A Closer Look At Latakia Tobacco

Latakia, like Cavendish, is the result of a process; there is no tobacco plant that grows Latakia leaves. And Latakia production, like that of Perique, is a tiny industry; its annual yield of about 60,000 pounds is vanishingly insignificant when compared to overall global tobacco manufacturing, which is focused on cigarettes. Latakia is of primary importance to the entire category of English blends, and because it's so prominent to our pipe smoking interests, it's easy to forget how tiny and fragile are the manufacture of pipe tobacco in general and Latakia in particular.

The leaf used for Latakia is grown in the region around Turkey, including the Syrian Arab Republic, but then processed in the Republic of Cyprus by a single manufacturer: Bee Trading Company. It can't be processed in Syria, not since the late '70s, when the government made it illegal to harvest the woods that were used in its curing. It's an unstable part of the world politically, with civil unrest and ongoing war making it difficult to project consistent production. Jeremy Reeves, head blender at Cornell & Diehl, says that pipe tobacco manufacturers all take into account the instability of the product and arrange their supplies of Latakia up to a year in advance to offset its relative undependability.

Types of Latakia

There are, or were, two types of Latakia: Syrian and Cyprian. Syrian no longer exists. Tobacco is still grown in Syria, but because it can't be cured to make Latakia, leaf destined for that purpose is instead sent to Cyprus. In Syria, farmers used to grow a leaf known as Shekk-el-Bint specifically for Latakia production, and then cured it in their own barns. For Cyprian Latakia, however, Oriental leaf used for a number of blending applications not specific to Latakia is diverted for manufacture; Bee Trading Company buys that Oriental leaf and cures it in Cyprus to make Latakia.

Pipe tobacco manufacturers now have to deal with a broken supply chain and production system. "It's quite possible," says Jeremy, "that the Syrian Latakia qualities could have been replicated using Ismir and Basma leaf, but the Syrian farmers had a specific way of doing things and an innate understanding of how this leaf was going to be finished while it was still a living crop in the ground." That's gone now.

"There are just certain things about the farmers that are growing the tobacco also curing the tobacco that have been lost," says Jeremy. "I think that probably has more to do with why there is this distinct difference in the taste and flavor profile of Syrian Latakia versus Cyprian.

"The main importer of Latakia to the U.S. has to go many times a year to Cyprus and to Turkey, and navigate the regulations and arrange tobacco purchases in Turkey, and for that tobacco to be transported to Cyprus to process, then sent back to Turkey so it can be exported." It's a complicated process subject to the whims of regulators. To make it more complex, Bee Trading Company, headquartered in Istanbul but with processing facilities in Cyprus, is part of the very Turkish government that makes it so hard for Bee Trading Company to operate. Politics in action.

How Latakia is Grown and Cured

The Oriental tobaccos used for Latakia are very labor intensive to grow. Other operations have tried to produce Latakia and failed. "You've got leaf that is being grown in a desert climate," says Jeremy, "so instead of the plant growing large with 24 or so leaves, like we see here in our climate, the tobacco plant has adapted to its high sun, low rain climate by producing about a hundred very, very tiny leaves. And the plants don't get very tall. A full grown, fully matured Oriental plant will be two-and-a-half to three feet tall but have a hundred leaves on it, whereas a fully mature Bright Virginia plant like we see here in South Carolina can get over six feet tall and have gigantic leaves, but only 24 or so of them."

The reason Oriental tobacco grows so differently is to avoid too much exposure to the sun. The small leaves help to shade each other and to conserve water. "All the little leaves," says Jeremy, "help to funnel water down the stalk toward the roots. It's a plant that has figured out how to live without very much water and how to survive with virtually no cover from the sun. It's already a hard crop to grow, and then, on top of that, you first have to sun-cure it, which involves sewing the leaves together and laying them over little frames."

You heard that right. The leaves are sewn together with thread because they are so small that any small amount of wind will scatter them. After the leaves are linked, they're laid out on round frames, which are then laid over an A-frame structure and angled toward the sun for sun curing. "It's similar to the way that flue-curing happens with heat, but with no direct exposure to fire," says Jeremy. "This is just an outdoor, natural method."

