Trial by Fire : Pipes and Tobaccos Magazine

Trial by Fire


by Tad Gage and Joe Harb

Villiger International’s lineup of bulk Newminster tobaccos reflects influences from classic Stokkebye mixtures (a company Villiger acquired), and deft blending and tobacco sourcing from Mac Baren. While some of these tobaccos are reprises of classic Stokkebye blends, there are some intriguing differences. One of these is the use of African and South American Virginia in a number of the blends. When employed properly, they can lend significant sweetness and depth. Although equatorially grown Virginia is still Virginia leaf, its tropical characteristics make it markedly different from leaf grown in the Eastern United States. As a leading maker of dry cured cigars, Villiger has been sourcing tobacco from these areas for a long time. And if you associate Danish blends with a lot of topping, prepare to be surprised.

No. 403 Superior Round Slices
Having something of a fetish for and fascination with spun-cut round slices (Three Nuns, Escudo, etc.), this was the Newminster tobacco that first attracted me to the lineup. There are only a few machines worldwide that can spin tobacco into long ropes and slice those ropes into disks. I also like disks for the fact they offer a number of smoking options, from leaving whole or as very lightly broken disks to bring out more distinct characteristics of the components, or more assertively broken to create an evenly distributed blend.

These mottled disks, with an “eye” of dark fired Kentucky leaf (a Burley-like but different species that’s aged, pressed and heat-cured) surrounded by well-aged flue-cured and red Virginia leaf, are worthy of framing. The pouch aroma was slightly honeyed, but mostly had a rich smell of Virginia. Villiger says this is lightly aromatic, but if it is, it is an extremely light topcoat. Good thing, too, because the tobaccos are too tasty to cover up.

I’ll offer two alternative scenarios that yielded different results. The first was to smoke the disks moist and intact, with a few shreds to help maintain combustion. The moisture content was acceptable, but they could be dried for a day with no harm. This treatment delivered prominent Virginia sweetness, highlighting some well-aged leaf. There were cinnamon and light honey flavors (natural, not derived from casing), intermingled with an earthy, peppery hit from the dark fired. To get the most out of the leaf, I’d recommend smoking the disks whole rather than aggressively broken. It was enjoyable from start to finish, although the sugary, flue-cured bright Virginias were a bit sharp at times, warning me to let the mixture rest before relighting.

The second method, which I learned from smoking vintage Three Nuns that had dried out, was to leave the tobacco in an open container and allow it to complete dry down (and it quickly does). Leaving the fragile disks as whole as possible, I packed my pipe lightly and fired up. Immediately, I noted a far more pronounced black pepper taste from the Kentucky. The Virginia sweetness was definitely there, but I enjoyed the slightly grilled beefsteak, almost cigarlike prominence of the dark fired leaf. The dry tobacco required slow puffing, but if carefully managed, it was smooth with no tongue bite. I am not a proponent of smoking super-dry tobaccos, but it worked in this case. Less aggressive drying enables you to strike a middle ground.

This spun cut may incorporate the same leaf that’s in Mac Baren’s HH Old Dark Fired, one of Mac Baren’s best. But wrapping up the dark fired leaf with some mellow and bright Virginia is genius. If you miss Orlik’s discontinued Dark Strong Kentucky, this is a fine replacement. I imagine this will only mellow with age. If you’re into cellaring, I’d recommend getting some glass canning jars, packing the disks in them, covering (no vacuum sealing needed) and letting the tobacco age for a couple years. I’m betting this will be luxurious and still nicely moist.

Harb: This blend features very thin disks of Virginia tobacco leaf wrapped around a core of dark fired Kentucky tobacco. I prefer to cut the disks into quarters and then lightly rub the segments out so that I have shorter strands of tobacco. This makes packing easier and helps distribute the different components more evenly. It also helps keep the ribbons from burning too fast. Once through the charring light, the Virginia delivered a light flavor that was tangy and lightly sweet, and this was matched with a bold darker note and a moderate level of body from the Kentucky leaf. Superior Round Slices was easy to light and to keep lit, which are good qualities for a beginner. The overall light flavor profile is a nice change of pace if you just want a pleasant, smooth-burning blend.        

No. 1 All Natural
Gage: A nice, shaggy, broken flake cut distinguishes this mixture from many run-of-the-mill generic light Cavendish blends you’ll find. Ribbons of brown and gold Virginias alternate with generous strips of variegated light and dark leaf cut from pressed cakes, giving this a great deal of visual interest. The pouch aroma is mostly Virginia with a light flowery scent. The mixture is presented as not having any aromatic flavorings, and I couldn’t detect any obvious topping in my tastings.

