Much can be achieved in 30 years: the mastering of an instrument, expertise in a complex profession, or even the perfection of an artisan craft. Cornell & Diehl, celebrating its 30-year anniversary in 2022, has achieved much as well, studying, practicing, performing, and becoming one of the premier pipe tobacco companies in the world. From a handful of recipes and a few dozen pounds of tobacco loaded into a van in 1992 to a global entity with myriad followers in 2022, C&D's history is one of achievement, advancement, creativity, and refinement.
There were early missteps, of course, as with any evolution of expertise, but C&D learned from and took advantage of them to amplify the quality and ingenuity of a vast portfolio of exceptional tobaccos. Today, the company crafts blends that are intriguing, satisfying, and delicately nuanced, blends that attract attention and admiration. For those who want to learn, improve, and master a craft, 30 years of experience is an educational bonanza.
That time frame also represents bountiful complexity, which is why it was a particularly impressive goal for Head Blender Jeremy Reeves to commemorate the occasion of C&D's 30th anniversary with a tobacco blend demonstrating what the company has accomplished and stands for. Available 12:00 a.m. ET on Wednesday, July 13th, Anthology 1992-2022 inaugurates a series designed to illuminate the best of what C&D does, how it approaches the development of tobacco blends, and its overarching determination to craft the best tobaccos possible.
All The Greatest Hits In One Blend
"For Anthology 1992-2022," says Jeremy, "I've brought together components that hearken back to touchstones in my own time with Cornell and Diehl and to products that have been well received and that showcase the kind of work we do with tobacco — and in particular with St. James Parish Perique." The Perique is indeed singular, exclusive, and proprietary to C&D, and the other components are equally elevated.
The Perique is indeed singular, exclusive, and proprietary to C&D, and the other components are equally elevated
For this first edition of Anthology, Jeremy combined tobaccos representing the best that C&D has achieved, a "greatest hits" blend. "The very first Virginia blend that I put together for Cornell and Diehl was also the very first really successful Small Batch, and it's become kind of a flagship for us: Carolina Red Flake. And while we don't have more of the original grade used for CRF, I was able to find a very, very similar grade, SM2-18, from 2018. We've used it twice for Carolina Red Flake." It's a Red Virginia with a lightly sweet, rye-bread character, with deep and earthy smokiness. Its popularity is remarkable.
Jeremy blended the SM2-18 with the same Virginia leaf used in Bijou. "It's from 2003 and is wonderfully mellow with some spectacular roasted and grain notes, but also some fermented sweetness to it, and some tangy qualities." He then added TA-20, which is the red-orange tips grade used in 2021's Carolina Red Flake with Perique. "It's sweeter, with an almost grapefruit kind of sweet-and-sour, tangy quality. These three grades blend beautifully together and I'm really happy with the way the flavors layer with one another."
A Symphony of Flavor
A classically inclined Virginia/Perique blend, Anthology 1992-2022 commends itself with astonishingly high-quality components to emphasize C&D's overarching philosophy. The combination melds wonderfully and offers a unique smoking experience, its flavor profile registering about half an octave lower than most Va/Pers, capitalizing on the baritone nature of the mixture. Those melodic low notes are evident on the initial light, which projects softness of tone rather than emphasizing the bright and high notes often found in Va/Pers. Halfway through the bowl, that characteristic deepens further, almost as if Latakia were present but without the prolific smoky and campfire qualities associated with that tobacco, maintaining the purity of flavor achievable with Va/Pers but with a palate-encompassing mellowness. It smokes with the ease of an English blend but delivers the flavors of fine Virginias and crafted Perique. If typical Va/Pers could be said to taste like the music of violins and cymbals, Anthology 1992-2022 tastes like cellos and timpanis.
If typical Va/Pers could be said to taste like the music of violins and cymbals, Anthology 1992-2022 tastes like cellos and timpanis.
Those characteristics are achieved with the careful balancing of the well-aged 2003 Red Virginias with younger but still nicely aged tobaccos. "It isn't fermenting age," says Jeremy. "It isn't like age in a tin; it's age in a bale with mellowing and sweating every summer." That's different from tin age but similarly smooths any sharpness.
This blend carries a depth of flavor attributable to the brash edges of Red Virginias that have softened and rounded. "Blending this older leaf with some younger leaf, leaf that has delightful qualities itself but is a little more emphatic in expressing them, was challenging. Finding the right balance so that the 2003 Reds could contribute their mellower flavor without being overpowered, that took some time."
It's a blend that will appeal to Virginia enthusiasts and that delivers substantial nicotine strength. "It's no slouch on nicotine," says Jeremy, "but it is not a powerhouse blend. I think that people who like Virginia and Perique blends will enjoy this. I don't think that people looking for the kind of oomph and strength found in a blend like Bayou Morning will find it here, but instead will discover much more nuance and complexity. It's sweeter and more approachable in the morning or afternoon. Definitely, this would appeal to fans of Carolina Red Flake, or Carolina Red Flake with Perique, as well as those drawn to light Aromatics who want to explore natural tobacco's sweetly tangy and floral notes accomplished without added flavoring. It will appeal to those who normally smoke Burleys or Latakia blends but want a change of pace. I think that there's a lot to enjoy no matter the approach."
