At the outset let me say: this is a long one. We have two different generations of two different classic blends, Dunhill's Durbar and Apertif, the old and the new of each compared by Josh, Jeremy, and Andy. I might be so forward as to suggest preparing and lighting up a bowl yourself to sip on while taking this review in.
As editor I could have chopped, lowered, stripped and louvered everything our reviewers sent me down to a bare and streamlined form... but I believe the intricacies of what they experienced and the details of how they went about smoking and comparing aged Murray's-made and new Orlik-blended samples of these mixtures is all worth having out there. Like the character of a fine novel, or the catch in a deal with the devil, the attributes of a smoke (good or bad) are often a matter of nuance and detail: what's there, what isn't there, and how it's done.
Recent years have seen the revival of several classic blends — Capstan, Three Nuns, and now Dunhill Aperitif and Durbar. Many smokers have been delighted by the opportunity to get reacquainted with an old friend while other smokers have lamented the rise of these whipper snapper blends as pale comparisons to the blends of yore. It was a treat to participate in this side-by-side comparison of well-aged old tins of Durbar and Aperitif and their current incarnations.
The first challenge in participating in this tobacco taste-off was to determine how best to evaluate New against Old. Preparing two pipes at once, one packed with the old blend and the other packed with the new, was the option that I finally settled on. As I smoked both blends, I decided to divide each bowl into thirds. I smoked a third of a bowl of old Durbar or Aperitif, followed by a third of a bowl of new Durbar or Aperitif until each pipe was complete. This method wasn't without its shortcomings, but it seemed the best to do a true side by side evaluation.
I began with Aperitif. The first difference between the blends concerned their appearance; the new Aperitif offered a striking array of black, brown, and straw colored ribbons. The older blend was much more monochromatic and mottled. Having selected two appropriate briars, whose smoking properties I found comparable, I packed both bowls and did a slight charring light on each. After that I jumped right in with the old version of the blend. I'd smoked a bowl of Aperitif last year, so I knew that this blend was right up my alley. The old blend was wonderfully fragrant as I took the first few sips, however it took a moment for the flavor to catch up to the room-note. When it did, I was greeted by plenty of rich Virginias with Orientals and Latakia playing a somewhat subdued role. The blend had a richness and depth that is the hallmark of a well-aged tobacco. These notes continued to grow in intensity throughout the smoke. In terms of flavor, Virginias — made musty and delicious by the years — took center stage, with Latakia and Orientals playing more of a supporting role.
The new version of Aperitif was quite a bit more Latakia and Oriental forward, but I was most surprised by the fact that the new blend was actually noticeably sweeter than the old. This challenged my experience with other blends, which I've generally found to sweeten with age. I'm not sure that the relative sweetness of the new blend is due to a difference in the recipe so much as it simply suggests a mellowing of the Cavendish in the old tin. On the whole, I would happily smoke either version of Aperitif.
Both blends appeal to my fondness for light to medium English blends. Both seem to have the same components and similarly high grade leaf. The new version offers more clarity in flavor, while the constituent tobaccos seems more harmoniously melded in the old tin, which was suggested by the visual differences between the tobaccos. Again, I think that this is probably the result of age more so than a difference in tobacco or in blending technique. The new tin of Aperitif is more flavor forward and more playful. The old blend, as we would expect, is richer, more nuanced, and subdued. In general, I'll lift a glass to Orlik for a successful re-introduction of Aperitif.
Durbar was a more challenging blend for me. In terms of appearance, the blend offered some differences between old and new just as Aperitif had with the new version being more vibrantly colored. I packed two bowls just as I had done with Aperitif. The aged bowl of Durbar offered up very little flavor on the initial light. I kept at it, and after five or six puffs began to get the full Latakia and Oriental flavor that I had expected. For a few moments, this blend was quite good. The Virginias were rich and earthy, the Orientals provided a nice spice, and the Latakia brought its signature smokiness. Unfortunately, these pleasant puffs were fleeting. Like a wine that has stayed in the cellar a bit too long, I think this tin is probably past its peak. The blend fell apart about a quarter of the way into the bowl and never recovered. The remainder of the smoke lacked structure and offered very little in terms of flavor. The spiciness of the Orientals and the smokiness of the Latakia remained, but they're ghosts of a once good blend. Making a useful comparison to the revived Durbar, therefore, is a bit of a challenge.
