Nicotine And Pipe Tobacco Blending

I once smoked a bowl of 1792 on an empty stomach first thing Saturday morning at a Raleigh pipe show. A friend recommended it and offered me a bowl and I thought, sure, why not? But I soon learned why not, and I've not smoked a bowl of it since. I was unable to smoke another pipe that whole weekend, and not smoking at a pipe show, it turns out, makes me discontent and surly. I believe most of my interpersonal communication at that event was in the form of grumbles, grimaces, and growls. It was so strong a tobacco that I wanted nothing to do with nicotine for two days, and I complained the whole time. I'm still complaining, obviously.

I've been slow to forgive the Samuel Gawith company, though I should have known better. I knew that 1792 is a powerful tobacco but falsely assumed that a man with my smoking stamina and experience would be fine with it before breakfast. But you can't fight chemistry. Too much nicotine for your tolerance level is simply too much no matter how many pipes you own, bowls you smoke, articles you read, or pipe makers you meet.

If tobacco were music, nicotine would be the deep bass line providing a foundation for the rest of the tune.

Nicotine has a lot to do with the "strength" of a tobacco, which is a vague term used to indicate not only its nicotine strength, but the perceived strength of the smoke, which depends on the blend's components. "It needs to be considered just from the standpoint of striking balance in flavor and strength," says Jeremy Reeves, head blender for Cornell & Diehl tobacco company. "A blend that is very, very light and delicate in flavor but has a really raging nicotine content would seem lopsided."

There is a correlation that smokers expect. "You can have a very pronounced flavor in a tobacco, but that tobacco may not also carry much strength," says Jeremy, "but the flavor is going to seem more intense if there is some nicotine strength."

If tobacco were music, nicotine would be the deep bass line providing a foundation for the rest of the tune.

"We don't really think about the fact that we are tasting something and smelling something and experiencing nicotine impact," says Jeremy. "At the same time, we don't really think about the fact that our brain is thinking and processing these experiences as a single event. But that's the jelly roll that is smoking a pipe or a cigar or anything; you've got all of these different sensory experiences that have one cause, and you're experiencing all of these different elements and your body's perception of what's happening at the same time, from the same source. So we think of it as being a unity, when, in fact, it is a bunch of different experiences that we are perceiving to be one experience, or at least that's how it makes sense in my head.

"There are lots of times where I want to heavily focus on brighter Virginia or on Oriental leaf, and then find that while the flavor profile is really nice, that it needs a base note, and usually, that base note can come subtly through the use of a tobacco that doesn't have a whole lot of overt flavor, but has some substantial nicotine content. One of my consistent tools for that very effect is Dark Burley. Because even using a little bit of Dark Burley, even adding half a percent or a percent of Dark Burley, can round out a flavor profile in a way that you wouldn't necessarily notice it was there, but you would notice if it wasn't."

Nicotine Levels In Tobacco Varietals

Oriental tobacco, including Latakia, typically contains the least nicotine. "It's not uncommon to see nicotine levels below one percent, which is really low." Nicotine is measured as a percentage of weight.

"Nicotine percentage can range," says Jeremy. "Not all Orientals will have this precise nicotine percentage. But it's not uncommon to see below one percent in Orientals. So anywhere from around 0.8 percent all the way up to 1.5 percent is fairly common ground for Oriental Leaf." That variation is primarily a factor of climate and soil for that particular crop of Orientals.

Oriental leaves are harvested all at once because they are relatively small, while Virginia tobaccos are harvested according to the position of the leaf on the stalk. Lower leaves are harvested first, the middle a couple of weeks later, and finally the top. Nicotine content is highest at the top of the plant where the leaves have been absorbing nutrients longer. Lower nicotine levels are found the lower down the stalk a leaf grows.

Cavendish is lower in nicotine than Virginia. "The heavy steaming and cooking process that the Cavendish goes through," says Jeremy, "reduces natural oils, which is where the nicotine in the plant actually resides. Cavendish is processed to be less flavorsome and less strong on its own, and it basically works to help broaden flavor or spread flavor across your palate without adding a whole bunch of flavor and strength of its own."

