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June 26, 2012

Don’t Smoke Aromatics? Think Again!




 

 

I found my way to the joy of pipe tobacco after many years as a self described cigar aficionado. Rather than starting out as many new pipe smokers do in the world of aromatics, it was a natural progression for me to jump right into the world of English blends. I soon found myself glued to internet sites reading as much about pipes and pipe tobacco as I could reasonably digest. I spent a year diligently taking notes about my favorite blends and when I felt some degree of confidence, I decided to begin sharing my thoughts on one of the popular tobacco review web sites. With the confidence and skill of an armchair quarterback on Monday morning I documented my journey from one blend to the next. It wasn’t long before I was venturing off into Virginias and various flakes. I was a man on a mission! Packages arrived at my doorstep so often that soon our mail carrier became part of our family’s circle of trust!  Mason jars began to occupy all of the available space in the basement of our new home. Boxes piled up and several large pipe racks made their way into the “pipe room.” I had fully succumbed to the duel disorder of PAD and TAD, pipe and tobacco acquisition disorder for those that aren’t in the “know.” Over the course of the next three years, I had sampled nearly three hundred different blends from all over the pipe tobacco spectrum!

The actual day is a bit murky in the shadow of my mind, but there came a day that I made the decision to “take a vacation” into the world of aromatics. I even referred to this endeavor as a “vacation” in several of my online reviews. It was a term that announced, “I’m not really an aromatic smoker, just a dabbler.” It was my way of distinguishing me as a supercilious smoker of “real” tobaccos and not one of the poor, lost pipe smokers that actually enjoyed aromatics as a regular smoke. After all, aromatics were for beginners. It was the stuff that showed up in your local drug store and as one who is “in the hobby,” I had a perceived reputation to protect!

Photo credited to: Jenna Lee. Pipe is a Steve Liskey RhoDublin.

Soon after receiving several aromatic sampler packages from various online retailers, I began my “vacation” into the world of aromatics. It didn’t take long before I found myself enjoying a bowl of aromatic tobacco before bed each evening. This was a clandestine activity that I hesitated to share with my wife, an English blend smoker, and I left our mailman completely in the dark. It was my secret, my guilty pleasure to be enjoyed late in the evening, while my family was locked into a deep sleep. In an effort to avoid discovery, I went so far as to puff a few clouds of Latakia into the air around the “man cave” prior to climbing into bed just to ensure that all stayed right with the world.

I was now ready to begin posting some reviews. What I found were review after review that started with disclaimers from others maintaining the same guilty pleasure. Reviews that started with statements like, “I’m not normally an aromatic smoker but…….and ending with, “if I actually smoked aromatics, this would be my choice.” Review after review contained these disclaimers or even worse, outright condescension coming from those that claim to not smoke aromatics. Being the amateur detective that I am, I soon found myself reading other reviews written by those that claimed to hate aromatics. The evidence was clear; some of those very folks in my opinion actually did smoke aromatics.

My interest had been peeked and I decided to seek out just where the line exists between aromatic and non-aromatic tobacco.  In other words, at what point does a blend fall into one category or the other?  I wasn’t seeking a debate on the topic, but like so many topics in the pipe smoking world, what I found was a friendly debate on the subject. Our humble hobby is no stranger to a good debate. You may recall a debate about briar verses brand, or debates over the value of a widely drilled draft hole and so on. There have even been debates as to what the difference is between an English blend and a Balkan blend.

My search left me without answers and only served to add to my confusion because it seems that for some pipe enthusiasts, pipe tobacco doesn’t just fall into two categories, but possibly three! There are some that claim that there are tobaccos that are neither aromatic nor non aromatic, but fall into a third category that lands somewhere in the middle. These blends were often referred to as “Crossovers.”

As a result of my search, I made the decision to ask a few well respected people in the world of pipe tobacco for their thoughts on the subject. I sent out identical emails with two questions in hopes that some of these fine people would be willing to share their thoughts on the subject. The first question that I asked was simply, “when does one determine when a tobacco blend has crossed the line into the realm of aromatics?” I expanded on the question by siting several examples of tobaccos that could be considered one or the other, depending on the opinion of the individual pipe smoker.