But the new version? This Durbar is a successful blend in its own right, bearing a strong semblance to the first quarter-bowl of the aged tin. The Virginias are pleasant and very slightly sweet, but the Orientals are the star of the show. They bring a zestiness to the blend that works especially well with the light dose of Latakia to produce a smoke with hints of chocolate, coffee, and roasted nuts. Overall, the new Durbar is a satisfying smoke that should appeal to lovers of classic English blends as well as those looking for some interesting variety in their rotation. And while I suspect that the blend will age quite well, I'd recommend smoking them before it gets too far past the ten year mark.
Disclaimer: I've smoked a lot of Virginia/Perique blends strong on the Perique lately, so it's pretty likely my taste buds are a bit biased (and blasted).
Old Aperitif: Ah Aperitif. One of those classic blends that stand the test of time. Well, sort of. Even on first light, the Orientals and Latakia seemed subdued with the Virginias being the focal point of the blend. I imagine this is due to it being 15 years old, as Latakia and Orientals reach peak maturation at around 5 years and thus will have faded with age — almost to the point of becoming indiscernible. That being said, they were still there, just not in the harmonious way they were first realized. The room note was almost perfumy, and despite the over-aging, the taste was still very rich and almost creamy. The second half of the bowl, for me, was rather unpleasant. Much of the sweetness faded, with very little flavor to be found. I dumped it out 3/4 of the way through.
New Aperitif: There we are. Now this is Aperitif. First light was an explosion of flavor with the Latakia and Orientals dominating my palate initially. After a couple quick puffs, they step slightly to the side, lending the stage to the sweet Virginias and Cavendish. Eventually it all came together in something of a concert, with each instrument playing its part in harmony. This time the rich, sweet flavor persisted to the bottom of the bowl with subtle hints of the Lat with every puff. No bite, and a very even smoke. There was some spiciness there, but not enough to turn me away. While I wouldn't recommend aging to the extent of the older version we smoked, I do imagine this would be even better after a year or two of letting the flavors meld together. Recommended.
Old Durbar: For an oriental forward blend, the Turkish leaf was surprisingly mellow. In fact, I could really only taste it if I concentrated very hard on that one note. I had a similar experience with the Latakia — an initial presence, but then it gradually faded out a few puffs in. I also attribute this "mellowing" to this tin's 15 years of age. I actually think that these faded Latakia and Oriental flavors proved as a distraction for the Virginias, rather than a harmonious fusion of notes as they were intended to be. The aroma was slightly incense-like but much lighter than I would expect. Much like the old Aperitif, I found that the blend completely lost flavor pretty early in the bowl, with my palate developing somewhat of a tolerance to the subdued flavors. I dumped the rest of the bowl and waited a while before packing the new version.
New Durbar: So that's what it was supposed to taste like! Initial light provided a robust, full-bodied spiciness. Orientals? Yes, and lots of them! Latakia? It's there too, but in a far less obvious manner than I expected based on the tin aroma. I would suggest that this blend is somewhat Oriental forward with everything else sort of harmonizing around the Orientals' spicy tones. An incense-like aroma wafted from my pipe, with that same smokiness present in flavor as I picked up notes of Latakia hidden within the Orientals and sweet Virginas. It's a complex blend, and so should be sipped softly rather than puffed with enthusiasm — unless, of course, you enjoy the mouth-numbing sensation that's sure to follow. The flavor persists all the way through the bowl with each component still present. Given the initial spiciness, I would expect this blend to be extra-tasty after a year or two of mellowing. Recommended.
I have smoked the new Durbar and Aperitif several times since their reintroduction earlier this month and really enjoyed them, so I was pleased as Punch to learn that we had some of each from at least 15 years ago floating around the office, compliments of Shane and his rather extensive cellar.