Nicotine content is highest at the top of the plant where the leaves have been absorbing nutrients longer. Lower nicotine levels are found the lower down the stalk a leaf grows.

There's an inverse relationship between sugar content and nicotine to consider. When sugar content is low, the effect and perception of nicotine is increased, even when the actual measurements of nicotine remain the same. "The less sugar present, the more potent that nicotine is actually going to seem."

The next highest nicotine level after Orientals and Cavendish is found in Bright Virginia, which varies between 1.8 percent and almost three percent. To place that number in perspective, Jeremy says that "the highest nicotine percentage that I have ever seen on a tobacco was six percent, and that is extraordinarily strong and particularly unique. It's uncommon to find a nicotine level so high." He did not end up using that particular tobacco because it was too strong and would have dramatically altered the perceived strength of any blend that contained it.

Slightly higher in nicotine than bright Virginia is White Burley, which can range up to three or 3.5 percent. "Red Virginia is right in there, as well. I've seen Red Virginias that were up as high as four percent, but that, again, is extremely high and not common. And then you've got White Burley, which has some overlap in nicotine levels with bright Virginia. Dark Burley has some overlap there, as well. So you can find Dark Burley that ranges down to as low as 3.0-3.5 percent, but may reach as high as 4.5 or five percent." Higher yet, on average, is Perique. The highest nicotine content is found in Dark Fired Kentucky.

To recap, here are the main categories of pipe tobaccos in order of nicotine content, from low to high, though there is overlap:

  1. Orientals and Latakia
  2. Cavendish
  3. Bright Virginia
  4. White Burley
  5. Red Virginia
  6. Dark Burley
  7. Perique
  8. Dark Fired Kentucky

Accommodating the strength lent to a tobacco via nicotine requires that a blender find balance, which is a large part of the blender's craft and talent. "Balance," says Jeremy, "is one of those things that is not necessarily the same every time. You can achieve balance in a number of different ways, which is why we have so many different schools of thought about, say, architecture, so many different schools of thought with regard to photography, and those sorts of things. Balance is rather interpretive.

"With tobacco, I prefer strength that seems in line with the strength of flavor that I'm experiencing. But I think some people also want something that may have a whole lot of flavor, but not a whole lot of strength. So in those instances, I'm trying to use a lot of different, very flavorsome tobaccos that don't have a lot of nicotine, but have a lot of interesting flavor, and using those to pepper in a lot of complexity. Whereas if I'm crafting a strong blend, I may not focus so much on using a bunch of different components, and it may be a little less nuanced in the overall composition."

Examples of Low, Medium, and High Nicotine Blends

In the Cornell & Diehl portfolio of tobaccos, Jeremy says that Pirate Kake is a good example of a low-nicotine blend. "It's 75% Latakia, and there is a little bit of Burley, but not very much, and a little Virginia. The Burley is really there only to kick up the nicotine just a touch, because the Latakia is so flavorsome but does not have much real strength, nicotine-wise. So that would be a good go-to for a low nicotine blend."

For a medium nicotine blend, Jeremy says that something like Manhattan Afternoon would be a good example. It's a flake composed of straight Bright Lemon Virginias sweetened with just a little bit of honey. "The honey does not really bolster sweetness so much as it helps to tone down the possible tongue bite that can come from smoking straight Bright Virginia that has high sugar content and not much nicotine."

For a very strong blend, Jeremy recommends "looking at something that has a lot of Dark Burley in it; for example, Old Joe Krantz or Burley Flake #1, #2, or #3. Different people describe each of those as being probably the strongest thing we make.

"Another tobacco that pushes the strength, but also has an impact on flavor, would be Dark Fired Kentucky. That's going to have the most impact. If I use a half percent of Dark Fired, most pipe smokers are going to notice that there is probably some fire-cured tobacco in this blend. Whereas if I used a half a percent of Perique, you would have a much smaller number of smokers that would notice it. I think if I used half a percent of Dark Burley, you're not likely to find very many smokers that could detect the flavor of Dark Burley. They would just simply notice that there was a little more strength to this version of that blend."

