Welcome back to another episode of Tasting Notes. Today, I'll be reviewing the latest entry into Mac Baren's celebrated HH series, HH Rustica: an extremely strong, hot-pressed flake featuring a historic strain of tobacco native to the Americas (Nicotiana Rustica). I've never smoked HH Rustica or any blend containing N. Rustica before, so it's going to be a fun one! Tune in as I discuss everything from the blend's tin note and charring light to overall flavor profiles and that bold, bold strength.
Has anyone tried HH Rustica? Does anyone have any experience with the N. Rustica leaf? Be sure to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below!
Note: The following transcription has been edited for clarity and brevity.
[Shane Ireland]: Hey everybody, Shane Ireland here, and welcome to another episode of Tasting Notes. Today, I'm talking about Mac Baren's HH Rustica, the latest addition to the HH series. The HH series was originally conceived as a tribute to Mac Baren's founder Harold Halberg. Every one the tobaccos in the HH series is very natural; there are no flavorings, no toppings. Also, all of the flakes in the series are heat pressed, and most of them focus on the natural qualities of the tobacco leaf.
So what's different about this one? Aside from the promise of intensity and strength, this is sort of an homage and an elevating of a very, very old varietal of tobacco that not many of us today are familiar with. Nicotiana Rustica is a strain of tobacco that was originally smoked by the indigenous folks of North America when the English landed here. It is more intense, more nicotine-heavy, and more rustic. So what we're mostly familiar with as pipe smokers, even as cigarette smokers, cigar smokers, is the sister sort-of varietal, or species, Nicotiana Tabacum. N. Tabacum is a milder plant that originally was planted and cultivated in the Caribbean, and eventually found its way to the US and Virginia later on. N. Tabacum has become sort of the seed, no pun intended, for most modern tobacco varietals: Virginias, Burleys, Air-cured, Flue-cured leaf, and even Oriental leaf. What Mac Baren has done here, is married those two styles of tobacco in a way that definitely gives you a taste of what Nicotiana Rustica is all about while still giving it some balance and some elegance, that signature Mac Baren treatment by way of their beautifully sliced, delicate flakes, which are hot-pressed like all of the flakes in the HH series.
This is actually the first time I have smoked this tobacco. Most of the time when I'm doing a Tasting Notes video, I've smoked a few bowls ahead of time to kind of wrap my head around it; because this is so unique, and because it's promised to be so intense and so strong, however, I kind of wanted to get my first reaction to it on film. So I'm a little nervous about that. I would say that back in the day when I was exploring tobaccos, when everything was still very new to me, I did try a bunch of the sort of stronger smokes. You know, 1792 flake, Brown Irish Twist, Brown Bogie, all those really strong blends. And while I don't smoke those every day, I have enjoyed them, because along with that intensity and that power comes a lot of bold, really interesting flavors. I also am a really big fan of HH Dark Fired, HH Bold Kentucky, and those on their own are really strong, almost too strong for me to smoke all day long. So I'm curious to see what this is like.
So, before I light up here, it's just a beautiful tin. It's got HH Hot-Pressed Flake on the front there, and this is also a Limited Edition of 7,100 tins worldwide. So, the first thing you notice is a very intense tin note. Very good. There's definitely some of that sort of mesquite barbecue kind of a note that I associate with some dark-fired flakes, especially the ones in the Mac Baren HH line. It's woody, spicy, and kind of smells like salt and vinegar potato chips, honestly. There's a little bit of that tangy quality that sort of reminds me of barbecue, but less on the mesquite-smoky side and a little more on the tangy side. I would say that there's also a tiny bit of a promise of some sweetness even in the tin note. But mostly this is spicy, strong, woodsy, a little smoky. Really enticing tin note, but again, not helping me on the like nerves factor here, because it is intense for sure. So, I'm smoking this in an Old German Clay Markus Fohr. I chose to smoke this blend in a clay, because I really wanted to get a sense of this varietal of tobacco that I'm inexperienced with as a pipe smoker, and get a good idea of what it it does to the overall blend. All right, let's see. See you guys on the other side.
