About pipe tobacco


There is a lot to be said about pipes (materials, brands, shapes, sizes ...) but I don’t know much about that. There is also a lot to be said about pipe smoking technique, but I won’t go into that either. I’ll just focus on what I know about pipe tobacco, which can definitely be a bit labyrinth-like to the novice pipe smoker.

To save time I will just write using my bad Belgian English. There will be grammar mistakes and awkward sentences. My apologies (and feel free to correct them).

1. Three main types (contents of the tobacco)

When it comes to pipe tobacco preferences, content-wise, there are three main types of pipe smokers:

  1. those who prefer aromatic tobaccos
  2. those who prefer natural tobaccos with latakia
  3. those who prefer natural tobaccos without latakia

Latakia is a type of tobacco. So called English blends usually contain latakia. It’s what makes them smell like a horse stable.

Most pipe tobaccos are blends and contain more than one basic tobacco, but there are exceptions.

Let’s take a look at the three types.

Aromatic tobaccos

‘Aromatic’ is a potentially misleading term. Here it means ‘with an added aroma.’

Aromatic tobaccos have a so-called top dressing. This is the added aroma.

It can be anything. Very common are vanilla, maple, whiskey and rum, but there are also lots of fruity flavored tobaccos.

The top dressing should not be confused with the casing. Almost all tobaccos, the aromatics as well as the non-aromatics, have a casing. This is also a flavoring, but it is a standard part of the process of making tobacco plants into a smokable product. At a certain point a water based, slightly sweetened solution needs to be applied to reduce the sharpness of the tobacco. This is the casing. Different manufacturers use different casings, they are usually well-guarded secrets. Common ingredients are sugar, liquorice, vanilla, molasses ... The flavor it adds is not regarded as an ‘added’ flavor.

The top dressing affects the smell of the smoke more than the taste. It produces a nice smell for the people around the smoker. It also adds taste for the smoker herself, but less so. And it has an effect on the smoking characteristics of the tobacco. Aromatic tobaccos tend to smoke wetter.

Aromatic tobaccos are the most sold pipe tobaccos. There are many smokers who just prefer them.

But it should be mentioned that some people think that many people try the pipe and then give up on it, because they only try aromatic tobaccos. These can be disappointing because they don’t taste as nice as they smell. If a beginning pipe smoker asks a store clerk which tobacco he should try first, they typically recommend an aromatic, because it’s the most sold. – On the other hand it’s hard to find fault with such a typical store clerk. Aromatic pipe tobaccos are a bit like vanilla flavored incense or blueberry flavored tea, in that you will probably like them regardless whether you like the smell of incense or the taste of tea. You could also draw parallels with waterpipe tobacco.

The flavored tobacco in a an aromatic blend is called Cavendish. An aromatic blend is usually a mixture of Cavendish and/or Virginia. (Virginia and Burley are the two main base tobaccos – see the text box about different kinds of leaf.)

Here are some types of aromatic tobaccos:

N.B. If you read that a tobacco is an ‘American’ type tobacco, it usually means it consists mainly of Burley and has some kind of sweet topping. The label was common up until the 60s (when Americans smoked a lot of these), but less so nowadays.

To summarise: ‘American’, ‘Danish’ and ‘Dutch’ all mean aromatic, and the label has nothing to do with where the tobacco actually is produced. (It has to do with the historic origin of the type.) ‘American’ always means very sweet. The terminology is still used, but it is rather dated. ‘Dutch’ almost always means lightly flavored. ‘Danish’ can simply mean flavored; then it is implicitly contrasted to ‘English’ (≈ containing Latakia, see below). Or it can mean more heavily flavored; then it is implicitly contrasted to ‘Dutch’. Or it can mean lightly flavored; then it is implicitly contrasted to ‘American’.

* To signify that a tobacco isn’t sold in the EU, I use an asterisk.

Buying Pipe Tobacco

Note: this section describes the situation in 2015.

Outside of the EU, it’s easy. Inside the EU there are so much taxes to be payed that some manufacturers just don’t think it’s worth exporting to the EU. For this reason there’s a greater choice of tobaccos outside the EU. Of course, it depends where you are outside the EU.

In the US taxes vary between states. In New York for example, taxes are higher then in most other states. But the US has a very wide choice of tobaccos, and most sellers sell bulk tobaccos, which someties have a very good quality/price ratio.

In Switzerland tobaccos are expensive, but they do sell tobaccos that aren’t sold inside the EU while being a lot closer to the EU than the US.

