IN THE DAYS when America was merely a group of colonies, and tobacco smoking was still in its infancy, a devotee of the pipe would simply take a tobacco leaf, crumble it in his hand, and place the shreds in the pipe bowl. He knew that if the leaf came from the base of the plant, the smoke would be strong and heavy; if the leaf came from the centre portion of the stalk, the smoke would be fairly mild; and if the leaf had grown near the top of the plant, the smoke would be very light and rather tasteless.
Early American pipe smokers were also aware that the taste of the smoke varied according to the region where the tobacco plant was grown. They knew that their own Virginia leaves yielded a sweet, full-flavoured smoke, that Persian tobacco gave a light, mild smoke, and that the acrid smoke of French tobacco was nearly unbearable.
Sometime during the nineteenth century, smokers discovered that by blending different tobaccos they could obtain various mixtures incorporating the best qualities of each type of tobacco. Any smoker could thus prepare his own mixture to suit his personal taste. Blended tobaccos became very popular, and the practice of blending persisted, so that the pipe mixture which you buy today may be a combination of as many as five or ten different tobaccos.
What makes the tobacco grown in Turkey different from that grown from the same type of seed in the Carolinas? Many factors influence the quality of the smoke from a tobacco plant. Among them are the weather, altitude, soil, moisture, and rainfall of the region. The cultivation is also of the greatest importance. Growers must choose the proper time to pick the leaves and perform the drying, curing, and other necessary processes. Just as wines derived from grapes grown in different vineyards may have different taste, tobacco from the same type of seed, but growing in adjacent plantations, may smoke very differently.
Moreover, during the curing process, organic changes take place in the leaf, similar to the action yeast has on dough. Much of the flavour of tobacco results from this fermentation process.
All these factors make tobacco blending somewhat of an art. Private blends have sometimes been handed down by tobacconists through several generations. As long as the tobaccos remain the same, so do the blends.
If you wish to make up your own blend, you should first become acquainted with the flavour and burning qualities of the various types of tobaccos. Then you can experiment with small amounts of selected tobaccos. When you have a satisfactory mixture, give the formula to your tobacconist and he will compound larger amounts for you upon request. Or you may find that a prepared blend suits your taste perfectly.
It is reasonably safe to say that burley tobaccos are smoked in more pipes than any other variety of tobacco. Burley is probably the best tobacco for a straight (unblended) smoke. The two types of burley, generally known as Kentucky burley and white burley, are both clean, cool-smoking tobaccos. White burley is very mild, with little flavour or aroma. Its neutral taste makes it ideal for mixing and reducing the strength of heavier-flavoured tobaccos. Kentucky burley, while not quite as light-coloured or smooth as the white variety is still extremely mild when compared to some of the heavier tobaccos.
Both white burley and Kentucky burley are actually greenish- yellow or brownish-yellow in colour, the “white” burley being somewhat lighter, hence its name. The two varieties of burley comprise the second largest tobacco crop in the United States, grown mostly in Tennessee, Kentucky, and southern Ohio.
Burley forms the basis of most tobacco blends, with many popular-priced mixtures containing as much as 75 per cent burley. Burley is also popular with manufacturers because it readily blends with other tobaccos. If you find your tobacco blend too harsh, too sweet, or generally too highly flavoured, you can add as much as 50 per cent burley to your mixture. The result will be a milder blend which will yield a flavourful smoke.
Virginia tobacco has been cultivated in Virginia ever since colonist John Rolfe, husband of the Indian princess Pocahontas, first planted the seed there in 1612. Today the bulk of Virginia tobacco is grown in a much wider region, including Virginia, but also North Carolina, South Carolina, Florida, and Georgia. The best grade of Virginia tobacco, generally called Virginia Bright, is a light lemon-yellow colour. Other grades of Virginia tobacco vary in colour from light green to brown and dark tan, depending on the soil and processing.
Virginia, like burley, can be smoked straight or used as a base for blends. When smoked alone, it has a full, light-bodied flavour and a sweet taste resulting from its high natural sugar content. Actually, Virginia tobacco resembles burley except that it has more flavour and aroma and less oil, so that its smoke is very mild.
