Until recently, I had little interest in aromatic tobaccos. I considered aromatics to be a category of tobacco best left to newcomers, remembering how I had insisted on smoking them exclusively when I first started pipe smoking. I had wanted the most impressive-smelling tobacco possible and had terrible experiences with aromatics in those days. I remember around my third day of pipe smoking, I loaded a bowl with one of my over-wet Aromatics and stuck the pipe in the freezer for an hour, thinking that it might alleviate the heat I seemed to be experiencing on my tongue. I didn't know at that time that if I were to smoke them properly, I'd enjoy them, and I seem to have subconsciously assumed the tobaccos were at fault, when the problem rested with me. No tobacco is going to be entirely satisfactory when you first start pipe smoking. You have to get your smoking technique under control, and that took longer for me than most.
Freezing that pipe didn't help with my tongue bite, and it may have been a contributing factor in how easily that pipe broke when I dropped it a couple of weeks later. But the episode is an example of how impatient I was to become comfortable with smoking a pipe.
After I found my way to Englishes and Virginias, I saw no need to revisit Aromatics. Ever. I was closed minded on the subject. I had equated aromatics with unpleasant smoking and wanted nothing more to do with them. It was an oversight that deprived me of some potentially great smoking experiences. There are certainly some Aromatics that I'll never enjoy, but I did myself a disservice by spending decades ignoring an entire category of tobaccos.
I think that my years with English blends and then with Virginias taught me how to smoke. English blends are very forgiving and I smoked them almost exclusively for a long time, improving my smoking technique year after year. I learned to smoke Virginias only gradually, and it took a while before they started to dominate my smoking time. Had I started with Virginias, I may well have endured tongue bite similar to my aromatic days. Only after discussing Aromatic tobaccos on several occasions with Jeremy Reeves, the head blender at Cornell & Diehl, did I start to consider that maybe my initial lack of experience was more of a contribution to my dissatisfaction with Aromatics than I thought. Maybe it wasn't the tobacco's fault, but mine.
What is an Aromatic?
I realized that I didn't understand what an Aromatic was. I thought that if a tobacco was cased, that made it an Aromatic, but most tobaccos are cased, and many that we all consider to be pure tobacco indeed have casing. In the '90s, I became infatuated with a blend called Aurora, made by McClelland and sold by the Pipe Collectors Club of America, owned by Bob Hamlin, who referred to it in conversation as an Aromatic. I didn't think of it as an Aromatic, though, and such was my prejudice that I decided he was wrong rather than admit that I liked a tobacco in a category that I was prejudiced against. I did notice that Aurora took a lot longer to dry out than my other Virginias, indicating the use of a humectant, but my cognitive dissonance did not permit me to think it through. I'm thinking about it now though. It's clear that I've enjoyed at least a few Aromatics but never admitted what they were.
I needed a clear definition of just what an Aromatic tobacco is, but Jeremy has shown me that it's a difficult category that evades definition. "It's kind of like what we've talked about in other conversations," he says, "like about Black Cavendish, that there's not a concrete definition for a lot of these things in pipe tobacco. The companies that make pipe tobacco have always had to figure out their own way because it wasn't the way that the main tobacco industry thought about tobacco."
The word itself is misleading. "Aromatic" could be considered an appropriate term for any tobacco, simply because it has a discernible scent. "In some books I have that were published by Duke University," says Jeremy, "which of course was instrumental in the science-and-agronomy approach to tobacco, they talk about Oriental tobacco as being Aromatic tobacco. They actually use the term Aromatic tobacco to mean any tobacco that is of Oriental variety."
That's not a definition used today, but it's an indicator of how slippery a term it has been. "There is no hard and fast rule or definition," says Jeremy, "but in Cornell & Diehl's own approach to this term, we think of aromatics as being flavored in such a way that it would affect the room note for those around who are not actually smoking the blend." That's a definition pretty well accepted by other pipe tobacco companies as well.
"We define it by whether or not the room note has been affected by some additive or flavoring that we're using. If you put molasses in a real small quantity on some Burley, you're not going to smell molasses when you smoke that, and you're not really going to taste added sweetness when you smoke it. That molasses is actually there to add a little bit of chemical balance to the alkalinity of that Burley, and to smooth out some of the rough edges that your mouth will perceive because it is so alkaline. Adding molasses to Burley is not going to make it an aromatic. It is going to subtly adjust the chemistry of the flavor and basically function as a casing, but it is not a flavoring in a way that you are going to say, 'Oh, there's molasses on this.' It's not going to sweeten the aroma of the smoke."
