Welcome back to Tasting Notes. Once again, I'm joined by a special guest, Head Blender of Cornell & Diehl Jeremy Reeves, and today we're going to be discussing, reviewing, and, honestly, just enjoying one of the most anticipated blends of the year: Sun Bear Mountain Flower. For those of you unfamiliar with this summertime Small Batch mixture, it's essentially a Virginia/Oriental flake composed of naturally sweet, zesty Canadian Brights and two matured grades of Oriental leaf, as well as a delicate casing of honey. This year's edition is quite a special one, as it commemorates C&D's 30th anniversary with a nod back to its roots. Tune in as Jeremy and I discuss the blend in general and walk you through what we're tasting.
Note: The following transcription has been edited for clarity and brevity.
[Shane Ireland]: Alright, Jeremy. As we all know, it's Sun Bear season, so to start, tell us a little about Sun Bear in general. How you developed it, the inspiration, etc.
[Jeremy Reeves]: Yeah, so Sun Bear is a blend that I made specifically to be smoked in the warmer months and to be evocative of some of the things that I personally love and experience every spring and summer here in South Carolina. With the garden and the bees and everything. This is now the third edition, but the very first time we did Sun Bear, the impetus for the idea was basically, "Hey, Hillary and I keep bees and honey is a common component in a lot of pipe tobacco casing, and is used in tobacco processing across different categories of tobacco products."
So essentially, I thought it would be cool to take this thing from a different passion in my life and incorporate it into what I do with pipe tobacco. So when I'm developing a blend that is going to have a casing, I almost always start by putting the tobaccos together first. I don't ever want to superimpose a flavor onto a base of tobaccos that don't already lean in those directions. So as I was blending, I was looking for something that was going to be evocative of honey and evocative of floral elements and sweet brighter notes that remind me of spring and summer here in South Carolina. And that ended up being a combination of Bright Canadian flue-cured leaf and a pretty heavy percentage of tangy Orientals.
[SI]: Excellent. So the first two editions of Sun Bear, you were using honey from your own personal reserve — the Jeremy Reeves estate honey. Why did you decide to switch to a different source of honey?
[JR]: So after the first two years, we knew we wanted to make a much larger batch of Sun Bear, but Hillary and I are not keepers of lots and lots of bees. We don't have tons of hives, and we just couldn't produce the quantities necessary to do a larger batch and to meet the demand we saw. We needed to look to another apiary.
[SI]: So it was partly out of necessity, but it also opens up a lot of possibilities for playing with the flavor, right? We've sort of seen that over the last couple years at least.
[JR]: Totally. So what I didn't anticipate was that I didn't have to go hunting for a new apiary. Vic Seested actually called me two weeks after the second release of the original Sun Bear, and was like, "Hey, I'm a long-time C&D fan. I used to buy directly from Craig and Patty all the time and I've got all this history with your company, and I'm a beekeeper. And I'd love to provide you with some samples of some interesting pollination, single-origin honeys that I've got access to, and see if maybe you'd like to use some of those in Sun Bear." And by then, I had already come to the realization that if we did Sun Bear again, we weren't going to be able to provide the honey. So it was sort of serendipitous when Vic contacted me. It was super cool, and he's since become a really great friend.
[SI]: So that's how Black Locust came about?
[JR]: Yeah, the Black Locust honey came from Victor Seested in Maryland. And then this year, as we've talked about before, marks our 30th anniversary, and to celebrate that, I wanted to try and do something that could hearken back to our roots. And again, sort of serendipitously, we found a beekeeper in Morganton who also had a number of different single pollination honeys. And so the honey that we're using in this year's edition of Sun Bear is honey from wildflower and blackberry nectar, all from a single apiary in Morganton, North Carolina.
[SI]:All in Morganton. And for those who may not be aware, Morganton was the location of the original C&D plant; it's in the mountains just outside of Black Mountain in North Carolina. Well, that's awesome. I love the connection there and it's also interesting to see what two different varietals of honey does to the overall flavor profile. Before we get into the smoke, let's talk a little bit about the tin note and components a bit.
So we have a 2019 Bright Virginia from Canada that's really high in sugar — I love that Bright in a lot of other blends. Then there's 2019 Basma from Greece and 2018 Izmir from Turkey. Now, one thing that I was curious about, and I guess I could have just asked you sooner, but how significant is the Oriental percentage in this blend?
[JR]: It's actually quite large. It's over 25% between the two Oriental components..
[SI]: Right, yeah, see I was surprised, and I think that it really works in this blend. So one could argue that this is a Virginia/Oriental mixture. Not just from the components that are listed on the tin, but there's a really strong influence that those two Oriental grades are making.