Virginia Bright is a flue-cured tobacco produced by controlled, even, smokeless heat being introduced into the curing barns by flues carrying hot air. The heat and moisture in the barn are carefully regulated during the entire curing process. Virginia Bright is usually cut fine for the pipe, and therefore smokes rather fast and hot.
Other types of Virginia tobacco include Virginia Bright Pickings, cured and cut somewhat differently from Bright. Several leaves are pressed together to form a “cake,” and the cake then sliced to give a coarser cut. The result is a slower-burning tobacco, which yields a cooler, sweeter, woodier taste.
Virginia Plug Cut is similar to the Bright Pickings except that it has a much coarser cut. Producing a cool and very rich, mellow smoke, it is widely used in British blends.
Virginia Dark, grown in different kinds of soil, undergoes a fire-curing process by being exposed to an open fire. This tobacco has broad, dark-green leaves and is rarely used in pipe mixtures.
Virginia Sun-Cured, a regional variety grown almost exclusively near the city of Richmond, gets its name from an early practice of curing the leaves in the open sun. Today, most “sun- cured” tobaccos are actually cured in barns.
Pipe smokers owe it to themselves to become familiar with all types of Virginia tobacco, as well as the various cuts. Try each type, both as a straight smoke and as a blend. Too much Virginia in a mixture may make it bite, because the tobacco generally lacks essential oils. For this reason, plus the fact that it burns slowly, Virginia should not constitute more than 1.5 per cent of a mixture.
Practically all types of tobacco generally belong to one of two groups: those used as the “base” of a mixture, such as burley and Virginia, and those used for adding flavour, taste, and aroma to the blend, such as Latakia, Perique, and Turkish. But one tobacco, Cavendish, can be used both as a base and as a flavouring agent.
Cavendish is said to have received its name from Lord William Cavendish, the Duke of Newcastle, when he discovered this variety of tobacco around the year 1660.
Modern Cavendish differs from Virginia in that it is processed with sweetening agents such as maple sugar, sugar water, rum, or honey. This gives the tobacco a dark mahogany colour and a very sweet flavour. Today, the word Cavendish often refers to other tobaccos, such as Virginia or Maryland, which have been similarly processed. The, smoker may run across such varieties as Virginia Cavendish, Cavendish Wine-Cured, Cavendish Dark Plug Cut, Honey Cavendish, and Shredded Cavendish.
Cavendish can be smoked straight and many smokers prefer it that way. But it is often blended with other base tobaccos such as burleys and Virginias. If you are preparing your own blend, start by mixing equal amounts of Cavendish and burley. This will give you some idea of the use of Cavendish as a base. If you wish, you can keep adding Cavendish until it makes up as much as 90 per cent of the mixture.
To familiarize yourself with the use of Cavendish as a flavouring agent, first smoke a few pipefuls of plain white burley. Once you are familiar with this taste, add about 25 per cent Honey Cavendish to the blend. This will yield a mild smoke with very little aroma. For more flavour, you can add small amounts of Perique, Latakia, and other flavouring tobaccos. The variety of sweetening agents used to flavour Cavendish tobaccos makes it a never-ending source of interest to the pipe smoker who enjoys experimenting with new blends.
Unlike other tobaccos, Maryland tobacco actually grows exclusively in the state from which it derives its name. It is cultivated in the southern part of Maryland, between the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. The grey-and-yellow sandy soil on which the tobacco is grown must be carefully prepared. After being cut, the tobacco leaves are cured in large barns by normal ventilation of the air, without artificial heat or fire.
The finished leaf, thin, dry, and holding fire very well, burns slowly. Smoked plain, it has a very subtle flavour; when blended, it adds little taste to the blend. For these reasons, it is often used in a mixture likely to burn too rapidly or with difficulty. Maryland can also be used to reduce a strong blend and give it a more neutral flavour.
The Maryland tobacco crop is small, and there are few varieties. The smoker should first try some plain Maryland, and then add to it one of the many flavouring tobaccos. As an experiment, some Maryland might be introduced into a mixture whose characteristics are already familiar to the smoker. Use Maryland sparsely when blending; the addition of as little as one part in sixteen will make a noticeable difference.
