Perique is an incredibly versatile blending component and one of the most interesting and complex types of tobacco. It's used to create numerous mixtures, often serving as a condimental tobacco to add nuance or complexity to a blend. Perique is steeped in tradition, having endured for centuries, its curing process passed down for generations, and it continues to play a prominent role in pipe tobacco manufacturing.
The origins of Perique reach to the 18th century when French settlers from Canada observed the Chickasaw and Choctaw of Louisiana pressing tobacco in hollowed-out logs and placing heavy rocks on top. The resulting pressure caused the tobacco to release its natural juices and the tobacco was allowed to soak in those juices and ferment. In the early 19th century, a farmer named Pierre Chenet (some sources spell it as Chemot), became the first to grow that type of tobacco commercially. Chenet continued to study the process, refined the methods used and it soon became a popular type of tobacco, becoming widely known as Perique, reportedly after Pierre's nickname.
One thing that sets Perique apart from other tobaccos is that it's both a type of tobacco and a process. "What makes Perique the unique product that we enjoy in our blends is the process it goes through," says Jeremy Reeves, head blender at Cornell & Diehl.
The crops are initially planted in greenhouses during late winter and are transplanted into the fields in the spring. During the summer, the plants are stalk-cut harvested and air-cured, initially resulting in tobacco that closely resembles Burley but will undergo a unique fermentation process that makes it such a distinctive type of tobacco. After air-curing, the leaves are picked from the stalks and heavily wetted to prepare it for the next step.
"The wetting is far beyond introducing just enough moisture to make the leaf pliable," Reeves explains. "For Perique, the leaves are extremely wet, quickly hand-stripped from their midribs, and twisted into bundles that will then go into a charred oak barrel."
The bundles are placed into ex-bourbon barrels, marking the beginning of Perique's lengthy fermentation process. "The barrel doesn't have bourbon in it, but it still has all of the yeast and microbial action that's taking place in the wood, which aids in fermentation," Jeremy says. The stripped leaves are rolled into bunches weighing approximately a pound and are packed into the barrel, which will weigh around 500 pounds once completely packed. The leaves are first placed along the barrel's outside edge, gradually adding leaves in layers and working inward toward the center of the barrel. "The goal is to reduce air pockets as much as humanly possible," Jeremy explains, "because air pockets won't allow for proper fermentation and you'll have rotten tobacco."
After the barrel is uniformly packed and sealed, a wooden block is placed on top of the barrel's lid and is put under a screw jack that exerts around 25 to 30 tons of pressure on the barrel. This enormous amount of pressure not only initiates Perique's fermentation process, but forces out any excess air that exists within the barrel or small air pockets in the bundled leaves.
The tobacco sits under immense pressure for 90 days, after which the pressure is taken off and the bundled leaves are individually taken out of the barrel. The bundled leaves are carefully unfurled and reintroduced to oxygen by being left out for 12 to 24 hours before being placed back into the barrel and put under pressure again. "The process of taking the tobacco out, aeration, and reintroducing anaerobic fermentation is called 'turning' and will happen three times over the course of the life of a Perique barrel," Jeremy adds. This repeated procedure helps force the natural ammonia out of the leaf and reintroduces natural yeast to the tobacco, continuing its fermentation process. Once the entire process is completed, the leaves are free of ammonia and the result is fermented black leaf with a distinctive flavor and aroma.
Perique barrels under pressure.
Perique's flavor profile is one marked by complexity and nuance, offering several unique flavors depending on what other types of tobacco it joins in a blend and the amount of Perique used. "Perique has a particularly umami character," says Jeremy. That is, it possesses a meaty, cheesy, mushroomy character. "It's very savory and can be sort of a chameleon based on the other tobaccos it mingles with in a blend."
In terms of Perique's flavor profile by itself, Jeremy provides a detailed description of what he observes. "It's all at once sweet with notes of cherry and chocolate as well as deep, earthy flavors," says Reeves. "There are also hints of soy sauce, mushroom, and light vinegar notes all rolled into one, creating a unique and savory aroma and flavor."