Exclusive Partnership with Heritage Perique Farm
Perhaps the most impressive component is the blend's Perique. Over the past few years, Cornell & Diehl has formed an exclusive partnership with the Roussel farm in St James Parish. The name of the farm is 31 Farms, and they grow traditional, pure Louisiana Perique exclusively for C&D. Jeremy is intimately involved with the farm, visiting often, observing the various stages of growth, and participating in many of the processes that transform these unique tobacco leaves into proprietary, flavorful, and traditionally accurate Perique. "It's been a project three years in the making," says Jeremy, "to establish that direct relationship with a Perique farm and develop our own proprietary Perique source."
"It's been a project three years in the making"
Ricky Roussel, who owns 31 Farms, has decades of experience and his family has been involved in Perique growing since the beginning in the 1700s with the Chickasaw and Choctaw tribes. "They were growing tobacco," says Ricky. "They would come down to the Mississippi River and they would grow Perique tobacco. Then when the settlers came in, one of them being my great-great-grandfather, they had the opportunity to meet these Indians, and they learned about the tobacco and the techniques used in growing and curing it."
Though Perique is cured in barrels now, it was originally cured in hollowed-out cypress logs. "They would pack the tobacco into the logs," says Ricky, "with rocks or whatever they could use to put on top of it, other pieces of wood and whatever. And they kept it under pressure and demonstrated that, after so long, you take it out and work it and put it back in, but you keep it under pressure until you use it. Pierre Chenet learned the process and invented a technique of pressing it in boxes under pressure and using what they call ballast rocks that came off of the ships from overseas that were hauling in goods. They would unload and pile them up, and the farmers started picking up the rocks and using them for the tobacco. But in the 1800s to early 1900s, they started moving the tobacco into barrels and putting them under railroad or screw jacks, putting them under pressure and using the same technique, except they got a little bit modern by using jacks instead of stones. But the same technique kept going.
"And we're still doing it today, meaning you grow your tobacco and you wait until it ages in the field. Now aging in the field means that the tobacco gets as ugly as you can imagine. If you know the hide of a crocodile or an alligator skin, that's what the old-timers looked for in terms of whether that tobacco was ripe enough to cut. When it gets that thick and ugly, and the stems on a leaf crack in the morning when you go out and test them, that's when it's time to cut."
After cutting, the Perique is hung in the barn. "It might hang for four to five weeks," says Ricky, "depending on the weather. If we're getting 90 degrees, sunshine, pretty days, in four weeks that tobacco's ready to take down, break, wash, de-stem, and pack in barrels." When the weather is dominated by dry sunshine, a better crop results. "You're going to have a heavier yield with more plant success, less disease, fewer insects. But other than that, it's an interesting crop. And to think that we're still doing the same thing we've been doing for 200 years without change, that's the most amazing part."
"... to think that we're still doing the same thing we've been doing for 200 years without change, that's the most amazing part."
A Hands-On, Synergetic Partnership
By staying involved, Jeremy is better able to anticipate the consistency of the crops. "I'm much more confident in everything being just so," he says, "because the same people that are putting seed in the greenhouse are the people who are transplanting, cultivating, and ultimately harvesting, curing, packing into the barrels, turning, and capping. The same folks being there at the start and working all the way through are going to make different decisions than a group of people with some doing one part and some working on another part with no one seeing each other's work. For example, if I'm a butcher breaking down a cow with a plan for a particular number of steaks and particular cuts and I have plans for a particular blend of ground meat, I'm going to make different choices. And if I'm a butcher who doesn't know what the next steps are going to be, I might make different decisions from someone who is completing every successive step."
Ricky does most of the hands-on farming, with his son Derek running the company and helping out when he can, though he also runs his own large construction company. Having a single farm grow Perique exclusively for C&D has advantages for both parties. "On our part," says Ricky, "it guarantees that we have one buyer and that we deliver everything we have to that buyer. I just wanted to continue making a good product and maintaining it as best we can, and not get involved with other growers who might not be doing it the correct way. That's the most polite way of saying that."
"I just wanted to continue making a good product and maintaining it as best we can, and not get involved with other growers who might not be doing it the correct way"
"Our advantages in working with the Roussel family," says Jeremy, "are that it gives us a pure, unblended St. James Perique, and there's nobody else buying tobacco who can say that every Perique blend that they produce is made with pure St. James Perique. So that's one major advantage because the differences are certainly present; the differences are noticeable between the pure product we have and the blended product available elsewhere on the market. The way that the majority of growers work is to buy the plants. They're not sourcing their own seed, so they're starting in the middle of the process. And then they plant, they cultivate, they harvest, they hang it in a barn if they have a barn, and they rent space in somebody's barn if they don't have a barn. They do part of the process in the barrel and then they sell the unfinished Perique for final finishing and curing. And those processors buy from many different sources. They don't know whose tobacco is which, and they don't know what happened to the tobacco throughout the process. They can't identify or address any issues because they don't know. They're not privy to that information. The farmer is, and if they reach out to the farmer, he might be able to remember, but he's not part of the group that is actually processing the tobacco to turn it into Perique."
