The first inhabitants of South Carolina arrived about 11,000 years ago and settled widely, appreciating the climate and opulent resources, which helped the population grow. First explored by Europeans in 1521, South Carolina was colonized by the British in 1660 and was among the first 13 colonies and the eighth state to ratify the U.S. Constitution. From its mountains and sandhills to its meandering rivers and expansive Atlantic coastal plain, it is a scenic spectacle that attracts millions of tourists and new residents who appreciate the weather, hospitality, natural wonders, and culture of the Palmetto State.
The palmetto is the state tree and is represented in silhouette at the center of the state's flag. Symbolic of South Carolina, the palmetto became part of the state seal in 1776 and in 1861 was added to the flag to commemorate its heroic defense against the British fleet's bombardment of Fort Moultrie on Sullivan's Island in 1776: The fort's walls were interlocked palmetto logs with spaces between them packed with sand. Cannonballs bounced off.
South Carolina is also known for its tobacco. The climate encourages excellent tobacco crops, and the state has a rich tobacco history. It's also the home of Cornell & Diehl, a company with an interest in and commitment to fine tobaccos and a deeply rooted affection for the state.
What's in a Name
Cornell & Diehl's most recent Small Batch tobacco release, Palmetto Balkan, honors the tradition of tobacco in C&D's home state while providing the company's customary creative enhancements. "While this is a blend in the Balkan style, it's a unique riff," says Jeremy Reeves, Head Blender at Cornell & Diehl. "We're the only pipe tobacco manufacturer in the Palmetto state, and Palmetto Balkan seemed like an elegant way to be self-referential without presumption."
"We're the only pipe tobacco manufacturer in the Palmetto state..."
As a Balkan, Palmetto Balkan prominently features Oriental leaf with supporting roles furnished by Virginias and Latakia. "The Oriental component is really a lead player in the overall flavor profile and tobacco make-up of the blend."
For Palmetto Balkan, the Orientals are Basma from 2018 and Izmir from 2019, each contributing to a foundation of mellow, tart, and tangy flavors.
Balance is essential for high-performance Balkan blends. "The flavors of Orientals, while distinctive, are also pretty soft, or tend to be. I suppose that some Orientals can be really, really spicy and maybe a little brash with their unique, funky, sour kind of notes. But generally, we're using Oriental tobacco that has some age to mellow those characteristics, at least two or three years to provide mellowness and round the edges off." For good balance, the smokiness of Latakia is elemental while the Orientals define the flavor profile and the Virginias provide a satisfying and toothsome foundation.
"The Red and Bright Virginias echo and reinforce the natural sweetness of the Orientals and counterbalance some of the leaf's sour notes," says Jeremy. Mature Carolina Red Virginias deepen the blend and enhance the sun-cured leaf's natural sweetness while counterbalancing its more sour notes. "The Latakia adds a subtle element of smokiness to the Orientals, whereas in a traditional English mixture, it's really about the Virginias and the Latakia, and the Orientals are there to play more of a supporting role."
The heritage of Balkan blends is also a factor in development. "Traditionally," says Jeremy, "a Balkan blend prominently features tobaccos of the Balkans with Orientals as the leading focus, and some portion of Latakia, but the Latakia is not a main focal point." The balance of those components invokes an interplay of flavors both subtle and bold.
"Latakia is not a main focal point"
"Palmetto Balkan has a very pleasant tangy note and a rich, velvety mouthfeel," says Jeremy, "with a lot of complexity. The Latakia is something I've been working on for a couple of years with a proprietary process using Cypriot Latakia that could secure more wine-like and tart flavors from the leaf, but also sweet characteristics and a softer smokiness."
His result is a Cypriot Latakia with similar characteristics to Syrian Latakia, which has not been produced in more than 20 years. It's the Latakia that was used in the old Balkan Sobranie that was so enormously popular. For a special Balkan blend like Palmetto Balkan, Jeremy's pursuit of the flavors and smoking comfort of Syrian Latakia is understandable. History and tradition are a theme for this tobacco.
[The] result is a Cypriot Latakia with similar characteristics to Syrian Latakia, which has not been produced in more than 20 years
"Cypriot Latakia tends to be very bold and heavy in its smokiness and tends more toward creosote and leather and earth, and maybe a little bitterness. Syrian Latakia, by contrast, was softer. It had a little bit more of a drying effect on the palate, but there was a tanginess, a little sweetness, and a fruity tone. It seemed less heavily smoky and more involved with its first identity as Oriental tobacco and less involved with its secondary identity as fire-cured tobacco."
