To do yourself justice in selecting a pipe tobacco, you must formally enter this unfamiliar realm of pleasure and introduce yourself to the possibilities before you, preferably with the aid of a knowledgeable tobacconist. First, you must learn enough of the language to get around. Understand the differences between smoky Cyprian latakia, fragrant Greek xanthi, clean-smoking, zesty matured Virginia; and sweetened Kentucky burley, with its nutty richness.
Once you try, or at least smell, a few of the best examples of the different styles of pipe tobaccos, you will know what to expect from them, just as you know a Sauvignon Blanc from a Merlot. You will have to sample each individual brand to discover whether appeals to you, but learning to group styles and recognize the blending components likely to be found in each, is a big, but necessary, first step.
From a manufacturer's point of view, there are two basic categories of pipe tobaccos. First, the more natural English and Scottish-style cake tobaccos, which are matured in pressed cakes to release the naturally occurring sugars in flue-cured Virginia and in the Greek or Turkish Oriental leaf. Second, the American-style, cased and flavored tobaccos, which rely largely on the application of sugar syrups for their flavor. The serious pipe smoker usually graduates over time from the sweetened to the natural-style tobaccos, perhaps going through the Danish and Dutch cavendishes, which, based historically on Maryland-style tobaccos, or possessing some component of burley, are both flavored and matured in pressed cakes, combined with loose leaf.
The basic leaves used in the modem manufacture of pipe tobaccos look and taste so different from one other that it is hard to imagine they all began from the same seed, Nicotiana Tabacum. They have adapted to the different climates and soils of the world and have been subjected to varied curing methods that give each one a unique flavor range. Blending these tobaccos is a lot like cooking. We want to begin with the best possible ingredients, and having an understanding of the flavor characteristics each ingredient brings to the blend is essential, not only for manufacturers, but also for consumers who need to tell the assisting tobacconist what they want. To that end, here is a listing of the basic leaf components of most pipe tobaccos on the market.
VIRGINIA. One of America's first cash crops, Virginia tobacco was grown initially by the Jamestown colony, from imported Central American seed, and exported exclusively to England. It is possible that we would not be an English speaking nation but for Virginia tobacco and its importance to the survival of that first colony.
Most of today's Virginia is flue-cured to preserve its bright yellow, orange or red color, and its oiliness, and Subtle sweetness. This curing method pumps smokeless heat into the airtight tobacco barn through metal flues or ducts. The best Virginia tobaccos today, matured in pressed cakes and therefore called matured Virginias, have a subtle sweetness and a delicate fruit-like flavor. They are rather tangy and pleasant on the palate, reminiscent of a mild salsa. The best matured Virginias are naturally sweet and clean-smoking tobaccos that fill the mouth with flavor. You will notice a flavor curve that is zesty at light up and then turns richer as the tobacco is smoked.
Virginia tobaccos are also important components of English Mixtures and aromatic, flavored blends.
MARYLAND. Maryland tobacco is light air-cured and, therefore, a dull brown color. It is bland in flavor but has a nice, light texture and good burning qualities. Never especially popular in the United States or England, most Maryland tobacco traditionally has been exported to Switzerland, Germany, and France. The Maryland colony exercised special sovereign rights to export directly to France and the Netherlands. Perhaps this is why traditional Danish and Dutch Cavendish cake tobaccos, based on Maryland-style leaf, were made by adding sugars from the outset, whereas the English found it easy to go "natural" with naturally-sweet Virginia.
BURLEY. Today's burley tobacco is all descended from the White Burley Mutation discovered by Ohio tobacco grower, George Webb, in 1864. It has a rich, nutty flavor and a certain gusto. Burley is light air-cured, with a brown appearance and a dull or matte finish. Most burley, which has virtually no sugar of its own, is "cased" or flavored with sugars of one kind or another and this rich, full-flavored tobacco has traditionally been the base of the majority of American-style sweetened blends.
