Cellar.
“The concept of infusing the flavor of spirits into pipe tobacco has been something Mary (McNiel) and I have dwelled on for a good decade,” says McClelland’s Mike McNiel. “Experience has proven to us that directly applying even the best spirits to pipe tobacco doesn’t impart much flavor and makes the mixture taste harsher. There are many artificial spirit flavors used in aromatic blends, and we certainly didn’t want to go that route.”
McNiel isn’t sure exactly when the inspiration struck to experiment with booze-infused charred casks used to age fine whiskeys, but once it did, McClelland set about buying a few casks for experimentation. These casks, which have been used for aging whiskey for at least eight years, share and absorb a significant amount of oils and aromatics from the liquor, which is then released through slow evaporation. Tobacco readily absorbs airborne flavors and aromas, which is why they so readily “marry” flavors when blended.
It became immediately apparent that when a batch of tobacco was exposed to a cut white oak barrel stave, it absorbed the essential oils and flavors aged into the wood without masking the tobacco sugars and increasing heat as in direct application of spirits. The wood and charred barrel interior also gave off flavor.
“Before aging whiskey in charred oak barrels, you basically have white lightning. That’s true, even if it’s a very high quality liquor made from the finest ingredients,” notes McNiel. “It’s the long-term exposure to the char and wood that gives whiskey a lot of its character, complexity and color. When we started cutting up these staves, the aroma in the factory was incredible, almost heady. But once cut, all that essence evaporates rapidly, so we had to develop a process for quickly getting these chunks into the tins and sealing them so the tobacco would absorb these essences. It only takes a few days in the tin for the tobacco to be infused with the flavor.”
That was a daunting challenge, explained McNiel, but equally daunting was combining tobaccos that complemented the whiskey’s flavor. That quest required months of experimentation and many disappointments. “We tried a lot of very good tobaccos and blend combinations that just didn’t work with the staves,” explains McNiel. “When we acquired some exceptional high-sugar Virginia, we knew we had the right vehicle to complete the project.” He adds that each bourbon-aged barrel yields about 1,350 chunks and some waste. Because the staves are curved, cutting to minimize loss is a challenge.
Allow me a couple of final notes. I believe some folks will say these tobaccos are cased—they are not. While the staves take up a little space, they don’t count toward the total weight, so a 50-gram tin, for example, contains a full 50 grams of tobacco. And despite the prominent flavor of the whiskey, my experience was that no ghosting occurred. My best rationale for this is the infusion that takes place is of airborne volatile oils and creates primarily an olfactory experience. A direct application of a liquid to the tobacco would tend to leave behind tangible substance during the combustion process. —Tad Gage

C&D Crooked Lane
Gage: From the delicious Oriental-laden sweet-sour tin aroma to the rich blacks and tans of this medium ribbon mixture, this new offering from C&D leaves no question of its commitment to being a classic English blend. Crooked Lane is a balanced mixture of Oriental, Virginia and Latakia, with a hint of Perique and perhaps a pinch of toasted black Cavendish. Indeed, on lighting up, that balance comes through, with a pronounced flavor of what I suspect is Greek Basma accented by the Latakia. The Virginia leaf is not particularly sweet, quietly supporting the Oriental tobacco. The Latakia plays a more condimental role in this blend, doing more to lend a coolness and subtle richness rather than any pronounced smokiness. Likewise, the Perique provides just an undercurrent of spice.
Crooked Lane is exceptionally consistent from start to finish, never straying from the Oriental-Virginia profile. There is a slight, almost dusty aftertaste found in many Oriental-forward mixtures. For those who enjoy an interesting yet straightforward medium English mixture, this team effort from Cornell & Diehl is definitely worth a try.

Harb: Described on the label as a full English blend, Crooked Lane has a tin aroma that suggests only a light touch of Latakia. But at first light, a stout, rich flavor with lots of depth is produced, with the Virginias and Orientals subduing the smokiness of the Latakia, and the Perique providing a bit more body than I expected. By mid-bowl the Latakia emerged and contributed more to the flavor, but it was not at the level I would classify as a full English blend. I found the coarse cut of the tobaccos better for medium to large bowl sizes. The cut helped produce a cool and slow burn to the blend, the Virginias added subtle sweetness, and the Orientals added a nice pungency. Crooked Lane burned dry and left a soft gray ash. Overall, this is a very nice English/Balkan blend that can be enjoyed any time of the day.

McClelland Stave Aged 35
Open this tin, take a deep whiff, and you’re pretty much smelling a snifter of fine, barrel-aged bourbon. The whiskey aroma is dominant. Visually, this all-Virginia, medium-fine, ribbon-cut mixture ranges from the deep brown leaf aged for three years through mahogany, tan, orange and red Virginia to just a touch of yellow bright Virginia. The moisture content was just right out of the tin, working well with a number of bowl-packing methods, from the “trickle” method to Fred Hanna’s air-pocket packing method (stuffing a clump of tobacco in the bowl and leaving a pocket of air at the bottom of the bowl).
For an all-Virginia mixture, it burns remarkably slow, with no bite. The initial light delivers a delightful wallop of bourbon flavor, and the blend quickly settles into an interplay of exceptionally sweet Virginia flavor with a pleasing hint of the whiskey. There’s also a light wood character and a touch of smokiness from the charred portion of the barrel. It’s sweet and mellow without any fruit. The bourbon is less pronounced in the second half of the bowl but still lightly present, offering one of the more satisfying Virginia mixtures I’ve ever smoked.

Harb: Matured and stoved Virginia ribbons have been infused from a block of barrel oak used to age Kentucky bourbon whiskey that has been placed in each tin. The Virginias used are sweet and zesty, and are well-complemented by the flavoring from the whiskey. The moisture level in the tin is suitable for loading in the pipe without drying. At the charring light, the whiskey aroma and flavoring came off easily, adding a subtle sweet note to the flavors of the Virginias. There was an initial tendency to overheat that quickly subsided as the infusion burned off, and the blend settled down to a cool, slow burn. This is a very fragrant, mellow, smooth and rich Virginia-based blend introduced to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the company.

Read the rest of these tobacco reviews in the pages of P&T magazine or the online digital edition.

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Category: Trial by Fire, Winter 2013

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