Latakia is known for its forgiving qualities when smoked, producing less tongue bite than other tobaccos primarily because of its long process of fire-curing.

Sun curing takes several days, then the leaves have to be unthreaded and sent to Cyprus for fire curing with small, smoldering wood fires in enclosed barns for about six months, during which the leaves are subject to damage, heat flare-ups, and whatever misadventure may occur in such barns. The fires need near constant attention, so it's a labor-intense process.

According to the Bee website, pine and oak are used for the fire curing, along with "fragrant herbs." The old tales say that Latakia was originally cured over fires of camel dung, but that's unlikely. The story told by Bee Trading Company is that after a particular bumper crop, a farmer stored his excess leaves in the rafters of his home, where they were subject to the smoke from the family's cookfire. That process was a revelation, as the tobacco was especially fragrant and smoky tasting by the time spring came, and a new type of tobacco was thus discovered.

With total production concentrated in one small part of the globe, Latakia supply is subject to dangers. "A couple of years ago," says Jeremy, a large proportion of leaf was damaged during the fire-curing, "and suddenly there was not nearly enough to go around. All of us producers are constantly having to think months and months in advance about Latakia sourcing. Months and months before we need it, we're having to plan ahead and make sure that we've got more coming, got more in the works, because it's a very tiny crop when compared to a crop like Bright Virginia, where you've got many hundreds of millions of pounds that are produced just in the U.S."

Cornell & Diehl's Tobacco Selections video on Latakia (2019)

Modern and Historical Uses of Latakia

Latakia is not used for anything except pipe tobacco, not even for snuff. "The only snuff that I have ever been aware of to use Latakia was by a maker who I believe is no longer operating" says Jeremy. "He was in Tennessee, I believe. He was buying blending tobacco, grinding it to powder himself, and making all sorts of fantastic blends, and playing with all sorts of really avant-garde ingredients for snuff, like brown butter and all sorts of interesting oils and foodstuff treatments. He had some snuff that contained Latakia. That's the only example of Latakia being used for anything besides pipe tobacco that I'm aware of in recent history."

Latakia has earned its place of importance in the world of pipe tobacco. Its distinctive flavor is enjoyed by pipe smokers across the globe, and nothing else provides such a remarkable flavor profile.

Even large-scale leaf merchants are unfamiliar with this small subset of tobacco production. "For example, I go to visit our leaf dealers at least a couple of times a year. One of these companies, they have been in the tobacco business for over 100 years. The guys that work there are world traveled and very well educated about all things tobacco. One of the guys has worked there for 40 years and is now their president of sales. At the time that I started working at Cornell & Diehl, he was also our account manager, so he was my go-to guy to talk to about tobacco. Well, a couple years ago, this fellow, who has literally lived and breathed tobacco for all of his life, called me up and said, 'What the hell is Latakia? We've got some, and I don't know where to sell it. I don't know who would want it. I don't know what it is.'"

Pipe tobacco people are the only ones familiar with Latakia. "For most tobacco folks, even very, very experienced tobacco folks, maybe they've heard a wives' tale or two about a tobacco that's fire-cured for six months, but they've not probably believed that story, and they certainly have never actually seen Latakia."

Early in its history, Latakia was used mainly by manufacturers in the U.K., which is why blends containing Latakia are most often called English blends today. "When pipe smoking was much more prevalent, Latakia was not commonly used outside of the U.K. The U.K. obviously had interests and resources in Syria and in the Middle East that allowed them to access it more readily than American manufacturers. American pipe smokers that liked English-style Latakia blends were buying pipe tobacco that had been manufactured there. American manufacturers weren't having to navigate the intricacies of Latakia production and availability. If you look at Dunhill tobaccos, almost all of them contain Latakia. And you've got some American brands that followed that suit, like Drucquer's. But Drucquer's was buying tobacco from British companies."