Adjusting for acidity and for alkalinity is a basic requirement for tobacco blenders. Tongue bite is not a result of hot or steamy smoke, but of pH, which is short for "potential of hydrogen" and a measurement for the concentration of hydrogen ions, with lower pH indicating more hydrogen ions (more acidity) and higher pH indicating a lower concentration (more alkalinity). The acid and alkaline levels of a tobacco must be adjusted to avoid tongue bite. Tobacco blenders adjust the chemical balance of tobacco for more comfortable smoking, and the various strategies for that have little to do with making a blend an Aromatic.
There is no hard and fast rule or definition, but in Cornell & Diehl's own approach to this term, we think of aromatics as being flavored in such a way that it would affect the room note for those around who are not actually smoking the blend. - Jeremy Reeves
That necessity makes tobaccos without additives quite rare. "If tobacco has no additives," says Jeremy, "then you're probably talking about an American Spirit cigarette because there's virtually no other company. I guess Winstons. Yeah. American Spirit and Winstons are the two truly, truly zero-additive tobacco products that I am aware of."
Blends like Dunhill Light Flake and Orlik Golden Sliced come to mind, blends that many of us think of as unflavored. "Dunhill Light Flake," says Jeremy, "has clearly been cased, and there's also a top note added to it. I don't know what exactly they used, but I have worked with raw tobacco from all over the world, and there just simply is no such thing as raw, unflavored, un-augmented tobacco that smells something like Orlik Golden Sliced or Dunhill Light Flake." Another example is McClellend, whose Virginias I've always appreciated and accepted as unflavored, but let's face it, that distinctive tin scent that we all associate with McClellend is not a natural evolution of the aging process. "There's no raw tobacco that I've ever encountered," says Jeremy, "that smelled anything at all like McClelland. We've actually purchased tobacco that McClelland was using, and it doesn't smell that way.
"The reality is that many pipe tobacco manufacturers have simply not discussed what they have added to their tobacco, or in some rare cases have made claims that no additives are used. But the reality is that it doesn't make any sense."
In finding a definition for Aromatics, we're left with the concept that something has been added to the tobacco to alter the scent as it is burning. "There are ways to add flavoring or to adjust flavoring that would not, in my mind, make something an Aromatic. For example, I think that an especially great Virginia/Perique blend is Poplar Camp. It's balanced, lively, sweet. There is a small amount, I mean a tiny amount, of vanilla that is present in that blend. But when you smoke it, it doesn't smell like vanilla and it doesn't taste like vanilla. That little bit of added sweetness just permeates the whole blend with just an extra oomph that comes through as being very natural, and it doesn't rise to the foreground whatsoever. The blend would certainly be different without it, but I have literally never been approached by a smoker of Poplar Camp asking if there was a topping or a casing on it."
Also confusing the topic is just how overt an aromatic may be. There are very subtle Aromatics, and there are those that are in-your-face aroma explosions. Think about the Cherry blends that we all tried when we were first starting out. Nobody could mistake their character. But many blenders also use flavorings in very subtle ways and in minuscule amounts, and most of us can't recognize those subtleties. Remember, too, that a tobacco manufacturer can do just so much with the basic tobacco types, and the subtle flavoring techniques they use to distinguish their products aren't something they wish to share with competitors. Few of us have ever experienced true, raw tobacco, making it more difficult to recognize minimalist improvements.
"I think" says Jeremy, "that leads to this ambiguity about what an aromatic really is. Well, if you really are telling me that you only smoke unflavored and un-cased pipe tobacco, that tells me that almost inevitably you only smoke products that C&D makes. That tells me really specifically that you're smoking a handful of G. L. Pease and C&D products because for the vast majority of what is out there, whether they tell you they have or not, they have added sugar. They have added honey, and they have probably added a bunch of things that can be very, very subtle."
Cornell & Diehl does produce tobaccos that are entirely free of flavorings, like Haunted Bookshop and London Squire. "There are no added flavorings on most of the Latakia blends that C&D produces," says Jeremy, "and that includes G. L. Pease. There are no added flavorings on Country Lawyer or Pete's Beard's Blend, that we make for BriarWorks. There are no added flavorings on Unsweet Tea, either. I don't know of any other company that uses no casing and no flavoring in as many instances as we do."