For the purpose of comparison, I smoked 2 bowls of each of the older tins and 2 bowls each of their newer iterations over the course of a couple of days and then did a more concentrated side by side comparisons of each, focusing on Aperitif one night and Durbar the following. For the side by side tests, I began by filling one pipe with the old blend and one pipe with the new. I started with the older blend, applying the charring light and setting it aside, to do the same on the new blend, noting the differences. Next I returned to the aged blend, smoking for about 5 minutes, and then continuing on to do the same with the new blend. At this point I re-lit the first pipe containing the aged blend and kept them both going, alternating between them in a slow, regular cadence to properly note their differences. I continued this for about 10 minutes. The new pipe went out, so I continued smoking the older blend till nearly the end, and set it aside to return to the new, which I smoked to about the same point in the bowl. For the finale, I smoked the aged blend through to the end and then did the same with the new blend.
By approaching each tobacco, old and new, in stages, I was able to really get a firm comparison of their differences and similarities. My thoughts are as follows.
In both Aperitif and Durbar, I noted that the moisture level of the older versions were slightly lower than the moisture of the new blends. I have noted this difference in other side by side comparisons of aged and new tins, and I think it makes good sense that the old would have shed some moisture.
In terms of appearance, the older versions did seem to be slightly broader cuts, and the lighter tobaccos were muted and chestnut or taupe in tone, whereas the newer tobaccos boasted thinner ribbons with bright tobaccos appearing more gold or red, offering a more vibrant appearance by comparison. One could surmise without any great leaps, that the differences in tone were likely due to the effects of aging and not due to differences in the blending components.
Aperitif, in its elder form, was very balanced, with just a little more than a hint of Latakia, focusing more toward the nutty and buttery flavors of the Oriental components and the sweet richness of the Virginian leaf. I did find the telltale signs of age to be most present in the VA sweetness and in the complex mustiness of the Orientals. The Latakia had muted and mellowed with the years, but it had also given up its depth, much like a wine that has aged past its prime.
The fresh offering of Aperitif was equally balanced, and while I imagine the Latakia components to be of similar percentage to the original, the flavor of Latakia is far more pronounced and vibrant, every bit as spicy and heady as it is dark and rich. The Orientals have a fresh, zesty quality and citrus and herbal flavors intermingle and accentuate those of curry and cumin, and nuttiness akin to sunflower seed and cashew. The VA leaf offers a refreshing sweetness and orange peel, honey and hay. I feel quite sure that this would be quite pleasant to smoke for years to come, but given the choice between the young and the old, I prefer the youthful complexity of this blend. I will be interested to lay some of this down for 2 or 3 years to see what happens though.
The aged Durbar was unfortunately well beyond its prime in my opinion and the flavor had begun to devolve, all of the structure of each component's flavor faded and muddied significantly. While I can certainly assume that at one time this storied blend had probably resembled the new iteration, based on appearance and aroma, in smoking, this aged tobacco yields no real complexity or variance. The one resounding note of this collapsed orchestra is that of softened Latakia, and hints here and there of Virginias, with their signature sweetness. I think it is safe to say that this would have been really a great smoke at the six or even seven year mark, which is about double what I'll usually age a Latakia/Oriental blend, with very rare exceptions.
New Durbar, with its generous portions of both Latakia and, particularly, Orientals, would likely not age with much benefit beyond say the 10 yr. range or so... but young, it is excellently articulated, with plenty of nuance and subtlety all around. While the dark VA's and Orientals provide the structure and backbone, the bright leaf scattered throughout play the alto and soprano to the Latakia's baritone. Rich and creamy in the mouthfeel, flavors that remind me of butter, curry, dried fruits and grilling meat, this is an excellent English, but I won't be cellaring it for 15 years; I'm just fine with enjoying this one while it's still young.
Our reviewers impressions suggest that new Durbar and Aperitif will have no trouble pleasing many an English fan. The older iterations, however, appear to have gone a fair way over the hill — some may still enjoy them, but I wouldn't bid the house on auctioned tins. For aging the new generation, two or three years is likely to get you a sweet spot on the marrying of flavors and retained distinctiveness, while a mellower, subtler, toned-down, but still enjoyable smoke appears likely at least a little ways past the usual five-year mark, where most other Latakia/Oriental blends drop off.
Personally, I doubt any tins in my possession are going to last intact longer than a single autumn or winter.