Oriental tobaccos differ from other tobaccos in size, character, and blending applications. These plants are small in comparison to the tobacco plants we see growing in the mid-Atlantic south. Those plants grow tall, up to 10 feet, while the plants that produce Orientals are only about three or four feet tall, and although Virginias and Burleys have large, broad leaves, Oriental leaves are small. They are also sun-cured as opposed to the fire, air, and flue curing that we're most accustomed to.
A single Oriental plant can produce a hundred leaves, whereas Virginias typically number only 20-24. Orientals also have distinct flavor characteristics according to their specific growing location, where the weather and soil of particular places alter the leaves and differentiate them from those grown elsewhere. That's how the different varietals of Orientals earned their names: from the specific locations of their origins in places like Turkey, Bulgaria, and Greece. The unusual names attached to these varietals are geographically identified. Samsun, Izmir, and Xanthi, for example, are places, mostly dating to the Ottoman Empire of the 15th and 16th centuries and disbanded in 1923 by the government of Turkey.
These different tobaccos are all nicotiana tabacum. At least one blender, Mac Baren, utilizes nicotiana rustica for select mixtures, but for most applications, tabacum is the most popular. When tobacco was first becoming a product for widespread use, people tended to prefer nicotiana tabacum, and this is the species that has been grown for centuries.
How, then, do we see so many different types of tobacco all in the same species? Tobacco plants developed into different types according to their environment. As German shepherds are different from golden retrievers, Orientals are different from Burleys. The environments where Orientals are grown are much different from the regions for other tobaccos. Orientals grow where there is little water, high temperatures, and all-day direct sunlight, but vary respectably according to specific location, the localized soil characteristics of which are contributing factors.
Availability is a Key Factor
Because of the political, religious, and social challenges of the region, the number of available independent varietals of Orientals is much reduced today. It's difficult in this region to successfully produce them and get them to market, and most Orientals now used are a mixture of leaves from different places. "It isn't quite as stark and depressing as that," says Jeremy Reeves, head blender for Cornell & Diehl. "Some of the individual varietals are still available. But the number of available types has been decreasing for a long time."
When we pipe smokers think about Orientals, it's in terms of English, Balkan, and Oriental mixtures, but pipe tobaccos are insignificant to the overall tobacco market. "As with just about any type of tobacco," says Jeremy, "the driving force behind why farmers are growing a particular type of leaf is always the mass market, not the niche market. Cigarettes are far and away the largest consumer of Oriental tobacco. Camel and Marlboro brands use them, and there are a number of Turkish manufactured cigarettes." Pipe tobacco is a minuscule industry compared to that of cigarettes, and cigarettes don't need the individualized strains of Orientals that would be so beneficial to pipe tobacco blenders.
"There's just a lot of unrest generally in much of that part of the world; it has put a real strain on farming, it has put pressure on supply chains, and it has made it difficult to import or export in certain circumstances. Of course, cigarettes still need their Oriental, and Oriental leaf has become more homogenized rather than keeping it distinct and selling it as Smyrna or as Drama. The leaf gets lumped together with other Oriental tobaccos because they're primarily used in cigarettes anyway. They're going to get wrapped in paper and the delicate differences between the varieties is not going to be as obvious as the overall similarities that they share. We can still get Ismir or Smyrna, which are interchangeable terms. Smyrna is the older word for Ismir leaf. We can still get Basma. Occasionally, we find Drama, and occasionally Samsun. Yenidje is, I think, gone."
"... the driving force behind why farmers are growing a particular type of leaf is always the mass market, not the niche market"
Yenidje, also known as Xanthi, was once called the Queen of the Tobaccos. It's an affectionate old term whose origin is lost. "I'm not sure who coined it or where the original term came from. But it had a particularly elegant and very unique flavor profile. Recently there was some that Mark Ryan of Daughters & Ryan tobacco company was able to offer in one of his Blender's Bench series."
A few years ago, McClelland was able to source Yenidje for two different blends in their Grand Orientals series: Yenidje Supreme and Yenidje Highlander. Sadly, both McClelland and Yenidje are out of production. And just as McClelland tobaccos are still possible to find, perhaps there is some Yenidje somewhere, but it would be like finding a stash of your favorite McClelland blend at a yard sale. It's the stuff of dreams.