The process that Jeremy developed accentuates the sweet, tangy, fruity tones of Cypriot Latakia and reduces the influence of its creosote and smoky characteristics. "I wanted to create a blend that could play well with those flavors, and a Balkan blend seemed to fit nicely. I think that this definitely bears some comparison to vintage tins that I've been able to enjoy, like the old Balkan Sobranie back when it contained Syrian leaf. I'm not saying that this is a one-to-one comparison, but I definitely think that there are elements of that flavor profile that we've been able to bring out."
The Disappearance of Syrian Latakia
Available 12:00 a.m. ET Wednesday, May 18th
Syrian Latakia was satiny, creamy, mild, and spicily floral with subtly tart and wine-like attributes, and it is grievously missed by pipe enthusiasts. It's a victim of political turmoil and unrest in Syria and is no longer produced in useful quantities or for export. "It started with a governmental move to prohibit harvesting the bush that has traditionally been used as the fuel to fire-cure Orientals and create Latakia," says Jeremy. "The government made it illegal to harvest." There is some conjecture about exactly what shrub was employed for Latakia curing in Syria, and candidates include scrub oak, carob, Lebanon cedar, and Valonia oak, or most probably a combination thereof. Woods not banned couldn't remotely replicate the flavor quality. In any case, without access to traditional, fire-curing woods, Latakia processing in Syria is not possible.
That situation when combined with political and war-related unrest led to the deterioration of farming in Syria, so it wasn't Latakia alone that suffered. "Food production has been decimated for some time, and so much of the country has been razed. Much of the farmland is ruined, and there is no infrastructure or the political will or financial capability to reinvigorate it. So, Syrian Latakia has not been available commercially for quite some time." The last shipment that we know about was purchased by Cornell & Diehl and G.L. Pease, as well as McClelland and Mac Baren. Unfortunately, C&D's entire supply was lost in a warehouse fire in 2004.
"That lot of tobacco was very old already," says Jeremy. "At that time, C&D had several blends featuring Syrian Latakia, and that fire left us no choice but to discontinue those blends. McClelland and Mac Baren, to my knowledge, were able to secure their Syrian Latakia, and it lasted until the year before McClelland closed. I believe that Mac Baren announced just a couple of years ago that they were out of Syrian."
"C&D had several blends featuring Syrian Latakia, and that fire left us no choice but to discontinue those blends"
Palmetto Balkan's Flavor and Smoking Characteristics
Available 12:00 a.m. ET Wednesday, May 18th
Palmetto Balkan is an easy-to-smoke blend, pleasant on the palate and easily suitable for all-day enjoyment. "I think that it would be a good introduction to the flavors of Latakia, perhaps for someone unsure about Latakia or who has assumed from its aroma that it was not for them. Palmetto Balkan manifests that smoky character, but in a muted, more approachable sense." The first 8oz pipe tobacco in C&D's Small Batch portfolio, Palmetto Balkan is a stunning and inviting mixture — unique, complex, and flavorful, attracting the admiration of those at all experience levels.
The interwoven flavors of this blend induce a rich and satisfying volume of smoke to carry the complexity of the taste profile. "It's very decadent," says Jeremy. "It has surprising elements of sweetness and a wine-like character, and notes of a spicy sort of fruitiness. Again, most of this is really being driven by the Orientals and their interplay with the specially processed Latakia. The Virginias provide more of a background note."
"It has surprising elements of sweetness and a wine-like character, and notes of a spicy sort of fruitiness"
Medium-bodied, creamy, and rich, Palmetto Balkan demonstrates its exuberance with plentiful opportunities for those who like to analyze and infer flavors. However, it's such a pleasant and intuitive smoke that it's easy to enjoy holistically and without much thought. Both mystery and serenity are uniquely accessible. "It isn't so heavy that it wouldn't be suited to a morning or before-lunch smoke," says Jeremy, "but its flavor and complexity are certainly enough for a satisfying evening smoke."
A tribute to the home state of Cornell & Diehl as well as to those traditional Balkan blends whose distinctive attributes are lost to us, Palmetto Balkan offers a unique experience in the quality and character of its flavor profile. For those interested in trying a true Balkan blend that conjures those of other times, this is a tobacco to be anticipated. Available 12:00 a.m. ET Wednesday, May 18th.
Jeremy Reeves discusses Palmetto Balkan on Cornell & Diehl's YouTube Channel