In most EU countries it’s legal to order tobacco via mail, as long as the parcel doesn’t cross a border. In Austria it isn’t, because the state has a monopoly on tobacco products. However, I can imagine that the situation is comparable to the situation of a Belgian ordering tobacco from Germany, i.e. it seems that technically it’s illegal (which just means subject to taxes and/or fines), but small parcels inside the EU are a lot less strictly screened than parcels from the US (and parcels from Switzerland are somewhere in between).

Taking tobacco with you is no problem inside the EU by the way. I think you’re allowed to bring 2 kg per person. The limit for bringing it into the EU is 250 g.

Most European countries have some regional specialties.

Finally, some other places in the world where you can find good or special tobacco: Canada, Turkey, South Africa, Russia and Argentina. But usually you do have to know the right addresses; you can’t just expect to find the good pipe shops by walking around.

Natural tobaccos with Latakia

A central concept, but one that is lacking a clear demarcation is the ‘English blend’.

At one point there was a law in England prohibiting top dressings, but the English tobacco blenders found a way to make tobacco interesting without adding flavors. They discovered that the combination of, on the one hand, Virginia and/or Burley and, on the other hand, Latakia and/or Oriental tobaccos produced a very enjoyable tobacco.

Thus, an English tobacco has firstly Virginia or Burley, but nowadays this is usually Virginia only. And secondly it must have Latakia, Orientals or both. Historically Latakia was viewed as a kind of Oriental tobacco, and that is why the common meaning of an ‘English blend’ doesn’t specify whether it has to contain Latakia or not. But Nowadays everybody would expect an English blend to contain Latakia. Most people nowadays take an English blend to contain at least Virginia, Latakia and Oriental tobaccos.

But there are many variations on the concept of an English blend:

Other variations on the English Blend don’t have a specific name. So an English with added Perique or Maryland is just called an English. Some examples:

Because some people just really like blends with Latakia, there are tobaccos on the market that are very Latakia forward, but couldn’t be called English blends, because they don’t have the typical taste of an English blend or one of its variations.

People who like Latakia very much are called ‘latakiaphiles.’ They sometimes style themselves as ‘the brotherhood of the dark leaf.’

The main disadvantage of tobaccos containing Latakia is that not everybody likes the room note, meaning if you smoke it in company, people may complain.

If you think all these labels are overly confusing, then you are not the only one. A growing number of pipe tobacco authorities advocates calling all of the above simply ‘Latakia blends.’

Natural tobaccos without Latakia

This is a good time to insert a box about different kinds of leaf.

Different kinds of leaf,
or: Tobaccos you could put in your mixture

1. Base tobaccos

Base tobaccos are opposed to spice tobaccos, which are tobaccos that don’t have the right characteristics to be smoked on their own. Spice tobaccos are used to add something to a base; only some tobaccos can be used as a base. They have to burn well, be tasty enough, cannot be too harsh etc. Base tobaccos are the kinds of tobaccos that can be enjoyed pure.

1.1. Virginia

Virginia is present in the majority of pipe tobaccos. Its taste has been compared to: citrus, dried figs, hay, toast ...

There are different kinds of Virginias: yellow, orange, red, brown, black, aged, mature. It’s very common for quality tobaccos to have as their backbone not one single Virginia but a combination of many different Virginias.

1.2. Burley

Burley is the other common base tobacco, though less ubiquitous than Virginia. It has a chocolaty taste. It has less sugar and more nicotine than Virginia and burns well.

People used to call it ‘Kentucky,’ which is confusing since they now call a different tobacco, which is a specially processed Burley, ‘Kentucky’. See 2.4.

1.3. Maryland

Maryland is regarded as a less distinctive, less interesting tobacco. Its great virtue is that it burns well. It isn’t that much used in high quality brands nowadays.

1.4. Semois

Semois is related to Burley, but regarded as a separate tobacco. There are only three farmers left growing it, and three producers processing it: Vincent Manil, Joseph Martin and Jean-Paul Couvert. Some others use the name Semois, but do not actually use Semois leaf.

1.5. Notes on Cavendish

Cavendish is not a type of tobacco, but a way of processing tobacco. Tobaccos that are sweetened or to which an aroma is added are Cavendishes. Cavendish can be based on Virginia or Burley.

If an English blend, or any kind of natural blend, contains Cavendish, as a rule it is unflavored Cavendish. (Otherwise it wouldn’t be an English blend but a crossover between English and aromatic.)

2. Spice Tobaccos etc.

2.1. Orientals

Orientals add spice. They are tobaccos grown in Turkey, Greece, Georgia and (F.Y.R.O.) Macedonia that have exotic flavors ranging from olive oil to curry. I don’t really know why they aren’t used as base tobaccos. I suppose that maybe it would break the spell, that they need to be elusive and mysterious. Also, without Virginia or Burley they might lack depth.