When sugar content is low, the effect and perception of nicotine is increased, even when the actual measurements of nicotine remain the same.

Nicotine level is a useful tool for blenders as they match the perceived strength of a blend with a nicotine level that best matches that perception. It's an art form, and different companies purchase different tobaccos with very particular ranges of nicotine for their individual portfolios.

It's particularly interesting that nicotine levels contribute so much to the perceived strengths of tobaccos, and how important it is for blenders to tune their recipes so that smoker expectations are met. No one wants thin and wispy flavor, but just a little added oomph with a bit of higher-nicotine leaf can elevate those thin flavors to full profiles and impressive smoking experiences. Blending is a craft that requires a wide understanding of the ways that tobacco flavors present themselves, and every nuance is considered in developing the distinct attributes that bring us back again and again to our favorite tobaccos.


    • SeanV on September 19, 2020
    • Excellent read. Thanks for the article

    • Mark S on September 19, 2020
    • Once again, a genuinely informative and helpful article. Sometimes we encounter blends that are otherwise great, but a little lacking in satisfaction. Now we know what to do about it. As a side note, I've always tended to favour burley over Virginia because of the former's strength. But I was treated once to a Virginia pipe tobacco in the UK that just about floored me: a whopping 8.5% in nicotine. Apparently that's possible for Virginia leaf grown in a "dry" year, according to Robert Winans' book on pipe tobaccos.

    • Paul Schmolke on September 20, 2020
    • Great stuff and worthwhile explanations here. My affinity for Dark Burley Is explained finally. I’m genuinely curious as to how the Old Joe Krantz series relates as I have all of them on hand but prefer the blue. Comments from anyone would be welcome. Meanwhile, keep up the good work. It’s beneficial.

    • Brian S. on September 20, 2020
    • Thanks, Chuck, for another informative and well written piece.I once had a similar experience lighting a Toscano cigar in the morning before eating. Kentucky tobacco, Italian style that had me nauseous, and pale for hours.Beside the addictive qualities of nicotine, it has profound physiological effects, that are undesirable at relatively low levels. But your article explains that it enhances the flavor perception of the rest of the blend. Personally, I have no taste for predominantly burley blends. So my logic would suggest that the best blends would be those that are able to exploit the virtues of the tobacco flavors experienced with the least amount of nicotine needed to do so...adding higher nic leaf judiciously in order to achieve this result. Of course, I speak only for myself!

    • David L on September 20, 2020
    • Chuck - thanks for the excellent article. I had not considered the flavor impact (perceived) of nicotine. My first 1792 attempt was similar to yours, but after further attempts after eating using a small pipe, it was tolerable.

    • Evan on September 20, 2020
    • Thank you for a genuinely useful and interesting article.

    • Binthair Dunthat on September 20, 2020
    • Great article, and especially valuable for the new pipe smoker. I had to learn this "way back when" by trial and error. I still remember being surprised that my strong tasting English blend was so mild in nicotine!

    • Joseph Kirkland on September 20, 2020
    • Chuck, another fascinating and informative article. Thank you for your ideas and your articulate explanations.

    • Joe Merritt on September 20, 2020
    • A very good read... I was under the impression Latakia was one of highest nic levels, because I get a good buzz off English tobacco, and the strong flavour, no idea it was the lowest. I’ll keep this info in mind when I read blends... happy smoking.

    • Fred Brown on September 20, 2020
    • Chuck, another tour de force! Your experience with 1792 was similar to my tangle with the stuff. Knocked me on my keister! Never tried it again. Way too strong for a nic wimp like me.

    • Bob Gallo on September 20, 2020
    • The role alcohol plays in cooperating with hop flavor in beers is similar to the role nicotine plays with well-flavored tobacco. I love hoppy beers and notice that they typically come with alcohol levels of 9% - 12%. And modest or low alcohol doesn't seem able to support more than mild flavor. Alcohol and nicotine are often welcome friends, but preferably with tasteful ones.

