Why Age Tobacco?

It has been well-established that ageing improves the quality of tobacco. But many people have questions about the ageing process. Is it necessary? Are fresher tobaccos bad? Do some tobaccos age better than others?

When three or four different tobaccos are blended together, they must undergo a process called “marrying.” That is, usually tobaccos come from different countries, in different soil and sun conditions, with different drying techniques, different processing, and are of different age. That means that the tobaccos have vastly different flavors and chemical makeup. In order for your cigar, pipe tobacco, or smokeless tobacco to taste balanced and “together,” the tobaccos must sit together for some time to unite their flavors. For cigars, that usually means at least six months rolled, and pipe tobacco should spend three months in the tin at least.

But that is just one stage in the process of aging. Cigar tobaccos by themselves usually take at least four month and sometimes a few years to mature and pipe tobaccos are usually left alone for some months before they are blended. This is not the marrying process, but simply a process by which tobacco is left alone to mellow out. Vegetal flavors, sharp acidity, and difficulty burning are characteristics of unaged tobacco, and the presence of these factors in your smoke could indicate that the product hasn’t been aged long enough. Spinach, cabbage, and green grass should not be a factor of a cigar, and if a pipe tobacco is too ‘bright’ and a sharp, chemically flavor ingers in the back of your mouth, it was blended too early .


But aging is not just for the manufacturers. Many consumers age their tobaccos even longer. Some feel that a cigar needs ample time in the humidor before they smoke well. Especially for high-end cigars, time in the humidor gives them extra time to marry and mellow, and can bring out flavors in the smoke that you haven’t noticed before–musty, dusty flavors, a deeper sweetness akin to molasses, dark chocolate, “barnyard” smells–these are the flavors of a mature cigar–a cigar for adults. The texture improves, too. Jalapeño-like spiciness develops into baking spice, a nutty acidity yields to a chocolatey tannin.
But not all cigars should be aged extra in the humidor. Manufacturers that use young, wet, highly complex but immature tobaccos might count on you smoking the cigar immediately. Especially newer cigar companies and companies which sell millions a day will use these tobaccos because they do not have a library of aged tobaccos going back many years. Ghurka, for instance, uses young tobaccos, and doesn’t age well. Neither do My Father cigars, generally, or Rocky Patel. This does not make them bad cigars by any means, but the consumer should smoke them immediately. Like American wines and beers, aging does not sit nicely with certain cigars. You may notice that almost any cigar with a “cooked” maduro (meaning that a low amount of heat is applied to sweeten and darken the wrapper) tends to come out sour after many months of age. Cigars that are moist and draw pleasantly our of the box may develop hard veins and difficult draws. Flavors that were bold and interesting in a young cigar may become rather boring and conventional as an older tobacco.
The best way to determine which cigars will age well is to try it yourself–buy a few, leave them in the humidor, and try it at different stages of aging. There are some good rules of thumb, however. Keep in mind that there are always exceptions. If a cigar is incredibly soft and oily, that is an indication often of a young tobacco. Counterintuitively, cigars which are already aged by the manufacturer, like Padron or Fuente, are often perfect for aging, especially their specialty lines. Cigars which have a bold, spicy flavor with some unusual aromas might use a young tobacco to get that unique profile. Try to age cigars which have a classic profile, use aged tobacco, and feel pleasantly dry (not too dry!).

Pipe tobacco has a completely different set of circumstances. Aging pipe tobacco is called “cellaring” and refers, I suppose, to the practice of aging wine in the cellar. Although few pipe-smokers use their cellar to age their tobacco, the result is analogous–much pipe tobacco improves vastly with age.
Like cigars, however, highly flavored tobaccos with bold and spicy flavors tend to indicate that the tobacco is either young or simply processed in a way that will discourage aging. Unlike cigars, the most important factor to consider when aging pipe tobacco is how it is processed.