As you’ve noticed I always talk about orientals, plural. Here’s why. Because of a historical coincidence almost all the orientals that are used in pipe tobacco are mixtures of different oriental tobaccos. It wasn’t always like this. Producers used to be able to lay their hands on Yenidje, Smyrna and Samsun – to name just three of the more than forty Oriental varieties. But as pipe smoking declined, it became too expensive for them to buy them individually. The cigarette producers became the ones that got to negotiate prices with the growers. The only thing that remained for the pipe tobacco manufacturers at a price they were prepared to pay was the mix of the scraps that the cigarette producers left over. From time to time though, a batch of oriental leaf becomes available to pipe tobacco blenders, or maybe it is because pipe smoking is gaining in popularity again - in any case there are a few blending houses today that have pure oriental leaf at their disposal.

2.2. Latakia

Latakia is a tobacco that is practically only used in pipe tobaccos. its distictive taste and smell is the effect of the way it is cured, i.e. above a fire made from specific aromatic woods.

There’s Syrian, which is the original Latakia, and there’s Cyprian Latakia. Cyprian uses, among others, mastic wood. Syrian and Cyprian latakia taste differently.

Some history. Originally the tobacco was discovered or developed in Latakia in Syria. As its popularity grew, they had to cut a lot of wood to make the fires to hang the tobacco above, so much that the king put a moratorium on the production of Latakia. (Yes. To save the woods.) This was around the 60s. The pipe tobacco producers had to change their blends now that the leaf was unavailable. Luckily some Latakia producers took their knowhow to Cyprus. They didn’t use the same seed as in Syria, and they didn’t use the same woods, but the end product could stand comparison to the old Syrian Latakia in terms of quality. Then, sometime in the 80s, the Syrian king lifted the moratorium and Syrian Latakia began to be produced again, albeit not in the same quantities. One thing that had changed the was that the pipe smokers in the mean time had gotten used to the taste of the Cyprian latakia. Anyhow, some Syrian latakia was produced in the 80s and 90s. But then the political troubles began and for some years now, no new Syrian leaf has come on the market. Many people think it will never again. Which means that what is left of the Syrian leaf is all there is. Mac Baren has some left, that they think will last a few years, and McClelland has some left, that they think will last even shorter than that.

There have been attempts to make Latakia in other places, but they have all failed. Apparently Latakia can only be produced in Syria or in Cyprus. At least, that’s how the story is usually told; I’ve heard that Cyprian latakia is now actually produced in Turkey.

The taste of Latakia has been compared to campfires, horse stables, leather and church incense. Syrian latakia is more restrained, Cyprian more robust. Think the difference between wine and brandy.

It’s used in blends in all kinds of percentages. If used sparingly, it is a good component to ‘tie the room together.’ Used in quantities of about 25-50%, it puts its stamp on the blend. These blends are all about the interplay of the Latakia and the other tobaccos. They are complex blends. If used above 50% the result becomes more monodimensional again. These blends are reserved for latakiaphiles. Smoking it pure is not unheard of, but just to give an indication, I don’t know anyone on the Belgian-Dutch Pipe Smoker Forum who does that regularly.

Latakia has been compared to garlic. Some people never use it, some people like to have it in the dish, some like to actually taste it in the dish and some people just can never get enough of it.

An interesting fact about Latakia is that many people’s preference for it changes with the seasons. They like Latakia blends in the winter but not in the summer.

N.B. Some blends that still have Syrian Latakia are, by Mac Baren, HH Vintage Syrian, and by McClelland: Wilderness*, Legends* and Three Oaks Syrian.*

2.3. Perique

Perique can be compared to salt or pepper; it is always used in limited quantities.

It is only produced in one parish in Louisiana and was recently rescued from extinction. Five or ten years ago it very much looked like the production would just die out with the old people growing and processing it, but then somebody unexpectedly invested some money in it.

The way it is processed is unique in the world. It is labour intensive and involves fermentation in its own juice. It is a process that was discovered or developed by the Choctaw and the Chicasaw. We just copied it.

Its taste is chameleonlike. Depending on the percentage used it can give a creamy taste, a taste like freshly ground pepper, or a fruity, plumlike taste.

It combines very well with Virginia.

2.4. ‘Kentucky’

‘Dark fired Kentucky,’ often abbreviated to ‘Kentucky,’ is a type of Burley that is cured over an open fire (but doesn’t taste like Latakia).

2.5. Cigar Leaf

Cigar leaf is sometimes used in Pipe tobacco blends for spice.

