Sunday, February 26, 2017
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All Roads Lead To Virginia: Mysteries of the Orient

Category: Tobacco Jar

Oriental tobaccoFor the first couple years I smoked a pipe I explored Latakia blends and Burley. I think Latakia blends are easy to appreciate. They don't take much of a palate to derive satisfaction from. They're obvious, consistent. Similarly Burley provides the definition for consistency. These are tobaccos that are easy to master and don't demand much of the smoker.

I'm one of the guys who was really worried what FDA regulation was going to do to the availability of tobacco, so I started cellaring in earnest almost from the beginning. I was winding down on putting in my cellar, at least I thought so at the time, and thought to myself that this was my last chance to see if I wanted to represent Virginias in my cellar before I had my weight put away. 

I started diving into Virginias with a passion, and found to my surprise that smoking them was a revelation for me. Quality of flavor, subtlety, compelling tobacco sugar, intrinsically the essence of good tobacco to my mind. All of a sudden Va's were all I wanted to smoke. At the time Samuel Gawith's catalog was readily available online, and it hadn't been for a while, so I started putting away BBF, FVF and MVF like my life depended on it. 

I quickly went from about a pound of Virginia mixtures in my cellar to a quarter of my total weight, half of my total weight, three quarters of my total weight. Along the way I explored each major house associated with blending fine Virginia mixtures, and developed a repertoire of tobaccos that would see me through to the end. This continues whether I want it to or not of course, and I am still finding good blends that I feel warrant poundage in my basement and screwing up my tobacco roadmap.

As it stands now I still enjoy a bowl of Burley every morning with coffee, but my taste for Latakia has all but disappeared entirely. Never say never, but I don't see how I'll ever become as fond of it as I once was. I'm good for half a dozen bowls a winter, but my experience with Latakia now is something like:

man this is tasty, why don't I smoke these more often?

ok it's a little much, the flavor just intensifies and intensifies into a sledgehammer of Latakia

this is a little much, I'd like this to end now

holy cow this stuff is exfoliating my tongue!

my poor tongue!

whew! glad that's over, see you next year!

I guess my palate has become attuned to the subtler pleasures of smoking Virginias. I just don't see myself ever being a Latakia smoker again and I probably have some poundage of mixtures I'd be better off trading away for something I'll smoke. I'm sitting on about 22 pounds of Latakia and 10 will probably more than do the job for me at this rate.

So we've established that my tastes underwent a massive paradigm shift to Va's and I can't much stomach Latakia anymore. I always loved Oriental forward Lat blends though, so I started exploring Virginias that incorporated Oriental leaf as a condiment, but not a shred of Latakia.

It started with McClelland Matured Virginias No. 24. A friend sent me a 20 year old sample, and that very first bowl I knew I had found a cellar worthy blend. Sweet Va's as good as anything I've smoked from McClelland, with spice from the Drama leaf that never takes over and adds a nice counterpoint. I've never been much of a VaPer guy, but this VaOr made me see why they love them the way they do. Virginia is the perfect host for interesting varietals. No. 24 is a top 5 tobacco for me, made all the better because there is absolutely no hype surrounding it and you can buy as much as you like when you like.

Another standout is McClelland Tudor Castle. This one has Perique, but for me it is not a VaPer. Not enough of the Perique to stand out, just a little spice and an improved tin note. This one uses Yenidje, which lends a different flavor than the Drama used in No. 24. Spice and a woody almost floral note that differs from No. 24 enough to merit some weight of its own. However this one is more toward the subtle end of the scale, and consistency of experience is very dependent on body chemistry and what you've eaten. In other words, like many McClelland Va's, you'll have mind blowing smokes with this one, and turn around and find it bland and uninspiring the next bowl. Excellent and a little finicky.

Cornell & Diehl make a bunch of VaPerOrs and VaOrs, but I find the same problem with them that I do C&D Virginias. Masters of Burley, this house gives their Va leaf much the same treatment, and it always strikes me as rustic and unrefined. There is something about C&D Va's that is almost Burley-like. That either makes them mediocre Va's or outstanding Burleys, depending on your point of view. Also, their Izmir leaf has some nice sour notes, but overall it's more than a little dirty and unrefined in its own right. That makes the C&D Simply Elegant series and John Patton's Crossroads excellent morning coffee smokes for me, but they don't belong in the same company of the tobaccos I smoke in the evening. 

Lastly, I'm a big fan of the McClelland produced Butera tinned tobaccos. These mixtures are all proprietary blends made for Butera and none of them have an equivalent in the McClelland catalog. I've spoken to the people at McClelland on this very subject, and they insist that none of the Butera blends is available with a McClelland label on the tin, they're all unique.

Matured Ribbon is an extraordinary Va ribbon, and is not Aurora despite what you may read on the internet. It's better than Aurora, and I would contrast it to McClelland Rich Virginia Ribbon. Where RVR is meaty and savory however Matured Ribbon has dark, silky depths of Virginia sugar. Two very different and equally excellent ribbon blends. 

Butera Golden Cake is one of pipe smoking's greatest secrets. A 100% golden Va broken flake, for me this McClelland tobacco is the only Va in the world that can go toe to toe with Samuel Gawith Medium Virginia Flake. They are these two houses interpretation of the purest of Virginia flakes, unstoved, a minimum of processing, sweet and bright. Both different and representative of the houses they come from, and both fantastic beyond words. Another top 5 tobacco for me, I value it that highly. Like No. 24, you will face little to no competition as you cellar this one, as there is no hype whatsoever associated with it, and so much the better for those who discover it.

Back on topic. Lastly, Butera also makes a VaPerOr that I've only just tried, and found mind blowingly great. Butera Blended Flake is a mixture of matured Va's, Perique and Basma leaf. I had to call McClelland to get the scoop on the type of Oriental used, and it's not much of a scoop because Basma is a whole family of Oriental tobaccos from the areas around Greece and Macedonia that includes many of the famous single varietal Orientals that blenders like to name drop. Suffice it to say that Blended Flake likely uses a blend of Xanthi, Yenidje and who knows what else for its Oriental component. The end result is a broken flake that is extraordinarily, fantastically full of tobacco sugar, and gets a big spicy Zing! from the Perique and Oriental. This one might qualify as a VaPer as the Perique is more pronounced, but of course it's not because the Oriental component makes it something that transcends the label. This is one really fine tobacco and it is at the very top of my to-do list to get several pounds of this. More flavorful than Tudor Castle and much different than No. 24. I'm not very smart for running my mouth about how great it is as I have only bought one tin so far, but hopefully no one will read this and demand for this incredible tobacco will remain nil. 

Oriental tobacco is a very compelling addition to a blend. Depending on the variety you may find sour, bitter, astringent, spicy, woody and/or floral notes. It mixes wonderfully with Virginia and for the Virginia smoker adds interesting variety to your rotation without shredding your palate the way Lat blends can. I can take the occasional bowl of GH Balkan Mixture or Red Rapparee, but I can and do smoke a VaOr whenever the whim hits me. A wondeful and underappreciated genre of tobaccos that deserves a look.


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