Aromatics are primarily thought of in terms of the room note they generate. When Jeremy develops blends for C&D, he's more concerned about the flavor, and the room note is of secondary importance. "Now, if I'm trying to produce a very aromatic tobacco, then I kind of understand the quantities of things that I need to be adding, and the types of tobaccos that need to be present such that they can really carry that aroma. But ultimately, my main goal is to make something that the smoker is going to have a certain experience with, and the experience of those around them is secondary."
The tin notes of Aromatics are often misleading, their aroma much more defined in the tin than that found when smoking the same blends. That unfortunate characteristic may contribute to the frustration of so many beginner pipe smokers. When the tin smells one way and the smoke is merely a shadow of that expectation, it's disappointing. "I think it's quite common that aromatics don't tend to deliver in flavor what their aroma seems to promise," says Jeremy. "But I think that both Autumn Evening and Apricots & Cream actually do. I think Autumn Evening more so than Apricots & Cream, but the aroma in the tin and the room note of Autumn Evening are actually really true to the flavor experience of Autumn Evening."
For figuring out how these flavors work in an Aromatic, we need to understand how Aromatics are made. Like non-Aromatic tobaccos, they often start with a casing.
Casings Do Not Make an Aromatic
"Casing does not necessarily make anything Aromatic," says Jeremy. "Casing is really a treatment of the leaf prior to being blended to give either a cohesive house flavor to tobaccos, kind of like the ways that you could smell a tobacco and pretty clearly be able to say, 'Oh, this is probably a McClelland product,' or, 'this aroma seems to be in line with tobaccos that I've experienced from Sutliff or from Mac Baren.' That sort of unifying flavor profile across blends happens by treating the tobaccos that those blending houses use with a very specific set of casings. The purpose for those casings is not to make an overt flavor impact, but rather to make a very minor adjustment for sweetness and mouthfeel."
Mouthfeel is a subject that blenders invest a great deal of time on. It doesn't matter what flavor a tobacco may deliver if it feels terrible in the mouth and causes tongue bite. "Mouthfeel and chemistry are the more important factors that casing addresses," says Jeremy. "If you've got a very, very bright, very, very sugary Virginia, adding a little bit of honey to it can soothe the bite and make it a little more neutral, a little less acidic. Adding vinegar to that mixture can heighten the piquancy and accentuate the citrus aspects of the flavor, but still with the honey there to tone down the bite. But neither of these things, if they're done properly, will be noticeable to the smoker in any sort of overt way. You're not going to taste vinegar or honey; you're going to experience a subtly adjusted flavor that you won't realize was subtly adjusted. Casing is something that is done to delicately adjust and perfect mouthfeel, and it's done in a subtle way so that the end result is still a very natural-tasting tobacco. Its purpose is to be hidden."
Casing is generally applied to individual tobacco components rather to a blended product, so that the effect more specifically addresses particular flavor modifications. Some larger manufacturers may case some blends in their entirety, but more often it's a treatment for individual tobaccos. For C&D, casings are used on only a handful of blends, so casings are handled a little differently. "Casing is applied by simply spraying the casing used on the specific leaf that is to be cased," says Jeremy. "Typically, we don't case a blend, because C&D doesn't case the majority of our tobaccos, and we use the same handful of tobacco components to produce all the different products that we make. We actually are an outlier in this. If we use a casing, in some instances we case particular leaf, and then use that in a blend. But in most instances where we use casing, we actually do case the whole blend, but again, it's because we actually have a strong focus on tobaccos that do not have any casing or flavoring, where most blending houses, the very first thing they do before they begin using leaf is to case each different leaf type with the casing that they had designed for it." A particular blend from large manufacturers is likely to have several different casings, because the casing is applied to the blend's individual components separately.