When smoked, cased burley starts light, mellow, and mildly nutty, with no sharpness. If it is of good quality and has been handled properly, it will produce a rich, full flavor somewhat like sweet oatmeal or granola, with a caramel character coming from the burnt sugars.
ORIENTAL. This naturally aromatic, heady tobacco comes not from the modern Orient (the Far East), but from the old Orient, the Near East-Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, and other Eastern Mediterranean countries. The finest Oriental, often called "Turkish" tobacco, has a flavor that is delicately spicy. Used in small quantities, it gives to "English" or "Oriental" mixtures a sweet, yet piquant character.
Sun-cured Oriental leaf has a greenish-yellow to golden brown color. Second only to flue-cured Virginia in natural sugar content, the finest Orientals from Greece and Turkey are mildly sweet and have an herbal or spicy character with an incense-like aroma.
LATAKIA. Latakia is sun-cured like other Oriental leaf and then hung in dense smoke from wood fires of oak, pine, myrtle, or cypress until blackened, a process that can take two months. The different woods impart different flavors.
Latakia has an intense, incense-like fragrance but is surprisingly soft on the palate. It is cool-smoking and relatively tasteless in the middle range, an excellent condiment tobacco, basic to the natural Oriental or English mixtures. Usually, the fuller the mixture, the more Latakia is used.
PERIQUE. Perique is a deeply aromatic tobacco with a fragrance somewhere between cooked fruit (prunes) and sautéed mushrooms. Like latakia, perique is a naturally fermented condiment tobacco and, as such, is used rather sparingly. Its rich, black color and leathery texture belie its delicate flavor.
Before fermentation, perique appears most like Kentucky burley. During fermentation, the tobacco steeps in its own juices for 10 months before further aging. Perique is the truffle of tobaccos, rare and precious for its distinctive pungency.
STOVED VIRGINIA. Not all that is black in an English mixture is latakia or perique. Bright flue-cured Virginias, blackened by cooking or stoving, create a measure of richness and a mellow, fruity sweetness in many natural, aged blends. Stoved Virginia has the type of richness we associate with dark chocolates. It imparts an aroma similar to warm chutney.
CAVENDISH. Here's a term that is used so broadly with so many different nuances that Webster could spend a whole page in the subcategories of definition. Briefly, Dutch Cavendish is generally a mixture of different component leaves such as burley, Virginia, and Maryland, that have been flavored and pressed into cakes to age. Any tobacco that has been treated in this manner can be called a Cavendish.
The term "Cavendish" also refers to the cut which is characteristic of matured Virginias and burley plug. The pressed cakes in which the leaves are aged are cut into bars and then the bars are cross-cut into thick or thin slices called flakes.
BLACK CAVENDISH. Most black cavendishes that form the base of many American-style aromatics are sweetened, stoved versions of certain burley tobaccos from Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as some dark air-cured tobaccos from central Virginia. The best have a caramel flavor, reminiscent of syrupy pancakes-mild, sweet, full-flavored but with a slight aftertaste similar to the burnt taste on toasted marshmallows.
You may find that, as the seasons change from warmer to cooler, and the day passes from morning into evening, you will want to change from a lighter to a more full-flavored tobacco. Keep smaller amounts of several tobaccos on hand rather than a large quantity of any one product. You don't want to eat the same thing at every meal and, in all likelihood, you will want variety in your pipe tobaccos.
To give tobaccos an adequate trial, it is necessary to smoke all of them under similar conditions. Try them at various times of the day and year, always in clean, rested pipes of the same quality. Let your tobacconist help you to fill, light, and tamp the pipe properly so that the tobacco draws and burns slowly and evenly throughout, as would a fine, hand-rolled cigar.
The smoke shop environment provides the best opportunity for you to become a connoisseur. There are distinctions in flavor and quality in all types of tobaccos, from the heady aromatics to the clean-smoking, naturally-aged ones. Discovering the subtle and interesting flavors of the full range of pipe tobaccos available from the different manufacturers is great fun, as many pleasant smoking experiences will be found, and fond memories created, on the road to that elusive perfect blend.