One aspect of pipe smoking that continually astounds me is the staggering number of blending components and processes that are utilized to craft many of the distinct and cherished mixtures we all enjoy. It presents pipe smokers with a seemingly endless array of tobacco options, each individual blend offering a unique flavor profile and affording pipe smokers the opportunity to expand their palate. However, due to the extensive vocabulary and terminology often used in pipe smoking there can be some confusion as to what's a blending process and what's a tobacco varietal. Perhaps the most misunderstood word in this regard is Cavendish. But before we get into what Cavendish actually is, let's explore the history behind the word.
History of Cavendish Tobacco
Sir Thomas Cavendish
The term Cavendish can be traced back to the late 16th century when Admiral Sir Richard Grenville and Sir Thomas Cavendish visited the English Colony of Virginia at the crown's request. The two men were presented with tobacco as a gift, and Cavendish wished to return to England with it for sale and promotion. In an attempt to either prevent the tobacco from drying out or to sweeten it, Cavendish infused it with dark rum (or sugar, according to other sources) from his own personal supply, after which he rolled the leaves and bound them tightly with twine and canvas. After several weeks at sea, the tobacco was cut into slices and smoked, and to the astonishment of his fellow sailors, the flavor had significantly improved; the smoke was milder, sweeter, and provided a more pleasing aroma.
The most important thing to note about Cavendish is that it isn't a type of tobacco but rather a process, which can understandably create some confusion but it's an important distinction to make.
I talked to Jeremy Reeves, head blender at Cornell & Diehl, about Cavendish to learn more about the process and what he thinks may have caused this misconception. "It's a process and yet it yields a product," Reeves explains, "so when people see Cavendish or Black Cavendish on a tin description they may assume it's a type of tobacco like Virginia or Burley."
How Cavendish Tobacco is Made
Nearly any type of tobacco can be used for the Cavendish process but typically Virginia and Burley tobaccos are the most common components, although some European-style Cavendishes may include Oriental leaf or condimental tobacco such as Latakia or Perique to add a hint of spice to a blend. "There are no rules so you could take any tobacco you wanted," says Jeremy, "and if you add some sugar to it and use heat, steam, and pressure you'll be able to make Cavendish."
However, due to the extensive vocabulary and terminology often used in pipe smoking there can be some confusion as to what's a blending process and what's a tobacco varietal.
In the Cavendish process, the component tobaccos are subjected to pressure and heat to draw out the naturally-occurring sugars within the tobacco itself. The tobaccos can also be flavored or sweetened, either by dipping them or spraying them with the desired flavoring. Typically, that which has an added sweetness is referred to as sweetened Cavendish, while that treated only with pressure and heat would be unsweetened Cavendish. The tobaccos are then pressed, the intense pressure allows the flavors to become more deeply embedded and the longer the tobaccos are pressed, the more pronounced the flavoring will be in the final product.
Stoving Virginia tobaccos can be seen as a similar process to Cavendish, utilizing the key elements associated with Cavendishing. "Steam, heat, and pressure are all used but just not to the point of blackening the leaf," Jeremy explained. It all depends on the manufacturer but stoved tobacco can essentially be seen as a riff on the Cavendish process, but the results can vary significantly depending on the amount of steam, heat, and pressure used as well as the type of tobacco.
Jeremy likens the Cavendish process to a thickener used in cooking. "It isn't going to add much in terms of its own flavor but it will absorb the flavors of the other tobaccos in the blend," he says. "The tobaccos will have more staying power on your palate from the way the blend combusts, producing a mellow, thick, and dense smoke."
Through the Cavendishing process, the natural tobacco itself loses a lot of its own flavors, which makes it perfect to take on other flavors from other tobaccos or from outside flavoring agents. "The Cavendish process itself removes a lot of the tobacco's natural character," Jeremy says, "and helps create a more homogeneous product that can be used to add other flavors or toppings to or can be used with other, more flavorsome leaf."
Types of Cavendish Tobacco
Depending on the type of tobacco, adding sugar isn't even necessary for Cavendish. "For the Red Virginia Cavendish we produce we actually do that without the addition of sugar," says Reeves. "It's just darkened with steam but there's enough sugar naturally in the leaf that it darkens significantly to a deep brown/black. And that's the same red Virginia we use in most of our blends." Cornell & Diehl's proprietary Red Virginia Cavendish is prominently featured in their beloved Autumn Evening aromatic blend, lightly casing the Red Virginias with a maple flavor that helps create an incredibly pleasing room note and satisfyingly sweet flavor profile.
Through the Cavendishing process, the natural tobacco itself loses a lot of its own flavors, which makes it perfect to take on other flavors from other tobaccos or from outside flavoring agents.
Black Cavendish is a bit more complicated as its definition will differ depending on where it's made. For example, in Europe, particularly in England, Black Cavendish is often made from Virginia tobaccos, due to the leaf's natural sugar content — which helps it caramelize into a dark brown, almost black color and is known as brown Cavendish to some pipe smokers. In the United States Burley tobaccos are often used for Black Cavendish, but other varietals such as cigar feaf can be also used.
How Cavendish Tobacco is Used
Black Cavendish is a commonly used process for many blends primarily due to the subtle yet effective nuances it imparts during the smoking process. "It works really well in moderate to small quantities to give the tobacco smoke a sense of weight on your palate," Reeves explains, "and to produce a pleasingly thick, cloudy smoke that moves complex flavors evenly across the palate and gives them more space to express themselves."
Taking the cooking comparisons further, Jeremy compared Black Cavendish's purpose in blends to using flour in a roux to help create a more complex broth or sauce. "Without the flour there to thicken you'd have a thin broth that may have a lot of flavors floating around in it but you'd miss out on its complexities," said Reeves. "You'll taste everything more succinctly and the flavors will marry in more interesting ways because you've increased the density of the liquid, so Black Cavendish does the same thing to the smoke."
Taking the cooking comparisons further, Jeremy compared Black Cavendish's purpose in blends to using flour in a roux to help create a more complex broth or sauce.
A common misconception, although an understandable one, is that when Cavendish, whether it be black or brown, is listed in a mixture many will assume it has to be an Aromatic blend. And that's because Cavendish is heavily used within many Aromatics and may often be flavored or feature a topping or casing, but the process doesn't necessarily mean it's used only for Aromatic mixtures.
For example, one of the most notable and widely popular non-Aromatic blends that uses brown Cavendish is My Mixture 965, formerly produced under the Dunhill name, and brought back by Peterson in 2019. While it's a full-bodied English blend that features Latakia for a rich, smoky flavor, it also utilizes a Virginia-based Cavendish, which adds some nuanced depth and a mellow sweetness to the smoke.
The Cavendish process is remarkably versatile and a valuable method used by a wide range of tobacco manufacturers around the world. The results of the Cavendish process can either be smoked by themselves or used as a blending component to add body to a mixture. It helps bring out flavors and subtleties in blends that otherwise may go unnoticed, allowing for endless palate possibilities and a way for pipe smokers to experiment with their own at-home blending.
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