The second question that I asked was on the subject of “Crossover” blends. These are blends that some pipe smokers consider to be a “bridge” between an aromatic and a non-aromatic tobacco. I asked if such a category actually existed. I offered up several possibilities as examples.

Here are some of the responses that I received.

 

Russ Ouellette. Photo courtesy of PipesMagazine.com/Bob Tate

 

Tobacco Blender Russ Ouellette, of Hearth and Home offers a straightforward distinction by saying, “If you can smell the flavoring and taste it as well, then it’s a “full on” aromatic. If you can smell it but not really taste it the top dressing or casing, it’s a semi aromatic. I refer to the Lakeland (style) tobaccos as “scented” as the flavorings are outside of the mainstream. I wouldn’t want a Captain Black smoker thinking that Bosun Cut Plug would make him happy.”

 

Photo credited to: Jenna Lee

 

I asked Russ about the elusive crossover blend and his thoughts on its existence. “We use terms for blends like Frog Morton or Voodoo Queen as Aromatic English blends rather than terming them as “crossovers.”

 

Rich Gottlieb. Photo courtesy of PipesMagazine.com/Bob Tate

 

Rich Gottlieb, owner and tobacco blender at online retailer, 4 Noggins, shared similar thoughts to Russ Ouellette. “There can be a fine line what some would call an aromatic, (especially) blends like Royal Yacht, Navy Flake and Erinmore Flake. My thoughts are if you can taste the tobacco primarily at the forefront, then it is not an aromatic. If the first taste is that of a topping, then it’s an aromatic.”

 

Photo courtesy of G.L. Pease

 

Blender Greg Pease echoed and expanded on Gottlieb’s thought by saying, “With respect to the conventional use of the term today, aromatic tobacco is not one that is simply cased, but which uses additional toppings, flavorings and essences to alter the taste and aroma of the tobacco in a significant way. It’s important to draw a distinction between casing, (which can be something as simple as the application of additional sugars or the subtle use of things like liquorice, anise or honey), and scents like vanilla, chocolate, fruit and floral essences. When tobacco’s natural aromas are masqued by the sauces used, there is no question that it falls into the aromatic category, but how far back can we draw the line of demarcation?” It should be pointed out that “casing” refers to soaking some of the items that Pease referred to in hopes that the leaf will absorb the casing. Burley is particularly a great tobacco when it comes to absorption. “Top dressing,” is misted onto the finished blend and is applied in a much lighter amount than casing. Some tobaccos have been both cased and top dressed.

Greg Pease, Russ Ouellette pointed out that many tobaccos are “treated” in the processing phase. According to Pease’s web site, he rightly points out, “very few mass-produced tobaccos on the market today are NOT cased. Casing is the process of adding sugars and flavoring agents before the leaf is further processed. Raw tobacco is not always the most pleasant thing to smoke, so it can need a little help. Many raw tobaccos, especially burleys are harsh, and can have poor smoking characteristics. Very few smokers have ever experienced Virginias or burleys that do not have some sort of casing applied.” However, GL Pease does offer blends with no casing or top dressing.

Pertaining to “crossover” blends, Greg Pease had this to say, “The water is not very clear. If a conventionally defined aromatic had Latakia added to it, would it be considered a ‘crossover aromatic,’ or should the term only be used to describe a Latakia mixture that has been sauced? Does the direction from which we approach the end result matter? If not, we might find ourselves struggling with two or more fuzzy dividing lines rather than just one.”

Pease further went on to say, “There are certainly Latakia mixtures that have been sauced, so it’s a fair question as to where they fit in terms of category. I suppose we could look at it, at least informally, like speciation; if two blends are mixed together and the result is the same species, than it must be its own thing. Mix a crossover blend with something that isn’t, you still have a crossover blend. Cross one English mixture with another, and you still have something recognizable as belonging to the same category. But then, what about a mixture mating with a Virginia, or as in the case with my newest blend, a mixture combined with a Navy Flake, is it a new species or a hybrid?” Clearly, when we begin to look into various categories of tobaccos, the water can become very muddy, very quickly when speaking of the possibility of the existence of “crossover” blends.