If you've got a very, very bright, very, very sugary Virginia, adding a little bit of honey to it can soothe the bite and make it a little more neutral, a little less acidic. Adding vinegar to that mixture can heighten the piquancy and accentuate the citrus aspects of the flavor, but still with the honey there to tone down the bite. But neither of these things, if they're done properly, will be noticeable to the smoker in any sort of overt way. - Jeremy Reeves
"We are an outlier because we do so much by hand, and we do so much in small batches. But a manufacturer of larger size than C&D, typically when they receive leaf, before they ever use it, they have a casing that goes on the Red Virginia. They have a different casing that likely goes on their Bright Virginia. They'll have a casing that was designed for their Oriental. They'll have casings that were designed for their Burleys, and so before they're ever using those components, those components need to be cased for their purposes. We do not case the vast majority of what we produce, and so for the instances where we do use casing, we actually case the blend. In some instances, we will take the one or two leaf types that do get a casing in a blend, case those and then make the rest of the blend with the other un-cased components."
I don't think I'm alone when I admit that I once thought of rum as a casing that would be used only to produce an Aromatic. But when rum or whisky, for example, are used to case a tobacco, the alcohol evaporates very quickly, and what's left isn't something overtly noticeable. "What's left behind when you've added rum," says Jeremy, "is a very, very subtle amount of sugar and some of the oils and tannins of the wood from the barrels." Adding rum to tobacco doesn't make it taste like rum. "It's going to add a very, very small amount of sugar and some wood tannins to the tobacco that you probably won't be able to detect in the smoke."
Casing itself is, basically, a solution of sugar and alcohol, with the alcohol acting as a carrier. "An alcohol molecule," says Jeremy, "can penetrate deeper into the leaf much more quickly than water. Alcohol will permeate deep into the leaf such that the leaf becomes pliable and saturated with it much more quickly than adding the same quantity of water.
"Casings are very subtle. You can play with things in a casing that may straddle the line between casing and topping, but you're really going to have to be nuanced in your approach to that, lest you simply just make a very overtly Aromatic tobacco. There's certainly a gray area where, yeah. You could add small amounts of flavorants to a casing that would still orient themselves into the natural flavor of the tobacco and not be clear deviations from natural tobacco flavor, but you'll have to be very even-handed in the way that those things are applied."
Alcohol has such a low boiling point that it evaporates very quickly, leaving the flavoring behind in the leaf. The sugars and flavorings in the alcohol solution are chosen for their chemistry. "You're either using sugar as a neutral sweetener to help tone down acidity, or you're using something like molasses that is actually an acidic sweetener to tone down alkalinity." The flavor is so incorporated into the leaf that it becomes part of the tobacco's flavor. "It's not different from what the tobacco itself tastes like. It's chosen to be hidden among the natural flavors of the tobacco so that the smoker is not like, 'Oh, this tastes like a bunch of sugar is added.' You're not going to experience the flavor of honey or the flavor of white sugar or brown sugar on the tobacco. Those things don't really translate through into the smoke, but they do adjust things that you would notice if it wasn't there. They do adjust mouthfeel and the way that the smoke actually interacts with the tissues of your mouth."
Top Notes Make an Aromatic
For Aromatics, on the other hand, flavorings are intended to be recognized and enjoyed, adding different dimensions to the tobacco. There is no tobacco that tastes like cherry; that flavor is going to be easily recognized as something that has been added to a blend. Your palate can tell the difference between the flavor of the tobacco and the flavor of the toppings.
Unlike casings, top notes are added to the blends rather than to the individual component tobaccos, though C&D, because of its small size and its manufacturing processes, deviates from that rule. "We're making between 24 and 108 pounds of something rather than making thousands and thousands of pounds at a time of something. But when we add casing, while we may case the whole blend because it is one of just a handful of blends that we actually do use a casing on, it's still something that is done at the beginning of the process, not at the end — because that casing has to flash off. The alcohol present has to leave."
"Think about the terminology, 'top note,'" says Jeremy. "It is going to be an overt, clearly added aroma that is intended to be noticed. It's intended to be experienced, whereas casing is really intended not to be experienced. It's designed to fully incorporate into the natural flavor of the tobacco and not draw attention to itself, but a top note is like the cherry on top. It is definitely designed to be noticed."
The top note is added after a blend has been fully incorporated, after all of the components have been put together, and that's the final process for that tobacco before packaging.