"We have never been able to source Yenidje," says Jeremy. "It's simply not available. The growing region is still there, but the leaf produced is not kept distinct any longer. It's not kept separate from other varieties."
Jeremy has smoked it and has notes on its flavor characteristics. "It reminded me of curry and coconut milk. Some sweetness, very savory, but with a very distinct curry note, and then a creamy aspect. Most Orientals focus on flavors that particularly resonate in the sinuses and in the back of the soft palate. Creaminess was something that was really unique in Oriental leaf. That's not typically a mouth feel that Orientals provide. They're more herbal and kind of spicy, and very aromatic."
The different Orientals have characteristics that are unique from each other and not found in other tobaccos. "So," says Jeremy, "if you don't have Basma, using Drama isn't going to provide an analogous flavor. Most pipe tobaccos worldwide use several different Oriental components or a blend of Oriental leaf."
There was a time when individualized Orientals were depended upon. The original Balkan Sobranie utilized Yenidje, perhaps contributing to the reputation that the blend generated, but it was rare to find such details. "In general, if you look at older brands of pipe tobacco, the tin descriptions tend to be very sparse. There's not a whole lot of detail and only broad, vague descriptions were used, on the order of 'a Virginia blend with unique character.'" Pipe smokers of the past had less information about their blends than we often have now.
If Yenidje, for example, were still available, today's blenders could certainly make excellent use of it. There would certainly be blends that capitalized on the individual types. "I could see using Yenidje as an interesting way to add a creamy note, if I wanted to add a creamy aspect to a blend without just adding, or adding more, Black Cavendish. That would actually be just about the only Oriental that I could think of that could indicate creaminess of flavor and mouthfeel. It would be interesting as a blending component."
Cornell & Diehl does not use prefabricated mixtures of Orientals, relying instead on what individual types can still be found. Mixtures of various Orientals can vary from year to year, impeding consistency for blends. Cigarette manufacturers select leaf according to targeted sugar and nicotine ratios. "The individual character of one hodgepodge of Oriental vs. another hodgepodge of Oriental isn't going to come through when blended with Burley, or with Virginia, and then wrapped in paper and put through a filter. You're just not going to pick up on differences the same way as when they are combined for pipes." A pipe provides a much more pure expression of flavor than do cigarettes.
Jeremy says that he uses Black Sea Sokhoum and Katerini in C&D's Oriental blends. "Thankfully, we have a decent supply that will last us for quite some time, and we use those things in some specialty projects that call for Oriental. What we have are very old and have some really nice mellowness to them as well as special character."
Examples of Oriental Blends
Those specific Orientals were used in the 20th anniversary G.L. Pease Samarra, for example. The Oriental tobacco in the majority of C&D's production blends that call for Oriental are Ismir and Basma. "Those leaves have some age on them," says Jeremy. "They're not quite as old as the Black Sea Sokhoum and Samsun and Katerini that we have, but respectable. So we do have some access to some of these things."
Among Jeremy's favorite Oriental blends is Bijou, a Virginia and Oriental blend using 2003 Red Virginia and some high-grade Canadian Bright Leaf that has been steamed and caramelized. Then after the steaming process, it's cased with honey. "After the casing has fully set, we blend in a bit of Katerini. The Katerini does not go through the steaming process because that would knock out some of the oily quality and the really bright sort of clovey, sinus- and soft-palate engaging, spicy aspects that Katerini can offer. It has a really interesting apple cider kind of flavor that it can impart in particular applications. The sweetness of it is tart and has a similarity to apple cider. Bijou, I think, is a really wonderful blend of Virginia and Katerini."
For most of the Orientals produced by C&D, Jeremy uses a prescribed blend of Ismir and Basma made in-house. "I put those together because I like the way that these two particular leaves fit together, like puzzle pieces that create a nice, round, full Oriental flavor. So, rather than buying a prefab Oriental mixture from someone, I am actually buying two distinct types of Oriental and then we make them the way that we want them. As long as we've been doing this, we have used either straight Ismir or Ismir and Basma for the majority of our Oriental."