    • Shawn Daniel on September 20, 2020
    • Another great article. Thank you!

    • Joe Hampton Jr on September 20, 2020
    • Chuck,I too had an experience with 1792. Albeit with a little food on my stomach. Isn’t this the blend with tonguin bean? If so, I believe this is the culprit as much or more than the nic content. Possibly the interaction of the two. I have smoked multiple bowls of Rustica with no problem as well as Old Dark Fired. Neither of which bothered me. This leads me to believe it’s that infernal tonquin bean! The only time anything in 55 years of pie smoking that’s gotten to me was some fired cured Burley off the barn floor and 1792.

    • Mark on September 20, 2020
    • Thanks yet again. Your articles are beginning to resemble an informal online course on tobaccos and pipes. I’m learning a lot!

    • David M on September 20, 2020
    • Nice article, Chuck. Very informative too. I tried that 1792 stuff years ago, and hated it. Strong nasty flavor and nicotine level that took the varnish off my hull!I tried C&D Burley Flake #4 recently, and the taste was awesome, but it had too much N also... not in same league as 1792 though!

    • DCR on September 21, 2020
    • Thanks for the read and info. Really knew most of it, but it’s nice to see informative articles.

    • Jim DeCastro on September 21, 2020
    • Very informative article Chuck. I am new to the pleasures of smoking a pipe but have been an avid cigar smoker for years. I was interested in the nicotine performance in the various tobaccos. Thanks good man and keep up the good work.

    • Mark Kunkler on September 21, 2020
    • Do you inhale pipe tobacco as would a cigarette smoker?I have been cigarette free for 15 years. If I were to light one up, I’d get nauseas, palpitations , and dizziness. I have enjoyed pipes and certain blends and still do. I’m sure there’s a bit of smoke that goes south, but I enjoy a pipe by drawing in and slowly releasing to enjoy both the taste and aroma. I can tell if I puff away on a high nicotine blend that there is a difference, if I sucked it in like a cigarette it would make me sick.

    • Andrew Martin Torres on September 21, 2020
    • I can’t remember what blend it was but I smoked a bowl I called it nicotine poisoning you call it whatever you want but I got so sick I started to sweat I got dizzy I had to pull over I could not drive at the time I was not married and I called my girlfriend she thought it was cute and she came running. I could not drive for a couple hours and I got nauseous so far in my life that’s happened to me twice once with a very strong cigar and once with so I very strong bowl of pipe tobacco what a miserable feeling

    • Charles Canady on September 21, 2020
    • Chuck, have you tried 1792 flake since? I would. It's a great after dinner afternoon flake.

    • Mark Taylor on December 14, 2020
    • I keep going back to this article to help me with the understanding of the different tobaccos with respect to nicotine. I'm guessing that I have a low tolerance to it or perhaps I'm smoking too fast to keep the bowl lit, but if I get hit with the nicotine rush, I'm just down for the count. Sometimes for more than a week or two. Perhaps in time that will change.

    • Jason Escott on January 19, 2021
    • Suger in tobacco increases acidity.and reduces the uptakeof nicotine in the mouth lining.Burley which contain little suger is alkaline therefore increases the rate of nicotine uptake in the mouth,combined in the case of burley tobacco with higher nicotine levels means a high nicotine uptake,There is a conversation to be had over mouth irritation and rate of smoking with alkaline burley tobacco alone.Some older smokers who smoke very slowly and are nicotine resistant get on with dark burley such as myself.I am not sure about thehealth issues of mouth irritation,but i suspect more acidic tobacco flue cured leads to a higher consumption therefore no advantage gained but better sales.An expert is required which i am not,Certainlykeeping the smoke cool and taking a drink not alcahol kefir helps me,and making sure no sores remain untreated maybe is the safest way to go.Maybe pipe smokers should not drink alcahol at all but i am not an expert.

    • GottenHimmel on October 30, 2021
    • What an excellent and informative article.Very well done.

    • Jerry on August 16, 2022
    • I’m late to the game on this article, but it’s very informative for a newbie.

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