2.6. Deer Tongue

Deer tongue is a different plant than tobacco. For some it adds 'kick' to a blend, for others it's just tasty. I’ve heard of people taking a liking to the taste, but they are a minority.

Returning to blends, the last category is the one with natural tobaccos. This is the category for aficionados. You could compare the aromatics lovers to people who drink aromatised tea (‘I want to try them all!’) and the brothers of the dark leaf to people who like their tea black. (‘It’s more tasty than green tea, why wouldn’t I drink my tea black?’) Anyway, the natural tobacco aficionados are compareble to people who prefer green tea. (‘It’s the pure taste of the tea.’)

The two most popular subcategories of natural tobacco are:

Others are harder to put into categories; the following is more of a guideline:

2. Tobacco Cuts

While there is little variation in the way roll-your-own cigarette tobacco is cut, there is a lot of variation in pipe tobacco cuts:

3. Pipe Tobacco Manufacturers

Just to list a few:

What did some famous people smoke?

Jean-Paul Sartre: Caporal

Bertrand Russell: Fribourg & Treyer Golden Mixture

Einstein: House of Windsor Revelation

C.S. Lewis: Three Nuns

Günter Grass: W.O. Larsen Classic

J.R.R. Tolkien: Capstan Blue and Players Navy Cut

Max Frisch: Dunhill Early Morning Pipe

Joseph Stalin: Dunhill Royal Yacht

4. Some vocabulary

A ghost is the smell and/or taste that a tobacco leaves in your pipe after you’ve smoked it. If you’ve smoked Pirate kake in it, but you’re now smoking Escudo, you’re probably going to notice the ghost of the Pirate Kake.

Somtimes this results in an enjoyable combo, but generally this is viewed as undesirable. That’s why many pipe smokers choose to dedicate a pipe to certain tobaccos that they like very much.

The practise of dedicating a pipe to certain tobaccos is one of the factors that lead to the phenomenon of the rotation. You will hear people saying: ‘I have five tobaccos in my rotation,’ or: ‘My rotation currently consist of ...’ I don’t really have a rotation myself because A) I continually have too many tins and pouches opened; and B) I haven’t dedicated pipes to specific tobaccos. If I had though, I would be almost forced to rotate my tobaccos. Suppose I have open tins of Pirate kake and Escudo, I wouldn’t want to smoke one of the two all day, becauce either the dark leaf dedicated pipes or the VaPer dedicated pipes would run out (as you probably know, most people hold that you should smoke the same pipe no more than once a day).

Of course, I’m a pipe smoker who is affected more by TAD (tobacco acquisition disorder) than by PAD (pipe acqusition disorder).

I have cellared quite a few tobaccos that I haven’t even tried yet. Since I only have four pipes suitable for everyday smoking, I don’t have a rotation. Cellaring doesn’t have to be in an actual cellar. Many pipe smoker’s cellars (it’s a noun as well as a verb) are cuboards or drawers.

Aging tobaccos is a good idea if it’s Virginias or VaPers. Latakia mixtures also age well, but the Latakia will mellow over time. An unopened tin can stay in smoking condition for over 100 years. It developes over time like wine (if it’s a blend suitable to aging, and if it doesn’t go bad due to e.g. extreme temperatures/humidity or fungi). If a tin is opened, of course the tobacco will dry out. But be advised that there is no need to throw dried out tobacco away if it’s only been open for a few years, as there are ways to rehumidify it.

The humidity of a tobacco will affect its smoking characteristics. The most important thing is that it smokes cool. Drier tobacco in general needs to be packed more tightly in the pipe. A pipe that is too tightly packed will go out more often and has the risk that you puff too vigorously to keep it lit. Puffing too vigorously will result in smoking hot. But a too lightly packed pipe will almost automatically result in smoking hot. Finding the middle ground takes practice; as a guideline: if you draw your unlit packed pipe, the resistance you feel should be comparable to the resistance you feel when sucking on a drinking straw (before the liquid reaches your mouth).

Smoking preferences vary, and some people have the habit of always letting tobacco dry for a few minutes or even hours, before they pack it in their pipe. They take the amount they think they need for one pipe, and let it dry on e.g. a piece of paper.

If you smoke too hot, you risk getting tongue bite. Some tobaccos bite worse than others. (Tip: google site:tobaccoreviews.com “bites like a”. There are some original descriptions.) Flakes tend to smoke cooler and thus cause less tongue bite.

That is why some people are fanatic flake smokers. The downside of smoking flakes is that it is more work preparing your pipe, but some welcome this as an extra phase in the ritual of smoking a pipe.