Smoking Qualities of Latakia

Latakia is known for its forgiving qualities when smoked, producing less tongue bite than other tobaccos primarily because of its long process of fire-curing. "Basically, it goes from being a golden red leaf that has a moderate amount of sugar and a fair amount of oil, to being totally black and covered in a thick coat of creosote. The leaf has basically been heavily cooked. With fire-curing, typically, Kentucky fire-cured goes through about a 14-day fire-curing process. There are some farmers that produce what are called semi-fire-cured, where they'll do a four or a six-day flash fire-cure, and it provides a lighter, mellower smokiness. But traditional dark-fired takes about 14 to 16 days of constant smoking." Latakia, on the other hand, takes months longer.

"Such a long fire-curing process has a lot of chemical effects on the tobacco. It certainly consumes a large portion of the sugar. And the leaf is thoroughly cooked. It's blackened and very caramelized. Its low sugar content also contributes to easy smoking. It is really forgiving on the palate because basically it is pre-smoked. It burns at a very low temperature and is pretty easy to keep lit." It's also very easy to taste Latakia; it takes little of it to characterize a blend.

Blending with Latakia

Latakia is distinctive and can easily be overpowering. "When I'm building a blend with Latakia in it, I'm much less concerned about preserving a particular character of Latakia and much more concerned with preserving the character of the other components, because the Latakia will assert itself. I always find myself building blends around the idea that there is going to be this very overt flavor that is used. And so, I always try to make Latakia a background note. The first thing I'm going to do is put together all of the other components and then figure out what quantity of Latakia I can use that doesn't just overshadow all of them."

Also taken into consideration is the low nicotine content of Latakia. Other than Black Cavendish, it is the component with the least nicotine. The overt flavor of Latakia blends may contribute to an impression that it's a strong tobacco, but in reality it is remarkably mild, and that may contribute to its popularity.

Latakia has earned its place of importance in the world of pipe tobacco. Its distinctive flavor is enjoyed by pipe smokers across the globe, and nothing else provides such a remarkable flavor profile.

We may not realize just how lucky we are to have it. The complexity behind its production in terms of curing, politics, accessibility, and blending make it a delicate component of our favorite smoking mixtures, and one to be appreciated for all of its nuances and attributes.

Comments

    • D. on September 4, 2020
    • This definitely made me appreciate my Latakia blends even more. Thank you, excellent article, Very educational. Im just curious that if Latakia is so low in nicotine, then why does Gawith Hoggarth & Co Latakia have 5 yellow dots for strength. Maybe I've been mistaking strength for nicotine content this whole time. Another thing that bothers me... if a guy (farmer), i don't know how long ago, that was storing (an excess) a particular bumper crop of tobacco in his attic and stumbled upon the recipe for Latakia then why can't the good ol' U.S.A. with all it's rich soil and leading science reproduce it? You know how you shouldn't drink & drive, maybe I shouldn't do the former and comment. It just made me hit the panic button and load my Mark Tinsky Canadian full of Black House. It's not 'God, save the queen.' it's 'God, save Latakia!'

    • Alain L. on September 5, 2020
    • Very (very) good article on the subject including the short video. We are lucky indeed. Can’t imagine a smoking world without all our beloved Latakia blends. Thanks for the great infos.

    • Andy Lowry on September 6, 2020
    • Thanks for the informative article!Regarding latakia snuff, until recently De Kralingse in the Netherlands was making a really great latakia snuff (and grinding it in actual windmills!). I was sorry to see it go.

    • Scott S on September 6, 2020
    • Thanks for this piece. I was completely ignorant of the complex political and historical dimensions of growing and distributing the leaf used in producing latakia tobaccos. Fascinating also was the info on growing the leaf itself, e.g., sewing the tiny leaves together to prevent loss of any of any leaves. Thanks again!

    • John Tufano on September 6, 2020
    • What a fascinating article on the origin and production of Latakia. This is one of Chuck’s best articles. He cleared up the myth that Latakia makes a blend strong when the opposite is true. One of my friends who is a fairly new pipe smoker started smoking aromatics - like most of us did. I finally got him to try English tobaccos and what a revelation it was to him.