As a blending component, Jeremy says that it's commonly used in blends with Virginias. "They have a natural sweetness and fruity quality and Perique enhances those flavors and adds a little bit of spicy kick." When combined with Oriental tobaccos, Jeremy notes, "Perique expands on the Oriental's spicy and sort of sour character."
Perique can also be mixed with Latakia to create a unique depth and strength. "Latakia on its own doesn't have much in the way of actual nicotine strength even though it has a very prominent flavor. Perique can provide a lot of depth and earthy flavors to play off the leather, smoky character of Latakia."
While the other tobaccos Perique is mixed with play a major role in its flavor profile, the amount of Perique added to a blend is also a significant factor. "A little bit of Perique will tend to add spiciness and a stewed-plum flavor. The more Perique you add, the more complex flavors it has to offer, like mushroom and soy sauce, along with the stone fruit kind of notes," Jeremy explains.
The chemistry of Perique is also quite noteworthy and distinctive: "Perique starts out as a Burley, which is inherently alkaline (less acidic), but that alkalinity is altered when it undergoes the fermentation process. That brings out some flavors that you don't typically find in alkaline leaf. With Perique you won't find the nutty, mellow flavor that Burley offers but rather fruity notes mixed with earthy, savory flavors."
Significance of Perique
Part of the reason Perique is so unique is that it's processed only in one part of the world: St. James Parish, Louisiana. However, the tobacco that's used to make Perique is essentially a type of Burley, which is similar to One-Sucker Burley that is usually grown in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Canada. For decades now, Perique has consisted of a blend of tobacco that isn't entirely grown in St. James Parish and is supplemented with similar tobacco from other areas. The harsh weather around St. James Parish necessitates this supplementation because the area is prone to flooding, devastating weather conditions, and is extremely hot and humid; elements that can decimate crops and wipe out months of work. But equally important is the consistency necessary for tobacco blending. Perique varies in flavor from one season to the next, and the use of similar leaf, fermented in exactly the same way, levels those variations.
There are two distinct types of Perique to note: St. James and Acadian. St. James refers to Perique that is strictly grown is St. James Parish, which is where all Perique is eventually processed. Acadian is a blended variation that utilizes some portion of tobacco grown in St. James Parish in addition to similar leaves grown elsewhere and is the most common type of Perique. Without this supplementation there wouldn't be nearly enough Perique to meet current demand. "These days, most Perique is a blend and that's because if we relied solely on the leaf grown in St. James Parish there would be even less Perique than there already is," Jeremy says.
For many years Perique was nearly on the verge of extinction but has recently seen a resurgence in popularity. Producing Perique is extremely labor intensive and is often done by family-operated businesses passed down for generations. However, a gradual lack of demand, low profits, and people pursuing other careers over time led to the near-downfall of Perique. Major events such as the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana and the financial crisis of 2008 also put Perique in danger of no longer being produced.
Luckily, Perique has seen stability in recent years. One of the contributing factors to Perique's revival occurred in 2005 when Mark Ryan, owner of Daughters and Ryan Tobacco, purchased L.A. Poche Perique Tobacco. "There was about a 30-year period when Perique was on such a steady decline that when Mark Ryan purchased Poche Farms in 2005, there was only one barrel of Perique that was produced that year," Jeremy adds. Before Ryan purchased the company, they were producing just 500 pounds of finished Perique a year while today their annual output is around 80,000 pounds. Ryan took steps to ensure that farmers would see the value in producing Perique by increasing payments as an incentive to grow the leaf and made the processing stage easier, taking some of the burden off of farmers. As a result, the world now has a steady and reliable source of Perique that produces thousands of pounds for some of the most well-known names in the industry.
Perique is just as much a tradition and culture as it is a type of tobacco. It's familial heritage and a way of life for some, while for pipe smokers, Perique offers endless palate possibilities depending on how it's used in blends. Perique's versatility and longevity is admirable, having survived for centuries despite numerous challenges and hardships. But Perique's persistence continues to enthrall pipe smokers and will continue to do so for years to come.