[JR]: Absolutely. Like I said, when I blended the tobacco, I wanted it to already lean in the direction of honey-like flavors. And floral elements. And so that really was important getting the proportions right between the Bright and the Orientals.
[SI]: So in the tin, there are these really nice flakes, and they're pretty uniform in color. There are some darker bits and some chestnut hues and some brighter hues, but mostly it's a medium brown. The tin note itself is definitely bright, definitely zesty. There's some sweeter notes here — not just from the honey, I'm guessing, but also from the sugar content of the Bright Virginia leaf. The first thing that I get reminds me of lemon meringue pie. There's like pie crust and these zesty citrus-like flavors, but with a lot of sugar, a lot of sweetness.
There is a floral quality underneath it there too that I would say is maybe somewhere between a really light lavender and a honeysuckle sort of aroma. There's a little bit of an earthy aroma sort of at the base. And I do get that in the smoke as well. I think it adds the base notes that are necessary to really set off and prop up these higher register notes that we get. But I'm curious if there's anything else about the tin note that strikes you.
[JR]: Way in the background, I get a little milk chocolate. Forward, I get citrus notes and kind of a sugar cookie that also comes through, I think, in the room note. It's slightly floral, but not in the Lakeland sense, but just in the way you'd expect given the Virginias and Orientals here.
[SI]: Oh, absolutely — tobacco for sure. So right off the bat, flavor wise, it's immediately crisp and light and refreshing and zesty. You have the citrus notes, but they're not overtly in your face in the same way that some other brighter Virginia flakes are. It's not a sharp flavor. It's very delicate and that's what makes me think of, like I said, lemon meringue or lemon cookies.
It's the creaminess and the sweetness that really set it off. There's nothing overly grassy or hay-like about this either. Everything's just really well rounded. I do get some of that sweeter bread or pie crust kind of flavors, but it's not a cloying finish at all. Given the amount of sugar present in this leaf and the honey itself, it's surprising how not overtly sweet this is; there is sweetness there, but it's in the same way that a really bright, mild Virginia flake ends up being sweet after significant age. It's really well balanced and the finish is very clean.
[JR]: Sure. So I talk with people about flavorings or casings in tobacco pretty regularly, and there's an easy misconception out there that if a blend is cased or topped, the flavoring must be really prominent and there must be a lot of it. People tend to think, "Well if there's a casing, it's gotta be a ton of honey." These specific casings are really distinctive and less really is more. So with Sun Bear, it is not a heavily applied amount of honey, or of tequila, or of elderflower. You would probably be surprised to actually look at the recipe and see how slight these things are on the tobacco. And so it really doesn't take very much because I'm not superimposing a flavor that isn't natural to the tobaccos I've used. I'm using small quantities to bolster and accentuate characteristics that the tobacco already has.
[SI]: Right, and honestly, just based on what I'm tasting and what I knew by looking at the label, I would seriously question whether or not this had any topping at all. And I think that's what has appealed to so many of us about Sun Bear over the last couple years. It is a Virginia/Oriental flake for traditionalists with a Jeremy Reeves twist. Even with the tequila, I do get hints of a boozy quality, but it's nothing close to something like a navy flake or something that's been flavored with rum, which is much more noticeable.
[JR]: Right. And there are subtleties, particularly in the differences between the three honey versions that we've used. So the honey that our bees produce, they're getting a lot of nectar for their honey production from the large plot of peppers that we grow, and in the back note of that honey, there is a tart and then spicy finish to it. You can actually taste the capsaicin. Our honey turns out really, really dark. There's a lot of goldenrod that grows around us and that produces typically a really dark honey. So it's a very heavy, thick, rich honey. For comparison, the Black Locust honey is pretty light in color, pretty thin in texture, and very delicate. It's a little lemony and there's this delicate floral note that's prominent. And with this Mountain Flower honey from Morganton, I do actually get a little bit of a berry note on the finish. But again, these are subtle things.
[SI]: Yeah. I would say that there are some fruity notes here that would have me thinking maybe there was some Perique present. And I don't recall that from the previous iterations of Sun Bear. I remember them being very citrusy and zesty and light. This one seems like it has maybe a little bit more depth, more base notes, and a little bit more fruitiness, with a little less citrus from what I'm tasting. But none of it is overpowering and the base tobaccos are always at the forefront.
I've always loved Virginia/Oriental mixtures that didn't include Latakia, because I think they showcase the Oriental leaf in a totally different way. I think that, for anybody out there who's a Virginia, Virginia/Perique, or Virginia/Burley smoker or an Oriental fan, this is going to be something that you'll want to reach for often — especially through the warmer months.
All in all, I think this is another home run. It's clearly a vehicle, recipe wise and tobacco component wise, to be able to carry a lot of different types of flavors with the honey variation that you're using really well.
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