The mix of cuts makes this a snap to pack and light, although it performs even better with a day or two of drying. It dries out quickly, underscoring a lack of aromatic saucing that would keep it artificially moist for a prolonged period. As light Cavendish mixtures go, this was a refreshing combination of nicely aged U.S. Virginias and Brazilian Virginia leaf, giving it more interest and complexity than most light Cavendish blends. Finding a middle ground between aromatic and English character, it’s a simple, satisfying cross-over smoke for English smokers looking for something with appealing Virginia sweetness and aromatic smokers seeking the same thing but without topping. It left no ghosting in the pipe. It can burn a trifle hot, so slow smoking is a benefit. It might age well, and offers interesting potential for blending experiments.

Harb: All Natural is described as a straight-cut Cavendish blend of mild flue-cured Virginias. The aroma is light and slightly sweet. The cut is broken flakes mixed in with long, thin ribbons. Once stoked to embers, the blend was very smooth, and the flavor was light to moderate, with a nice sweetness. As I progressed down the bowl, I picked up occasional deeper notes. The blend was slightly moist, and the first tasting I tried with no drying had a tendency to overheat. I allowed the blend to dry a bit with subsequent bowls, and they were smooth and cool, particularly with a slow puffing rhythm. I liked the blend best when I gave it just enough air to keep the burn above a smolder. Pipe smokers who like the lighter Virginia blends should enjoy this one.

No. 52 Ultimate English
If you like the aroma of a classic Balkan blend like Presbyterian Mixture or Dunhill Early Morning Pipe, buy a big bag of Ultimate English and use it for aromatherapy. Ultimate is an attractive, fine-cut mixture with a fairly even mix of Cyprian Latakia, Viriginias and Oriental leaf (they say Turkish, I say Greek Basma). Every single charring light delivered an off-putting punch of sinus-tweaking smoke. This dissipated immediately and never returned, but I found a couple of quick charring puffs and getting myself out of the way was the best way to mitigate this rough start.

On the second light, the mixture settled in nicely, delivering an excellent balance of Latakia smokiness, pungency from the Oriental leaf and a bit of sweetness from the Virginia leaf. I try to resist comparisons, but I thought this was every bit as good as Presbyterian or Early Morning Pipe, but with a bulk price point. I continue to be at a loss to accurately describe good Oriental leaf, but it has a sweet/notsweet sugar content and a slight fresh and wholesome barnyard character like a well-aged red wine or creamy, noble, “stinky” cheese. I also liked the easy-smoking fine ribbon cut of this mixture. It made for easy lighting and cool burning.

This is a winner straight from the bag, showing off lots of character and good age behind the leaf. I don’t think it will gain additional character or interest with aging, but it certainly won’t hurt to jar it up and keep it around for a few years to dip into. This one competes with some of the best non-cased, Oriental-forward Balkan blends you’re going to find these days.

Harb: Described as the blend with the most Latakia in the series, this blend also has a variety of Oriental tobaccos and subtle Virginias. The aromas that waft up are the smokiness of the Latakia, the spices of the Orientals and the sweetness of the Virginias. Once in the pipe and burning, however, it is the Orientals that lead the flavor, with the Latakia adding pungency to the smoke and the Virginias contributing a delicate sweetness to the flavor profile. This is a well-rounded blend that is rich and smooth, with a nice complexity. By mid-bowl, the Latakia blossomed and became more dominant without obscuring the Oriental characters. People who like the more heavy Latakia English blends may enjoy Ultimate English as a lighter blend that also gives them a good complement of Latakia while remaining complex.

No. 306 English Orient
This blend confused me. There’s a lot going on here, with African Virginias, Cyprian Latakia, Mexican Burley and Turkish Samsun. All fine and good until they added the black Cavendish, which I like, but its sweet/smoky flavor clashed with the pungent Turkish leaf. It lights and burns clean and dry. If you like aromatic English-style blends, this could be your cup of tea. It seemed indecisive to my palate.

Harb: The smoky, pungent aroma of Latakia is prominent in the pouch, with spicy herbal aromas of Oriental varietals underneath. At the start, however, it is the Oriental varietals that contribute spice and stoutness to the flavor, and the Latakia adds depth and complexity to the smoke. English Orient is very smooth and the tobaccos used are well-balanced. By mid-bowl, the Latakia contributed more pungency to the flavor, but still remained just under the Orientals. The blend was dry in the pouch, and smoked dry and evenly throughout the bowl, leaving a nice, soft, gray ash. For some pipe smokers, this may be a crossover blend between the Oriental blends and the English blends that feature a stronger Latakia component. Definitely a must-try for those who like a rich and smooth blend with prominent flavors.

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Category: Spring 2013, Trial by Fire

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