Latakia, a smoked tobacco which is the hallmark ingredient in English and Balkan-style blends, grows in Syria (its original location) and in Cyprus (where it is mostly grown today). There is a subtle difference between the two–Cypriot Latakia is oily and spicy, salty and meaty, while Syrian Latakia is more aromatic and woodsy. Cypriot Latakia mellows out into a boring smokiness after a while, while Syrian Latakia gets more interesting and subtle as it ages.
Aromatic tobaccos do not tend to age well. Because modern aromatics often have polypropylene glycol solution added as a humectant, this chemical freezes the aging process and tends to congeal into a sickly sweet mass. Flavorings are often used to cover up uninteresting or low-quality tobaccos, and as flavorings fade with age, you will end up with a bowlful of boring and desiccated tobacco leaves. Danish aromatics, usually mildly flavored and on the acidic side of the spectrum, will with age develop a mean tongue bite that overpowers any benefit the age might have imparted to the tobacco. The exception to this seems to be MacBaren’s “Modern Cavendish” which is made with cavendished Virginia leaves rather than Burley. This cavendish seems to only get better with age, an essential element in their Scottish Mixture and Original Choice, as well as others. But besides the cavendish used in Cornell & Diehl, Hearth & Home, McClelland, and MacBaren, cavendish tends to be ruined by aging all of the sweetness out of it, leaving a bitey, boring smoke.
Orientals besides Cypriot Latakia age tremendously and express their sweetness and woodsy aromatic tendencies over time. Perique gets less spicy and more fruity, and when blended with other tobaccos, imparts its incredible fungal profile to the tobacco. Burley does not age particularly well, as it tends to get spicier and more cigar-like, which is not always desirable in a tobacco blend. The exception is Dark-Fired Kentucky Burley, which loses some of the tomato and pepper and gains a musty old-book flavor as it ages which is simply entrancing. By far, however, the best candidate for aging pipe tobaccos is Virginia.

Virginia leaf almost always improves vastly with age. Better a flake than ribbon-cut, because you want those tobacco leaves to ferment and sugar together, not losing their character to larger surface area (I don’t like pre-grated cheese either). In my opinion, when you buy a Virginia flake from your local tobacconist, plan to put it away for three months at the very least. Open it, smoke maybe a bowlful just to test it out and cure your instant-gratification-tick, then put that stuff in a mason jar and have your wife hide it from you for as long as possible (providing she can find it again). Virginia needs a touch of oxygen to get going. If you do this, yellow Virginias which are boring, grassy, and bitey will transform into buttery smooth barnyard tinder. Brown and Red Virginias which are vinegary and sharp will take on a sweet, woodsy flavor that will entrance you with its subtle complexity. Dark Virginias, Virginia-Burley flakes, and Virginia-Perique flakes will actually blow your mind after a year (two years, six years) in a jar. Dark Virginias like Full Va Flake from Samuel Gawith which out of the tin is impossible to light, frustratingly elusive in flavor, and burns hot as hell, smokes cool, dry, and impossibly flavorful after a year. Stonehaven, which is spicy, nutty, and just plain boring out of the sleeve, takes on an overpowering maple aroma, burns moderately fast and extremely cool after a year and a half. Escudo just tastes like grass when it comes out of a tin, but give it two years, and you will taste everything that the enticing smell promises: grapefruit and butter, raisins and mushrooms. If you don’t age your Virginias, you are missing out on the best tobacco available, in my humble opinion. How else can McClelland dare to take a single tobacco from a single field in North Carolina, press it and age it for four years, tin it and sell out every single year? That’s their Christmas Cheer. That’s right–its not a blend. It is one tobacco. And it is complex and incredible right out of the tin and simply becomes CANDY after two or three years. SMOKE IT.


But really.

Aging tobaccos may seem like a hassle–it takes space and maintenance, and a lot of self-restraint. But if you choose which tobaccos to age wisely, your enjoyment will increase drastically. It’s worth it to have a long-term humidor, its worth it to have a shelf for aging tins. Keep them out of the light and extreme temperatures, and out of arms’ reach from your favorite smoking chair, and you will do just fine.

