As any of my annoyed coworkers will confirm, once I begin research on a subject of interest, I will chase that metaphorical rabbit not only down the hole, but catch it, dissect it, and place its tissues under a microscope. My near pathological compulsion for pursuing curiosity doesn’t allow for cursory glances. Example: beginning about six months ago, tobacco joined my long list of “must research to death” subjects. On day one, I noticed a ton of crazy-bad information out there on the subject of tobacco aging (by its very definition, fermentation is an anaerobic process, if O2 is present, it’s respiration). Fast forward two weeks, and I am in a discussion with a research team in the PRC, who recently isolated what they believe to be the two microbes most responsible for the flavor and fragrance of flue-cured Virginia. Recently, I caught sight of a domestic rabbit, one which we all have encountered countless times before: Perique. This time, however, I followed my compulsion to give chase – and my regard for the properties of Perique became immeasurably enhanced.
Whether you love, hate, or find yourself completely ambivalent about the leaf, Perique is a singular, fascinating anomaly within the world of tobacco. A bit of the “cool” that is Perique lies within elements of its unique production process, but skipping past the (admittedly interesting) history of the condiment tobacco, which is readily available with seven keystrokes and two clicks in a Google search box, the coolest information can be found in the finished product itself.
On the first matter, while Perique isn’t unique in having to undergo Torquemadan torture during processing (Cavendish doesn’t exactly receive back massages and warm stone treatments on its path), the use of oak whiskey barrels/and or oak blocks, insanely high pressure levels, retention/inclusion of all run off byproduct, plus a multitude of “turn, press, and return to storage” over the better part of a year, is. The upshot is that Perique-in-the-making goes through multiple periods of an anaerobic (true fermentation) state, followed by brief exposure to O2 (while microbes can convert sugars in an anaerobic state, they work much more efficiently in the presence of oxygen). Chilling with a fine bowl of red Burley and Perique back in (say) the 1600’s, the Algonquians knew that that they had something special going, but it took the advent of advanced GCMS (gas chromatography – mass spectrometry), as well as running out of all other tobacco subjects, save Perique, to understand why it was different.
(Channeling the Don Adam’s character, Maxwell Smart) “Would you believe...?” Of the nearly 350 components identified in Perique, fully 14% (47) are singular to this ‘truffle of tobaccos” – think about that for a tick. No other tobacco can claim the presence of whiskey lactone (cis-Oak lactone), not having been subjected to whiskey-barrel wood and high pressure. How could they? Twenty-six of the exclusive isolates were esters and alcohols commonly found it fermented products. While I will spare the reader from the eye glazing, exact constituent names, such as Gamma-Undecalactone (5-Butyl-4-methyldihydrofuran-2(3H)-one) (another Perique-unique, one which possesses a fruity, peach-like note), hosts of other volatile oils and esters heretofore solely associated with flowers and fruits – but not tobacco leaf – have been cataloged. Much to my surprise even Frontalin, the aggregation pheromone of the Southern Pine Beetle, was present (but I wouldn’t read too much into that).
Up until now, I usually preferred my Perique somewhere between the 7-15% ranges. Then again, once I really started flipping over hot sauces, those rated around 200,000 on the Scoville scale became just another way to say “Zesty!”