In C&D's case, top notes as well as casings are applied by hand on a stainless-steel table. Recipes dictate the amount of top note solution per pound of tobacco, so the exact proportions are maintained. "I'll measure out the proper number of ounces to treat a tobacco," says Jeremy, "and I will work in a zigzag sort of fashion, and just with a thin trickle, go over the length of the table to apply, say, a third of the flavoring that's to be added. After I've covered the surface as evenly as I can, then I'll mix by hand, mix the tobacco through and toss it. Then I'll go back over and add the next third." C&D doesn't spray or spritz the top notes onto the tobacco because dedicated sprayers are impractical for the many different products that need top notes and for the relatively small size of the batches. It would require the maintenance of a vast inventory of sprayers.
Large manufacturers utilize a different method, running the tobacco through a dryer to heat it to about 220 degrees, then into a gigantic hollow cylinder with spray nozzles inside that aim toward the center. The cylinder turns and the orientation of the spray nozzles is such that they cause the tobacco to spiral through the cylinder and move from one end to the other.
A top note is intended to be experienced, whereas casing is really intended not to be experienced. It's designed to fully incorporate into the natural flavor of the tobacco and not draw attention to itself, but a top note is like the cherry on top. It is definitely designed to be noticed. - Jeremy Reeves
This machinery is designed for production numbers much larger than those of C&D. Casing cylinders, says Jeremy, "are designed to handle a minimum of 7,000 pounds at a time. Last year C&D produced 72,000 pounds of tobacco for the whole year. So, this kind of equipment is designed to handle one-tenth of our total poundage across several hundred different products. In one run."
But C&D is a smaller operation. Once the top note is added, it takes only a few minutes for the tobacco to reach correct moisture level, and it's ready to be tinned.
Top notes can be surprisingly complex, with a seemingly endless number of flavors, like apricot, peach, orange, grape, strawberry, cherry, black walnut, hazelnut, vanilla, maple, rum extract, scotch extract, plum, fig. "Some flavors are very bright and citrus-y, and overtly sweet," says Jeremy, "and some are darker and more caramel-y, and a little less sweet. They can be mixed together in any sort of ratio to get different effects. If you use straight fig in large quantity, you're going to get a very overt fig flavor, but if you use a really tiny amount of fig alongside something that is more bright, and sweet, and citrus-y, you can just slightly caramelize that flavor."
A particularly popular Aromatic is, of course, cherry, but it isn't as simple to achieve as putting cherry flavoring on. Top note recipes are intended to add dimension and interest beyond a single flavor. "You might have a dark cherry flavor and you might have a brighter, real sweet cherry flavor. But you could also use plum in small quantity. You could use fig in small quantity. You could use a tiny amount of chocolate, or walnut, or vanilla, or caramel. It really depends on what kind of a cherry flavor profile you're wanting to put together. Cherry will be the driving force if you're really focused on cherry as the flavor, but you probably want some other things in there to help broaden that flavor spectrum and make the flavor stick. A good analogy from cooking would be making a sauce that you want to be very garlic-y. You're going to add more to the sauce than just garlic because garlic on its own isn't going to make a very engaging or flavorful sauce. So, you're going to want to add cream, or black pepper, or salt, or cumin, or curry, or other things that can work with that garlic flavor that you want to be very forward, but that can make it more interesting and that can actually allow your palate to interact with lots of different flavors that work well with the garlic."
It's unfortunate that we pipe smokers seem to gravitate to Aromatics when we start, because Aromatics require as much finesse to smoke and enjoy as do Virginias. "When I got into pipe smoking, it seemed like a lot of people thought that a good starter tobacco would be an Aromatic," says Jeremy. "I find that very odd now because it was really Aromatic tobaccos that turned me off to the experience of pipe smoking; it was actually a struggle when I was figuring out how to smoke a pipe. It had a lot to do with Aromatic tobaccos that weren't very good at teaching me to be a good pipe smoker."
When Jeremy moved away from Aromatics and into English blends, he found that the tobacco was much more forgiving, easier, and more pleasant to smoke. "I could have all the bad, new pipe smoker habits that many of us have, like over-puffing, and over-packing. But the flavor that I experienced didn't suffer, and the feeling of my tongue after smoking wasn't so painful."
With good smoking technique, Aromatics are much more enjoyable; with an educated palate, the complexity of the flavors is more recognizable; with experience, we can now enjoy these tobaccos as they should be enjoyed. If, like me, you've avoided Aromatics since your early years of pipe smoking, you may be surprised at how much better they now taste, how much easier they smoke, and without knowing, that you've been ready for a while to experience these tobaccos as you wished you had when you started.