    • John Steppling on September 6, 2020
    • yeah, its why nobody can duplicate the old balkan sobranie. That was shekk el bent ...and that's all gone. The old old duke st dunhill blends..the house bespoke blends used to tell you how much cyprian and how much syrian in their english blends. All gone.

    • Paul Schmolke on September 6, 2020
    • I wonder if this stuff could be grown and cured in New Mexico. I’ve smoked it for over fifty years as a component in many of my early “blends of choice”. Chucks comments regarding it as a last addition to a blend are well taken as it can indeed be an overwhelming presence if too much is used, invisible if too little. Much of my stockpile is Dunhill blends and most contain Latakia. I was further educated on its demise in Syria as well as the plants unique character in the family of tobacco plants, thus my question as to whether it could be grown in my home state.Thanks much for a very good piece on this unique resource.

    • Cindy Bond-Thompson on September 6, 2020
    • Didn't Balkan Sobranie cigarettes contain Latakia tobaccos?

    • Joseph Kirkland on September 6, 2020
    • Chuck, you have written another fine article on tobacco. I have long preferred Latakia based blends, especially Balkan Sobranie and Rattray's Black Mallory.I’m glad there’s not much credence in the camel dung story. But Maria used buffalo dung to get her Black Pottery at San Ildefonse Pueblo.

    • Fabricio Viscardi on September 6, 2020
    • I simply LOVE latakia and the only thing that I can compare to its flavour profile is probably - Single Malts from the Isle of Islay - Like Laphroaig for example.

    • Marvin on September 6, 2020
    • Turkey,Syria, and war games now happening against Greece and Cyprus ,,, this may have unfortunate effects on production of Latakia. I don't know but just reading about that area. I am concerned price of it may really get high or none available.

    • nosferatu on September 6, 2020
    • Wonderful read and fascinating video. I was wondering, though, where one might find information regarding different types of leaf and their specific nicotine percentages?

    • nosferatu on September 6, 2020
    • Oh and also: that picture should be released in high definition as a desktop wallpaper ;-)

    • J Gooodman on September 6, 2020
    • What a great article. When I started smoking years ago I had a Latakia blend that I didn't much care for so I've been avoiding it somewhat. Time to give it another shot!All pipe smokers should get together and figure out this whole world peace thing just so our blends are protected.

    • Jack+ on September 6, 2020
    • As always, a very fine article, Mr Stanion! Like so many of us, I didn't really know the extended history of Latakia and I, too, misunderstood the complexity of the leaf. I've always thought that Latakia made the different blends I tried to be a little on the heavy side -- it looks like it's probably something else causing that.I finally ventured over to an English blend while visiting Kramer's in Hollywood. I got their Fr Dempsey, Cary Grant, and Danny Kaye. The first one I tried was Fr Dempsey. It was such a smooth blend that I keep some in my cellar. Of those three, I prefer Grant's. And because of those three, I started on a quest to find nice English Aromatics and have settled on Sutliff's 504c, Aromatic English. This gives me that smooth incense of the Latakia with a nice room note for others.Again, thank you for the article. It's always a pleasure reading them.

    • Reedbender Bud on September 6, 2020
    • I was wondering also if the tobacco could be grown in the Southwest region. They have controlled smoking facilities that could be dedicated to smoking the sun dried leaves for six months (or whatever duration achieves the latakia result). I guess we need a rich benefactor (or a bunch of dedicated pipe smokers converted tobacco farmers/processors).

    • Pirrulin de la Habana on September 6, 2020
    • since Latakia is a process...why can't this process be replicated in the civilized world?

    • Phil Harless on September 6, 2020
    • I discovered Balkan Sobranie as a student at Chico State College in 1967. My roommates wouldn’t allow me to smoke in the apartment. They said it smelled like burning Camel Dung. It came in the old knife lid cans. I still have a few pouches of the 80’s Sobranie in my humidor for special occasions, and Single Malt Scotch.

