Whether you're interested in blending your own pipe tobacco or just want to better understand some of your life-long favorite mixtures, it's important to know what each component brings to the table and how it interacts with the other leaves in your blend. Many of you likely already know the differences in flavor between Burley and Latakia, but what about the nuances between bright and red Virginias? How about Perique and dark-fired Kentucky? We've put together a quick guide to help you out.
First things first, you need to know your base components. While pretty much any tobacco varietal can be used as a base in a pipe tobacco blend, some yield better results than others. Here are the three most prominent base tobacco components you'll find on the shelf.
Virginia is tobacco that's been flue-cured using indirect heat to preserve the most sugar possible while still drying the leaf. An extremely popular base component, there are two main varieties you'll see used across the board: bright and red.
Bright Virginias are produced by flue curing the tobacco using a higher heat for a shorter period of time. This varietal has the highest sugar content of any leaf, and tends to be tangy, lemony, and citrusy, but can also deliver sweet bready notes, similar to crescents.
Red Virginias are produced using the same process, only using lower temperatures for a longer period of time. Through this method, you get a little more caramelization to the leaf, with deeper, toastier flavors while still preserving most of the leaf's sweetness.
Burley is an air-cured tobacco, or a tobacco that has been cured by simply letting it dry out in air. Like Virginias, there are two major types you need to know: white and dark.
White Burley is just air-cured. It has a softer flavor with a cocoa-like aroma and taste, maybe even some hints of coffee or nuts. There's not much sweetness at all though, as much of the leaf's sugar is lost in the process. More like unsweetened cocoa or dark chocolate.
Dark Burley is also air-cured, but it differs in that, during the curing process, stacks and stacks of the leaf are pilled up inside a barn. The heat inside the barn and the weight of all the leaf pressing down on itself creates slight fermentation, giving dark Burley a subtly sweet, spicy edge — much like raisins, cloves, or cinnamon.
The last prominent base component is black Cavendish. It's not exactly a tobacco varietal, per se, but a process combining heat, steam, and pressure. The most common leaf type used in black Cavendish is bright Virginia, due to its high sugar content — which helps it caramelize nicely into a dark, almost black color. Through the Cavendishing process, the 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. It works as a flavor spreader, in other words, giving you a lot of body to the smoke and acting like flour in a roux. Still curious about Cavendish? Check out Daniel's blog on this Chameleon of Components.
If you want to learn more about base blending components, check out this video of head-blender Jeremy Reeves from Cornell & Diehl. He covers all the above and even gives you some tips on mixing up your own pipe tobacco bases.
Once you've got a handle on your base tobaccos, it's time to spice things up. For that there are a range of components you can use to add flavor, nuttiness, sweetness, or strength to a blend.
Oriental, often called Turkish, is a variety of sun-cured tobacco with an exotic flavor and an aromatic aroma. It's sort of a catch-all term for sun-cured tobacco, as there are many different sub-types, such as Izmir, Katerini, Samsun, Sokhoum, Smyrna, Drama, Yenidje, and many more. When used in a blend, these sun-cured tobaccos can offer essences of tea and lemon but also a bit of spice, earthiness, and nuttiness as well. They're often used in English blends to play off the similarly exotic, smoky notes of Latakia. If you want to learn more about the nuances of the different Oriental varieties, McClelland has quite a selection to choose from in their Grand Orientals series.
Latakia is essentially Oriental leaf that's been fire-cured using exotic hardwoods and essences in Cyprus and other areas. The different woods and saps from trees and such give Latakia an incense-like aroma, but it also offers a subtle tanginess and has a neat, cool-burning quality. Because it's been cooked for so long, it tends to burn at a lower temperature and contain less nicotine. It's the quintessential condimental leaf used in English blends, providing that signature smoky, campfire-like room and tin note.
Another fire-cured leaf, dark-fired Kentucky is just Burley leaf that's been cured over burning American hardwoods, like oak or mesquite. Much like in Latakia, those burning hardwoods impart a unique flavor and aroma to Burley leaf, along the lines of BBQ with a rich, smoky earthiness. It's also one of the strongest condimental leaves in terms of nicotine and flavor. A little dark-fired Kentucky can go a long way in accentuating or adding smokiness to a blend, but if you use too much it can quickly overpower the flavors around it. So use sparingly.
Pretty basic, cigar leaf is just that — leaf that would normally be used as the filler in cigar production. Cut properly, it can be used in cooperation with sweeter Virginias or smoky dark-fired and Burleys to give a little extra body and strength to a blend. If you're a cigar smoker, try adding a little loose cigar leaf to your own mixtures to give it a bit more "oomph".
Perique is a wild card tobacco. While the leaf itself is indeed grown in a specific area of Louisiana, what makes Perique so unique is really its curing process. Layers upon layers of tobacco are packed into oak barrels and pressed, adding more leaf and pressing it all again until the barrel is full and 100% under pressure. The leaf itself isn't cured before this process either. Instead, it sits in its own juices, which have been squished out of it during the pressing. It's stored this way for a year, at the end of which the leaf turns a deep, dark, almost black color, with a similarly deep, fermented fig and stewed fruit aroma and character. A little bit of Perique can bring out the sweetness in other leaves and offer a zingy spice. A lot of it, however, can take a blend in the opposite direction, offering a deep, earthy, almost mushroom-like character. For more information on this spicy condiment, check out Adam's interview with the King of Perique himself: Mark Ryan.
Want to learn more about condimental components? Check out the second half of Jeremy Reeves' blending components video. Again, he covers all the above and even gives you some tips on how to use these condimental components in your personal blends.
So there you have it: a quick breakdown of all the main components used in most of your pipe tobacco blends. Now that you've got a handle on some definitions and how many of these leaves are used in blending, it's time to go back to your cellar and try to pick them out in your own mixtures. Pop a tin of an English blend and see how the Latakia plays in with the sweeter Virginias or spicy Orientals. Sprinkle in some chopped cigar leaf in your Virginia-Perique ribbon.
If you're interested in blending your own pipe tobacco, be sure to check out Cornell & Diehl's Small Batch Blending Kit. Essentially a starter pack for any would-be blender, it features all the base and condimental tobaccos listed above, as well as a number of flavorings and tools you'll need to create your own signature blends. If you've already got your own blending set-up, don't forget to check out all of our tinned and bulk blending components on the site.