Burley is that weird relative — like your cousin Bonesaw — who some like and some hide from at family reunions. It has its own distinctive character, and part of that character is that it isn't particularly sweet. Not by itself, anyway. But once Burley marries and mellows, it will develop its own unique and pleasant characteristics, as will Bonesaw.
Most of us have heard tales of straight-Burley smokers, just as we've heard of straight-Perique smokers and Bigfoot. But few have seen these singular nonconformists in the wild. Burley plays well with others and improves according to its company, but by itself can be relatively tasteless. Not tasteless like an indiscrete joke in church, but as in little flavor. Some perceive nuances of roasted nuts and cocoa, with a remote tinge of not-unpleasant bitterness. Its relatively neutral flavor, however, is what makes it a terrific blending component. It readily accepts casings and top dressings, absorbing flavors like a parched sponge. Burley is capable of great achievements in tastiness, especially when it's part of a team of other tobaccos.
Cornell & Diehl is a blending house with a reputation for fine Burley blends. Craig Tarler, founder of the company, was a Burley aficionado, and he attracted like-minded smokers such as Bob Runowski and Keith Toney. All three contributed Burley blends to C&D's lineup.
As admiration for C&D's Burley blends increased, a new series was developed to accentuate the remarkable qualities that Burley can attain in flake form. The Burley Flake Series includes five different blends that consistently maintain enthusiastic followings.
Innovative and balanced, these five blends do not have names of impressive originality corresponding to their sophistication. In order of development, they are called Burley Flake #1, with dark Burley, red Virginia, and a little Perique; Burley Flake #2, with red Virginia and white and dark Burleys; Burley Flake #3, with white and dark Burleys, Perique and a touch of dark fired; Burley Flake #4, with white and dark Burleys, red Virginia, and a touch of Latakia; and, you guessed it, Burley Flake #5, developed by head blender Jeremy Reeves himself, with white and dark Burleys, a hint of dark fired, red and bright Virginias, and the traditional Burley casings of anise, rum and molasses.
Burley contains very little sugar, and the air curing that it undergoes does not promote sugar production the way that flue curing does. It does, however, contain inspirational quantities of nicotine. One should be careful to smoke these blends only after a meal. They are not pre-breakfast smokes.
"Burley," says Jeremy Reeves, "really lends itself to a more alkaline flavor profile. It tends to be drier and denser in flavor, with little natural sweetness. It's often blended with Virginias, which have a lower pH, to soften the high pH of Burley leaf and add sweetness. Additionally, it's common to case Burleys with anise or molasses, or rum, cocoa, maple, or a combination. Those casings also help bring the pH down so the tobacco has a flavor that's rounder and softer."
PH is the most prominent factor causing tongue bite, so blenders usually counterbalance high or low levels with other components, casings or top notes. Tongue bite is not the result of heat, but of a biochemical reaction to alkalis or acids in the mouth. With Burleys, it can often be diminished by drinking a slightly acidic beverage while smoking, though any beverage will help dilute the stimulus.
C&D is unusual in that it offers several uncased Burley mixtures, unlike most blending houses. "But," says Jeremy, "some think it's harsh, because it takes getting used to without casings. This is an opportunity for people to experience a softer Burley experience." Those who may enjoy Redburn as an avenue for beginning to acclimate to Burleys, or Pegasus, which includes Cavendish that adds sugar, may appreciate Burley Flake #5, which may be a good middle ground for those learning to appreciate uncased Burleys. "Number 5 is not so stout and spicy and in your face; its flavor is rounder."
Number 5 was an immediate bestseller when it was launched. "Each blend has its dedicated followers," says Jeremy, "but #5 has more than the rest of the line. It may be that a lot of people are accustomed to cased Burley, and it appeals to a broader audience. Burley #5 was heavily influenced by a tin of Edgeworth Slices from 1990. The way it had aged was beautiful." It's a common assumption that Burley doesn't benefit from aging because of its low sugar content. "But when paired with components that have enough sugar to aid in the aging process, Burleys go along for the ride as other components ferment, and it takes on a distinct personality unlike anything else."
Burley is sometimes overlooked because of its neutral, some say bland, characteristics, but those who have habituated themselves become Burley enthusiasts. Its potential is remarkable, its blending qualities exceptional, its flavor subtle, serene and distinctive, and its ability to evolve in relation to the tobaccos it's blended with unequaled. And no one does it better than Cornell & Diehl, especially in its Burley Flake series.