    • Bob Gallo on September 6, 2020
    • About the common misunderstanding that Latakia is dark and therefore really strong - I used to make the analogy that dark-roasted coffees, were not especially caffeinated as the high roasting drove off or dismantled the caffeine molecules. Same thing for Latakia. Back in the 1970s when I was hell-bent for Balkan Sobranie, I worked my way through a whole pound of Syrian Latakia straight. I remember when I bought it, the tobacconist told me it would "blow your head off.' of course it did no such thing. It was smoky and pleasantly soothing. Surely Shirley, it's time for an enterprising somebody to try to try a better job at bringing an American Latakia to market - or, at least to C&D. Another fine Stanion tobacco survey and history.

    • Rob Denholtz on September 6, 2020
    • Not to put too fine a point on it but my local tobacconist, who came here from Syria, informed me that the city Latakia is named for is pronounced La-TAH-kia, not La-tah-KI-a. But, as long as we all know which tobacco we're talking about, I suppose it's not a big deal.

    • Gareth Amery on September 7, 2020
    • Nice summary. However, I should point out that there is a Latakia based snuff currently available: Sir Walter Scott's Latakia Blend.

    • Manuel Pintado on September 7, 2020
    • Thank you for having shared this interesting and important information.Was not aware of some points clearly explained in this article.

    • Mark on September 7, 2020
    • Thank you, Mr. Stanion, for another marvelous, informative, and educational article. I now know about a thousand times more about Latakia than I did before, a subject I have often wondered about but have never pursued on my own. I have one question: If and when the civil war in Syria ever ends and they begin to put their country back together, I wonder if it is possible there might be an effort to once more produce Syrian Latakia?

    • Bill Meyer on September 7, 2020
    • Latakia heavy blends became my favorites early in my 40 years of pipe smoking. Even in all those years I never knew a thing about relative nicotine content until I read this article. I've never really enjoyed Virginias as they tend to make me light headed and dizzy where Lat never does. Ya' learn something every day. Great article.

    • Tom on September 7, 2020
    • I am sure someone else has thought of this before me but has anyone from states like Arizona or Nevada considered trying to produce an alternative to Latakia?

    • Bob Balducci on September 7, 2020
    • Interesting. I’ve been adding Latakia to pipe tobaccos I purchase in bulk. Much improves the flavor. Like the comment about Laphroaig and linking to the Latakia. Just good stuff...both. I was always under the impression that Camel dung was used for smoking the leaf. At least there is something exotic about the idea.👍😋

    • Jon DeCles on September 11, 2020
    • I can at least add some data to the conversation.Many years ago (the 60s and 70s) I was entranced with snuff and its history. I carried on a correspondence with Col. Bridgeman-Evans of Frebourg & Treyer, which made, at that time, a snuff called Astoroth. The recipe had been suggested by the famous actor, Dr. James Robertson Justice. It was made with Latakia and scented with jasmine, and it was noted that the tobacco was smoked over a certain kind of oak, called something like ozone. (I would have to dig through a very old lot of correspondence to hope to find the correct spelling of the oak wood.) I am assuming that is the smoke source that the Syrian government has forbidden. It might now be an endangered species.I still have distinct memory of that smell, the jasmine and Latakia. When the company closed and sold its recipes the new owner made a new snuff in honor of Dr. James Robertson-Justice, but it is highly perfumed and nothing at all like the things for which he had shown preference.In those days the only way for me to get it was to buy it by the pound, which is, I can assure you, something on the order of a billion year supply. When I went back to my correspondence the company was gone.I am so glad to see that there is, at least, a Latakia snuff still made, and I shall have to track it down.Thank you, Chuck, for another wonderful and informative article!Oh, and one final note: when the United States found itself unable to acquire pistachio nuts from Iran, we started to grow them in California quite successfully. The folks who suggest trying to grow the tobacco in the Southwest may very well be on to something, and they should try.

    • Jack Koonce on September 17, 2020
    • This was an in credibility well written article. Thank you

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