One harvesting season about ninety years ago, an unusually large crop of tobacco was cut in northern Syria. Much of the tobacco remained unsold, and the ripe plants were hung from the roofs of the native houses, where the tobacco cured over the fires used to heat the dwellings. The fuel of the region which, some say, included camel dung, gave the tobacco a strong odour and colour never experienced before.
It was found that this tobacco, when included in a blend, made an excellent flavouring agent. The new tobacco was discovered near the town of Lattaquie, from which it was to obtain its name, Latakia. Today, the tobacco is cured over the smoke of various aromatic herbs.
Unlike other tobaccos, the stem and ribs of the Latakia plant produce the best smoke. So, in its case, the entire plant—including the flowers—makes up the tobacco. The curing process instils it with a heavy, sweet flavour and a dark, oily appearance. As Latakia possesses a highly distinctive taste, only very small amounts are needed in a blend. One ounce in a pound is very noticeable, and it would be unwise to have more than 15 per cent Latakia in any mixture.
Found in most good smoking mixtures, Latakia is fine tobacco for adding spice, natural flavour, and aroma.
Just about the time the American colonies were rising in revolt against the British King, an Acadian Frenchman named Pierre Chenet wandered into Louisiana and entered a region known as St. James Parish. There he observed the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians processing tobacco in a hollow log by placing it under great pressure until the tobacco’s natural juices were squeezed out. The Indians would then allow the leaves to soak and ferment in their own natural juices.
Chenet tested the resulting tobacco and found it to have a pronounced sweet and flavourful taste different from that of any other tobacco. He studied the process and improved on the Indians’ methods. As the popularity of the new tobacco spread, it became known as “tabac de Perique,” since Perique was Pierre’s nickname.
Perique tobacco ranks as something special among tobacco plants. For some unknown reason, it grows only on a small triangle of land some fifty miles west of the city of New Orleans. All attempts to grow Perique seeds on other soils have failed. Since Perique has such unique flavour, 5 per cent in a blend is usually sufficient.
Perique adds flavour and aroma to mixtures, burns slowly, and reduces the bite of fast-burning tobaccos. Today, Perique curing methods are essentially the same as they were when discovered by Chenet; but the processes which yield this fine, flavourful tobacco have remained a mystery.
Although the Western Hemisphere is the original home of the tobacco plant, many smokers feel that the world’s choicest tobaccos come from parts of Turkey and other regions bordering the Black Sea. They are convinced that these tobaccos are unexcelled in aroma and flavour. The climate and soil of Turkey is in fact ideal for the growing of tobacco, and the plant has thrived there, gaining many desirable characteristics.
Turkish tobaccos grow not only in Turkey, but also in Macedonia, a part of Greece adjacent to Bulgaria, and other nearby countries. The name “Turkish” has carried over from the time when all these lands were under the hegemony of the Turks. There are many types of Turkish tobaccos, as well as different ways of growing, harvesting, and curing each type. Thus, innumerable variations in the finished tobacco have been the direct result. The following are some of the more common types of Turkish tobaccos:
Xanthi, is one of the finest Turkish varieties, often referred to as the “Queen of Tobaccos.” It has a fresh, sweet, taste, a full body, and a very pronounced aroma. These qualities make it suitable as a flavouring element. It will give character to a mixture when added in small quantities. Xanthi production is relatively limited. Its cultivation is centred around the Greek town of Xanthi, from which it gets its name.
Djebel is very similar to Xanthi, since it is grown in the same geographical area. Djebel shares the same deliciously sweet flavour and grand aroma of Xanthi, but in smaller proportions. It burns and holds fire very well, has slightly less body than Xanthi, and therefore rates as a somewhat lighter tobacco.
Macedonian are tobaccos that grow in the Macedonian region of Greece. Macedonian tobaccos possess a mild, light taste, are very sweet, give off a pleasant aroma, and have excellent combustion qualities. Their mild yet fragrant character makes these tobaccos acceptable both as a base and as a flavoring agent.
Adrianople tobacco is cultivated in the peninsula which forms the European part of Turkey. Of medium quality, it produces a rather strong smoke and has a neutral taste. Most Adrianople tobacco is consumed in Europe and Asia. Very little of it ever appears in this country.
