Strange Leaves

Are we seeing a convergence of two of the more boutique aspects of the tobacco industry, as cigar makers are looking to unusual leaves to find inspiration for new premium cigar blends?  For some time we’ve been aware of a break in tradition amongst cigar makers and in fact are in discussions with one of the companies mentioned below about stocking some of their ‘crossover’ product.  This article was recently published in Cigar Aficionado Magazine and although as the name suggests focuses mostly on cigars, it is interesting for us pipe smokers nonetheless!

Despite all the technological innovation in the world today, cigar making really hasn’t changed much in the last few decades. Premium, handmade cigars, for the most part, are rolled from Central American tobaccos, arrive in boxes, and lighting one up still requires fire and a blade.

It’s a surprise then, when the word “innovation” is thrown around the premium cigar industry with some heft. This year has bore witness to an intriguing trend—integrating tobaccos not typically used as part of a cigar.  These distant relative tobaccos aren’t new (the processes for curing them are hundreds of years old), but adding these strange leaves into new blends is adding a layer of creativity to blending and flavor in a new generation of cigars.

Three different cigar makers—Drew Estate, George Rico and Sam Leccia—released blends this year containing some portion of fire-cured tobacco, a leaf typically used for pipe tobacco and chewing tobacco that takes its name from the wood-fire curing process used to give it potent, rich flavors of wood and smoke.  Fire-cured, or “dark fired” tobacco, is actually cured in a similar process to that of candela wrappers. Both are hung in sealed barns and subjected to high heat. Over a series of days, the tobaccos go through a gradual increase that sets in flavor and leaches out moisture.  The key difference is in the timing of the curing. While candela is cured almost immediately, flash sealing the green pigment of the leaf, fire-cured tobacco rests first. “After five or 10 days hanging [in the barns], the tobacco begins to yellow,” says Drew Estate executive vice president Nicholas Melillo, who oversees many of the new products and blends at Drew Estate. Melillo says that once the yellowing has begun, that’s when the fires come into play. But instead of odorless heat, which is used heavily in the curing of premium cigar leaf, fire-cured tobacco is cooked like barbecue, with the woods and their smoke imparting as much flavor as heat into the rafter-packed leaves.

Fired-cured tobacco is difficult to blend. As a flavor agent, a little bit goes a long way—it can be a lot to handle the first time you taste it. As a component in a cigar, it can also create burn problems, because it is cured to different humidity specifications than most cigar leaf. Melillo says that for the Drew Estate blend, which is rolled at the Joya de Nicaragua factory, Kentucky was mixed with Nicaraguan tobaccos “so it will combust properly.”

Sam Leccia and George Rico also incorporated fire-cured tobaccos into the filler of their newest blends. Rico’s cigar, the Miami S.T.K. American Puro, is made entirely from American tobacco leaves. It has a Connecticut Habano leaf as the wrapper and binder (something rare in the cigar business), and filler leaf from other parts of the United States meant to balance out the fire-cured.  Leccia uses a bit of fire-cured leaf in his Leccia Tobacco Black, which is made in the Dominican Republic. The smoke, which has some fire-cured filler from Tennessee as well as Kentucky, also has filler from Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic and Brazil. Leccia says the fire-cured tobacco is a finishing touch, rather than a central component.

“I was introduced to the leaf by one of the [tobacco] brokers,” says Leccia, who already had a working blend and was looking for finishing touches. “I smelled it from like five feet away,” he remembers. The leaf was improperly identified in the factory. “They said it was Italian,” says Leccia, who explains that Kentucky fire-cured tobaccos are often used in Italian cigars such as Toscanos.

Leccia likens the taste of the fire-cured leaf to that of a smoky whiskey, which he says can be overwhelming in large amounts. “We’re talking about the smallest segment of my blend. I wasn’t looking for dark fire; it found me,” he says. “I wasn’t trying to be innovative. I wasn’t trying to do something different.”

Ventura Cigar Co. turned to a different tobacco oddity for its new Project 805 blend and made a cigar with andullo, a tobacco typically used in pipe tobacco blends or as chewing tobacco. Andullo is created by taking cured tobacco leaves, wrapping them tightly in palm tree pods with rope, and hanging them to ferment for a period of two years. The process turns the tobacco into dark, hard logs resembling big sausages.  Dominicans have smoked andullo as a pipe tobacco for more than 500 years. They carve a bit off the hard, fermented log, taking small chunks and adding them to their pipe. (The log is so hard, some smokers leave a block of it in the sun to further harden, and then carve it into the shape of a pipe, meaning they can smoke andullo out of andullo itself.) Kevin Newman, brand manager for Project 805, says the andullo gives the cigar “a thick, earthy sweetness. The leaf is really leathery,” he says. “It adds most of the cigar’s body.”

Andullo is made, not grown. It’s the process that makes the tobacco distinctive, not the seed variety or its growing conditions. The compressed fermentation gives it a similarity to perique, a Louisiana pipe tobacco that is fermented under pressure in barrels.

There have been attempts to integrate perique into cigars as well. Michael Tarnowicz, who runs CVT LLC, makers of Battleground Cigars, once produced a small run of cigars called Mysterioso that had perique as part of the filler blend. The launch of the brand unfortunately coincided with Hurricane Katrina.

“It’s been stalled for two or three years,” he explains. Not only did the storm impact the product launch, but perique can be a tough leaf to work with. “It’s messy,” says Tarnowicz. Many cigar factories, he explains, are hesitant to blend with perique because of how difficult the leaf is to blend and roll.

As with many of these unusual tobacco leaves, Tarnowicz says just a little perique is all you need to make an impact. “A little bit will do,” he says.

An interesting plot point in the saga of these strange leaves? Despite the amount of tinkering and tweaking going into the process to incorporate what can be high-maintenance leaf, none of that is driving the smokes to higher price points. All of the blends come with suggested retail prices under $10. So for the time being, the new cigars inspiring this curiosity are also relatively wallet-friendly. And though some of these odd leaves may be difficult to work with, they’re getting a lot easier to find—and smoke.

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One Response to Strange Leaves

  1. avatar Garrick says:

    Great stuff, this will lead to more interest in tobacco and an appreciation of the intricacies of formulating different mixtures and blends. I had never thought about the difficulties of mixing leaves together with differing burn properties, be it in a pipe bowl or cigar wrapper.
    I’d love to try a few of them one day.

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