I remember walking into the premier pipe shop in my city for the first time, armed with a few questions about tobacco. I’d just returned to the United States after spending several years abroad in the thick forests of southern Germany and the culture crush of Barcelona. Though fascinating, that season of my life was exhausting.
When I came home, I wanted to adopt a hobby; something timeless and a bit contrarian. So I bought my first pipe from an auction and stopped by a tobacco startup near my house. At the time, I didn’t know that a shop about 10 minutes away had been around for more than 50 years. After fumbling through the basics of packing a bowl of tobacco and smoking, I was ready for a promotion from the practice squad to the starting 11.
Say what you will about pipes seeming affected – a pastime better left to gnarled sea captains and Englishmen, maybe – but I think they’re damn cool. A guy smoking a pipe is someone with whom I would mingle. And perhaps “mingle” is the best way to describe pipe tobacco, a realm where exotic creations from the Mediterranean, Middle East, Great Britain, and America come together to fill the room with a velvety smoke.
The tobacco you buy online or at your local shop is a blend of tobaccos from various parts of the world. Tobacco blenders will use different types of leaves to produce different flavors, burn rates, and mouthfeel.
Winemakers mix varietals to create unique flavors. Brewers add malt and hops to change the flavor of a beer. Tobacco blenders do the same with the following leaves:
- Virginia: Naturally sweet and light, it burns quick and adds a nice flavor to your smoke.
- Burley: Slow burner that has a nutty, relatively mild flavor.
- Perique: A Louisiana-based leaf with spicy notes.
- Bright: A North Carolina-based leaf with a mild flavor.
- Latakia: Hefty, smoky flavor that adds punch and color to your blend.
- Oriental: An overall category of Middle Eastern leaves (Latakia included) that produce a bold, spicy profile.
Blenders use different proportions of some of these tobaccos to create a unique overall flavor profile. From there, tobacco blends are divided into two categories: aromatics and non-aromatics.
The tobacco aromas that often lull us into a world of cherries, blackberries and cream are the result of aromatics. One name you’ll hear a lot in this category is Cavendish, a mix of several different types of tobacco leaf that has a sweet smell.
My first tobacco, Danish Gold, was a Cavendish-style tobacco. I chose it after dipping my nose into several jars housing various fruit-forward blends; not my style, really. Danish Gold’s sweet but not fruit-heavy aroma won me over.
Aromatic blends get their distinct names and smells from what’s called "casing," a syrup that includes said flavors and sugar. This syrup is added during processing. The tobacco soaks up the flavors and is then heated to remove excess moisture.
At the end of the process, some blenders add alcohol (rum, for example) to enhance the flavor. By the time the tobacco is packaged, the alcohol has burned off and moisture levels are back to normal.
I found myself in my neighborhood tobacco haunt because I wanted to move beyond the sweet-smelling Danish Gold I bought. The resident tobacconist pointed me to a blend called Highlander, which is a mix of non-aromatic English tobacco and aromatics of the Cavendish variety. Non-aromatic means the tobacco doesn’t have any casing. Because non-aromatics tend to have a pretty strong taste, they’re toned down with complimentary aromatics.
Storing Your Tobacco
Whatever you choose, you’ll need to know how to store your blends. Air-tight containers are the key; long-term exposure to air can dry out your tobacco. Flip-top lids lined with a rubber gasket work well.
Should you find yourself with a dry fistful of tobacco, wet a washcloth completely, ring it out until no water drips out, then set it across the opening of your jar. Close the lid as best as you can and let it sit for six or seven hours. I’ve used this method to rehydrate my Danish Gold, and it worked pretty well.
Others in the tobacco world may tell you to go 12 hours or to dump your leaf in a bowl and cover it with a wet towel – opinions vary. But word to the wise: If you leave the towel on too long, your tobacco may mold.
Choosing Your Tobacco
There's no handbook to picking the right tobacco. Stop by a pipe-centric tobacco shop and banter with the tobacconist. He or she will help you understand what’s in each blend, how it smokes and what it tastes like.
One of my first questions was: “My Danish Gold smells great, but it tastes nothing like it smells.” The divorce between taste and smell has to do with casing – since your tongue never touches the tobacco, you don’t get to taste the syrup it absorbed. This explains why my Highlander, which smells sweetly offensive, tastes much better than my Danish Gold.
Your tobacconist will also be able to recommend tobacco brands you can purchase online; some of which come in round discs (flake), circular ropes (cake/plug), and fine shreds (shag). Whichever you choose, an ounce of tobacco (a great starting point) can last you a long time, depending on how often you smoke, and will usually cost less than $5.
Experiment with blends. Try different styles of cut. Bounce between aromatics and non-aromatics until you find the tobacco which best suits you.
Happy piping, gents.