Another blend that focuses on Orientals is Red Stag, which has the distinction of utilizing substantial Oriental leaf. There's more Oriental focus in Red Stag than there is in anything else that C&D makes. It's lighter with the Latakia and focused on the Oriental side.
There's more Oriental focus in Red Stag than there is in anything else that C&D makes
C&D's Innsmouth is a Virginia, Katerini, and Perique blend illuminating the character of the Oriental. Miskatonic Mixture is a blend of Virginia, Perique, Black Cavendish, and Katerini. "They differ in proportion of components. Innsmouth is a blend that veers more toward brighter Virginias and a little lighter on the Perique, and Miskatonic veers toward darker red and mahogany Virginias and a little heavier on both Katerini and Perique. So, while in reading the descriptions, one might think, 'Oh. Well, this is a Virginia-Katerini-Perique, and they both have a little Black Cavendish." They're very, very different blends and I actually put them together for that purpose, to showcase the ways that just percentages or just focusing one particular component a little differently could make a huge change in the way that a collection of similar components can actually come across."
Byzantium is a particularly respected Oriental mixture. "It's unique, and I can't think of another tobacco that I've ever come across that is quite the same. Byzantium is composed of just four components, three of which are Oriental, if you count Latakia: Perique, Ismir, Basma, and Latakia." It's approximately equal parts Latakia, Perique, and Orientals, with the Ismir and Basma in equal parts.
To sharpen one's palate for easy recognition of the flavors provided by Oriental tobacco, Jeremy recommends starting with Izmir Turkish, available both in bulk and by the tin. By becoming familiar with the component attributes of straight Orientals, they will become more easily recognizable when part of more complex blends with additional components.
"For someone to identify or better appreciate any particular kind of tobacco, the very best strategy is to find the purest expression of that type of tobacco and study it," says Jeremy. "It may not be the most engaging smoke, it may not be something that you'll want to smoke regularly. Smoking straight Perique or straight Dark Fired may not be experiences that smokers want to pursue long term, but they will generate a better understanding of how to identify those tobaccos, even in small amounts, when they're a component of a blend."
...the very best strategy is to find the purest expression of that type of tobacco and study it"
A good blend to start with on a journey of discovery is Red Stag. "It's very forward on the Oriental. Rajah's Court would also be a great blend for exploring Oriental flavors, especially with how they can interact with Latakia and Virginia while remaining independently distinct."
Orientals possess unique flavor profiles with enormous potential for blending possibilities. Jeremy refers to them as, "a lot of fun," and he can easily imagine their use in just about any blend. "It might not always be a major focus, but I think that Oriental is a fun addition for home blending. Having some Oriental around and seeing what happens when you add a small amount of Oriental to this blend or a small amount of Oriental to that blend can be a really enjoyable exercise because what it does is engage your sinuses and your soft palate in a way that most other tobaccos do not.
"Virginias tend to focus their flavor on the tip of the tongue because of the sweetness, and maybe just veering toward the middle of the tongue when you get some of that rye sort of flavor and a little bit of subtle bitterness or tanginess, even subtle sourness. Burleys then tend to make their impact at the back of your throat and on the sides of your tongue with nuttiness and dark flavors, earthiness and bitterness and chocolate and things like that. Orientals, then, get your nose involved in a really unique kind of way and using these tobaccos together can create not just a fullness of flavor, but a fullness of expression of flavor engaging your whole palate."
...what it does is engage your sinuses and your soft palate in a way that most other tobaccos do not"
The leaves of Orientals are small and thin. They grow in difficult, hot, sweltering environments. One reason there are so many small leaves is because of the unrelenting sun. Those leaves help shade other leaves as the sun moves across the sky. They tend to be oily as well, which also helps protect them from the sunlight while contributing to the delicious flavor that we perceive in the blends that contain them.
They're tough little leaves, visibly stunted and so small as to seem insignificant in comparison to the broad, expansive leaves of Burleys and Virginias. They are difficult to grow and even harder to cure, because those small leaves are strung together, one at a time, for sun curing. While they may seem troublesome, they provide distinctive nuance that cannot be replicated and that provide unique flavor profiles that should be treasured and explored.