Wow. So, not that long after the charring light, I can say that I definitely feel it. It is definitely an intense smoke, a lot of body. The one thing I will say, so far, is that it's not quite as spicy as I expected. I mean, the flavors are definitely bold, but the whole thing is well-rounded for a stronger smoke and not necessarily intense in terms of spice. One of the things that I notice right away is sort of that woody quality. There's a little bit of that mesquite quality too, but mostly, there's a little bit of earthiness, a little bit of almost like a shiitake mushroom and soy sauce kind of a thing. And aside from that, there is this sort of leathery character, and that leathery note is something that, you know, you find in a lot of cigars, but here it's really front and center.
The spice is building a little bit, but it still isn't spicy, at least not to my taste, in the same way that a heavy-hitting Perique blend is, or even like HH Bold Kentucky. I was sort of expecting something a little sharper, flavor-wise, but actually it's very well-rounded, very well-balanced, maybe even deceptive in terms of how strong it is. I definitely recommend smoking this one later in the day, right after a meal, sipping it slowly, and smoking it in a small chamber, because like I said, you can definitely feel the strength. It is absolutely there, but if I was smoking this blindly, I think it would be easy for me to maybe even get carried away, because it is so well-rounded, smooth and sort of silky. The weight on the palate is very strong, and the smoke is very luscious and thick. It's definitely rustic in terms of the flavor profile, of course.
There's a unique quality, and I'm pretty sure that it is the N. Rustica that I am tasting, but I'm just not familiar with it. I'm having a bit of a hard time articulating what it tastes like. It's definitely on the earthy and vegetal side of the flavor spectrum, and there's maybe a touch of bitterness. There's a drying quality to the smoke, but not a ton of sweetness overall; there's maybe just a little bit of supporting sweetness so that it's not all rustic and all bold. Like I said, the blend itself is particularly impressive, because I expected the smoking experience to be so much more intense than it has been so far. But, at least this far down in the bowl, I still feel the intensity more than I taste it. What I'm tasting is just a well-rounded, maybe slightly nutty, earthy, woody kind of a flavor profile. Totally unique, totally singular in the world of pipe tobacco. That said, if you are a fan of some of Gawith and Hoggarth's stronger blends — Dark Flake, Dark Birdseye, some of the Ropes, 1792, etc. — or if you're a fan of Mac Baren's Bold Kentucky and HH Dark Fired, you're really going to like this. I think you'll find it will occupy an interesting place in your rotation, because, even though the strength is there, and it's definitely full, the experience overall and the smoke overall is definitely on the refined side for such a strong blend.
Now that I'm a little bit more into the bowl, I can definitely feel it, but aside from that, the spice is building in intensity a little bit. I expect that towards the bottom of the bowl, it'll ramp up again, but mostly I'm still getting that woody, oaky kind of a flavor — definitely a lot of earth, definitely some of that leather that I was talking about. It's a really intriguing and interesting blend, and something that I would definitely encourage you to explore. For those who are looking for an intense experience, this is really going to be one of the ones that you'll find most memorable, I think. And for those who are just interested in trying everything they can get our hands on, this is going to be one of the more unique experiences with a pipe tobacco that they've ever had. I really look forward to getting to know this blend better, and I will say that I am surprised how well-rounded and balanced the blend is given that one of the main components is this Nicotiana Rustica leaf. I can't imagine smoking that component straight, but whatever they've done here works. I think a lot of that is the sort of signature hot pressing of the HH series; it's a really interesting and modern take on a tobacco that is as close as I think we can probably get to an Old World Style tobacco. It is about as old school as you can get in terms of flavor profile and strength.
So HH Rustica, Hot Pressed Flake, another worthy entry into the HH series and possibly the unique experience not only within Mac Baren tobacco line, but maybe in modern pipe tobacco in general. Really, really interesting, and I encourage you guys to give it a try, and I'll be continuing to smoke it sparingly myself to try to get to know this Nicotiana Rustica a little bit better. I'm really grateful that Mac Baren was able to give us such an accessible blend that helps us understand our tobacco roots going back to the early days. Thanks, everybody. See you next time.