Photo credited to: Jenna Lee

Steve Fallon’s viewpoint, often shared by many pipe smokers could be called a “purist” point of view as he makes no exceptions to his definition. However, taking that one step further, noted pipe maker, blender and owner of Park Lane Tobacconist, Paul Bonacquisti, pointed out that Latakia is in fact a “flavored” tobacco too. “I believe that flavoring tobacco in any way by means of an additive can classify it as an aromatic……I’m not just talking about heavily cased blends that use sweet syrups such as cherry and vanilla to produce a desired flavor, I am also talking about Latakia which is fire cured to produce its distinctive taste. Any tobacco that contains an additive that alters the smell and taste of the natural leaf by my definition would be classified as an aromatic.” Well known pipe collector and author of many pipe and tobacco articles, Rich Esserman echoed this thought by saying, “All tobacco is processed, (one might say flavored), in one way, shape or form……some more than others, Latakia is a flavored via smoke, perique and flakes  by various types of pressure etc.” Esserman continued by saying, “Many of the currently most expensive vintage mixtures today (like Sobranie) were processed using various oils and natural essences. When you open up a vintage tin of Smoker’s Haven Krumble Kake, made by Sobranie, the paper surrounding the tobacco is completely saturated with oil. Many of my old favorite Virginias like McConnell’s Scottish Cake, Sobranie #7, and Dunhill Ready Rubbed all had to have been made with some type of essence. It is important to point out that Paul Bonacquisti and Rich Esserman are by no means attempting to define an English blend in the same classification as a cherry flavored Cavendish but rather to put forth the point the opinion that simply a “non-tobacco” flavor doesn’t define a tobacco as an aromatic.

 

Steve Fallon. Photo courtesy of OldToby.com

 

The fact is that the term “aromatic” itself has been called into question by Greg Pease, Rich Esserman and others. “I do not like to use the term aromatic because the term has been corrupted. The original use of the term ‘aromatic’ meant flavorful Orientals, rather than the way the term is used today that means that a tobacco has had flavoring added to it” Esserman points out. House of Calabash master blender, Steven Books, a blender of tobacco for decades, has a similar point of view. “Fifty years ago, an aromatic tobacco was a tobacco that had an aromatic smell that came from certain tobaccos, not the casing.” Rather than classifying a tobacco as either an aromatic or non-aromatic, Esserman prefers to refer to tobacco as either cased or uncased.

 

Rich Esserman. Photo courtesy of BrothersOfBriar.com

 

Pertaining to the possible existence of the “crossover” blend, Esserman says that it doesn’t make any sense in his opinion. “If a tobacco has a flavored component, it is still an aromatic. It’s like being a ‘little’ pregnant!” Paul Bonacquisti’s point of view is markedly different than Rich Esserman’s and similar to Greg Pease’s description.

 

Paul Bonacquisti. Photo courtesy of Doc Watson.

 

Like Pease, Bonacquiti looks at the blends in categories and then describes mixing one category with another to create a crossover. He uses the example of a natural mixture such as a straight Virginia blend that is introduced to a small aromatic component to create the “crossover blend.” Both points of view offer compelling arguments.

 

Photo credited to: Jenna Lee

 

With the advent of ecommerce, today’s pipe smoker has more blend choices than ever before. Different tobaccos can be purchased from all over the world. Blenders are constantly pushing the boundaries in an effort to produce blends that stand out from the competition.  The Tobacco Reviews website (www.tobaccoreviews.com ) currently lists more than forty two hundred different pipe tobacco blends! The vast majority of these different blends are still in production, with new blends being added to the site weekly. It’s no surprise that the line between aromatic and non-aromatic can be easily blurred. It’s also clear that even the term “aromatic” may also be subject to change.

The fact is that nearly every pipe smoker’s regular tobacco rotation likely contains some form of aromatic tobacco. The question for each of us is where do we draw the line?

Greg Pease offers us this summation, “I suppose I’d say that if the purpose of an additive, either a casing or an essence, is to enhance the tobacco’s natural flavor and aroma, it may not be an aromatic. If the intent is to masque the tobacco, it certainly is. It’s not much of a definition, I realize, but it’s somewhat better than the meaningless tautology about pornography that first came to mind; we may not know what it is, but we know it when we smell it!”

Amen Greg!

 

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