Smyrna is very rich tobacco grown along the west coast of Turkey. Famous for its pleasant aroma, some claim it to be the most aromatic of all tobaccos. Smyrna has a low rate of combustion but has a light, sweet taste which makes it a good addition to bland mixtures. Because of its heavy aroma, it should never be allowed to predominate in a blend.
Samsoun is a fine, pleasant tobacco cultivated in the east central part of Turkey, where the country’s north shore touches the Black Sea. It is noted for its unusual, delicate, agreeable taste, which differs from that of any other tobacco. Samsoun will improve any blend and can perk up an otherwise mediocre mixture. This tobacco also enjoys excellent burning qualities.
Trabisond, a tobacco which grows near the Samsoun district, possesses an unusually strong, yet agreeable, taste. Trabisond is usually employed to increase the strength of a mixture.
Djubek is really a Russian tobacco, although the plant is the same as the Turkish Xanthi. It has a light, full-bodied taste and an especially strong, fine aroma. Many smokers consider it the finest oriental tobacco, and use it to add a touch of spice to their blends.
This is only a partial list of the many fine tobaccos available from the Near East. Turkish tobacco, as purchased at your tobacconist, may be any one of the types mentioned, or it may be a mixture of several different types. Seldom smoked straight, Turkish is used primarily as a flavouring agent since a little of it goes a long way. If you wish to do your own blending with Turkish tobaccos, start by adding one part Turkish to sixteen parts of burley or Virginia. You will be happily surprised by the new taste and aroma which even this small amount of Turkish tobacco will impart to the blend.
The generally accepted methods of cutting tobacco are the result of trial-and-error experiments performed over many decades. All cuts are made either from single leaves, or from groups of pressed leaves. Any cutting of the single leaf is usually termed a “long” cut, while slicing the pressed leaves, or “cake,” is referred to as a “plug” cut.
Single leaves can be broken up in a “chop cut,” where the leaf is actually chopped into small pieces about one-quarter inch square. The leaf can also be “ribbon cut,” in which case it is sliced into long, narrow strips. Chop-cut tobacco has fairly slow, cool-burning qualities. On the other hand, the thin, stringy structure of ribbon-cut tobacco, and the large air spaces between the shreds, makes this type of cut burn fast.
The combustion of plug-cut tobacco is much slower than that of any chop cut or ribbon cut. Since several layers of leaves pressed tightly together with little space for air compose a section of plug cut, plug-cut tobacco takes a long time to ignite and even longer to burn. Accordingly, it tends to give a very cool smoke.
The smoker can vary the cuts of tobacco he employs so as to control the rate of burning. This in turn will affect the flavour of the tobacco, and will determine how many times a pipe has to be relit. The types of cuts will also determine whether a mixture will hang together or not, and the manner in which it packs into the pipe bowl. In choosing tobacco cuts, experience is the best teacher.
The first step in mixing your own blend is to pay a visit to a leading tobacconist in any large city. He will usually carry a stock of straight, unblended tobaccos, such as burley, Cavendish, and Latakia. If the dealer does not have a particular tobacco or cut in stock, he probably will be glad to order it for you.
The base tobaccos are usually sold by the quarter-pound, half- pound, or pound, while the much stronger aromatic and flavouring tobaccos may be sold by the ounce. The dealer keeps the tobaccos in humidors and measures the correct amount by weight, using a balance scale.
In preparing your blend at home, you can measure by volume if you do not have a scale at hand. When you have prepared the desired amount of each tobacco, place the tobaccos in separate piles, on a clean, level surface. Then mix the tobaccos together gently by using the open fingers of both hands as “forks.” Keep mixing until all the tobaccos are evenly distributed through the blend; then store the mixture in your humidor.
Blending tobaccos to suit your particular taste, one of the great thrills of pipe-smoking, is both simple and difficult to achieve. It requires no special equipment and very little time. Yet it takes years of experience to make an intelligent appraisal of the qualities of various blends. Because of this, tobacco blending has remained an art, but it is an art which every pipe smoker can practice and enjoy.
So, there it is then the low-down on tobaccos, in the 1960s anyway. I am sure a lot has changed since then, but I hope you enjoy reading our historic snippets. Thanks to an old copy of the Weber’s Guide to Pipes and Pipe Smoking from 1962.