Ricky's son Derek owns the company running 31 Farms, which has been in the family since the beginning but needed a corporate entity to manage paperwork, taxes, expenses, and paying any employees. Ricky, who owns the land, was a police officer, and Derek used his badge number to name the farm. "In a small town," he says, "you become friends with everybody, and everybody called him 31. So when it came time to start a business and name the farm, I just went with that. It's a joint effort with my dad and me, so I named the farm after him."
Ricky and Derek didn't set out with the ambition to start a Perique business. "It started as an interest," says Derek, "because they did Perique when they were young, it was a family thing. It was a way of life out here for big families. Then about seven years ago, there was a new interest in Perique; it was revamping. I mean, I remember it as a kid; it was everywhere. And then you go off to school, you go off to college, and when you come back, they might have had a few people growing it still. But it wasn't very popular, because that market had diminished. When it picked back up, we thought, 'Hey, let's do it again.' We started back with it by growing 5,000 plants and built it from there."
The Roussels have 16 acres dedicated exclusively to Perique. "You can plant as many as 2,000 to 2,500 plants per acre with the correct spacing and all that we do," says Derek. "I think that last year we probably had about 25,000 plants. This year we've probably bumped that number up." Expansion is part of the plan.
"You can plant as many as 2,000 to 2,500 plants per acre with the correct spacing"
Potential for Aging
"We would like to reach a point," says Jeremy, "where we have excess of what we need for a year, so that we can begin stockpiling and begin having some backup Perique that is just aging."
"Right," says Derek. "That's one of the important considerations that we've talked about. Aging is an element that adds another layer of complexity to this product. It's stored in a whiskey barrel under anaerobic conditions. We simply keep it in a barrel under pressure until we're ready to use it. I'm confident that three years of aging is easily done without sacrificing any quality, and probably enhances the quality."
Jeremy says that the aging process is similar to that of bourbon. "You can have bourbon in a barrel for three years, and bourbon in a barrel for five years, and bourbon in a barrel for seven years. Those flavors are just deepening and building. Holding it in an anaerobic environment, like that barrel under pressure, promotes the same kind of fermentation that takes place in our tins of tobacco. They are deepening in flavor and fermenting. I don't think that there's ever been a scientific analysis of what exactly is happening to make Virginias taste so much sweeter and so much deeper and special after aging for 10 years in a tin, but it certainly happens. Perique is one of the products that is built on that anaerobic fermentation process."
After the tobacco has been compressed into barrels and the screw jacks removed, a tight seal ensures the pressure is maintained. "The pressure that has been exerted to get 500 pounds of Perique into the barrel in the first place continues," says Jeremy. "You have to exceed that pressure to get the cap on, and then the cap holds it in place. And holds the pressure." That pressure is released only for the times when the barrels are opened to turn the tobacco, which is an arduous process. Perique at this stage is goopy, wet, and heavy, and the regular turning and remixing promote consistency, but more importantly, it assures that no air pockets remain to interfere with fermentation.
"The pressure is doing nothing for flavor or aging," says Derek. "Perique in the barrel is no different than a whiskey or anything else being stored. The pressure is simply taking the air out of and preserving the product. So it would be under the same principle as canning, the same principle as storing any kind of food. When we talk about pressure, all we're doing is eliminating oxygen and air. Under those conditions there's no process that will break down the product, it's just sitting there. And we're not disrupting that environment; it's constantly aging, adding to the complexity. It's really about eliminating exterior environmental factors that could decompose this product, no different from any type of product that anyone might store."
"When we talk about pressure, all we're doing is eliminating oxygen and air"
Perique is a unique tobacco with a unique history, and it's unique in flavor. Now that Cornell & Diehl has secured a historically accurate, craft-level source for this impressive tobacco, without worry as to quality or competition for supply, it is able to produce blends that attain the standards expected. It's an example of the dedication to fine ingredients that is central to Cornell & Diehl's approach to blending, the epitome of rich and authentic Perique.
Anthology 1992-2022 is a beneficiary of that approach, a special-edition mixture highlighting not only the most authentic Perique attainable but one that punctuates the quality of carefully curated components and a blending style designed to provide the finest smoking experiences that can be achieved. Meticulous precision, exemplary ingredients, and experienced blending talent define Cornell & Diehl, and this tobacco's naturally sweet, bready profile, its notes of zesty citrus and fig-like spice, are a testament to the history and commitment of a tobacco company that has reached maturity. Experience Cornell & Diehl's Anthology beginning at 12:00 a.m. ET on Wednesday, July 13th.