In Smoke,


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The Great Pipe Tobacconists

Like cigars, some pipe tobacco companies stand above the rest for the consistency and quality of their blends. Furthermore, each blender gravitates to a ‘style’ of blending, and often stays within a certain flavor profile based on the tobacco which they like to use. In this post, I’m going to try to help you make an informed decision when approaching a new tobacco. A pipe smoker generally finds that he (or she) likes a company, rather than just one or two blends from each. There is a good explanation for this. Besides the different processes that each blender prefers, they also tend to use a major base tobacco from a particular location. Also, although almost every blender does aromatics, Virginias, and Englishes, usually a great blender is known for one particular type of blend, maybe two. It will be on those styles that I will concentrate, although if you have any requests, just let me know in the comments section. Also, this will be a longer post, so open up your pipe-jar, fill a bowl, and take a seat.

Cornell & Diehl: A failing tobacco company since the 1950’s, Cornell & Diehl was revivified some years ago by Craig & Patty Tarler and they have made great strides in establishing themselves as one of the best U.S. tobacco companies. They use no additives, and mostly come in ribbon-cut or crumble cake form, although the use flakes as well. They are known for bold, flavorful tobaccos that are ‘dusty’ and high in nicotine, both in the Englishes and their numerous Virginia Blends. Their aromatics are also amazingly dry and have a base of high-quality burleys and Virginias. Having smoked many of their blends, a “nutty” flavor is prevalent consistently. The Virginias that they use are not very sweet. One downfall of the blends is the re-light; don’t let the thing go out and sit for too long–the relight is rank and sharp. No doubt this comes from the fact that many of their tobaccos are air-cured or incredibly dry. Like cigars, air-cured burley on the re-light is sour. Besides this, a natural effect of Mr. Tarler’s noble lack of additives, Cornell & Diehl makes spectacular blends with a lot of spiciness and fervor.

Craig Tarler of Cornell & Diehl

Dan Tobacco: A century-old tobacconist in Lauenburg, Germany, Dan Tobacco makes fantastic Aromatics, Virginia Flakes, and Englishes. They use very old machinery to make their tobaccos, and the tobaccos are very traditional in character. Their famous aromatics, Blue Note and Da Vinci, have smokers the world over, and their Bill Bailey’s Balkan Blend has dedicated English smokers. Their Virginias, including Tordenskjold Pipetobak and Hamborger Veermaster are light and citrusy, bright but with an underlying woodyness. Dan Tobacco is one of the few pipe tobacco companies which excel at all of the different types, but their most well-known are their delicate but flavorful aromatics.

Dan Tobacco Manufacturing in Germany

Dunhill: Dunhill has a name brand recognition that goes beyond pipes & tobacco, but that is where the Dunhill brand started and what generated such a devoted following. There’s a reason. Besides producing some of the most exemplary English pipes, Dunhill has also mastered the traditional English blend. The manufacturers of the tobacco have changed hands a couple times, but the recipes have stayed virtually the same from the beginning. Heavy use of Virginia mixed with Latakia has characterized the Dunhill-style blend from the beginning, almost always in a cut somewhere between a shag and a ribbon, without a lot of sweetness but plenty of complexity. Orientals and Perique make appearances, but always take a back burner to the Latakia and the fine brown Virginia which is oaky and nutty. Dunhill also makes a fantastic yellow Virginia flake with the classic notes of citrus, grass, and vanilla.

Dunhill’s 965–a perennial favorite

Fribourg & Treyer: One of those lesser-known greats, London-based Fribourg & Treyer blends some of the best Virginia Flakes available. Deep and nutty, sweet and creamy. Their flakes are perfect, but elusive–especially the coveted Cut Virginia Plug, and the snuff they make is top notch. Their manufacture has switched over from their original shop on Haymarket Street (now, greatest of insults, a doll shop) to Kolhase & Kopp, the German manufacturer behind many great modern tobaccos. Established in 1720, tobacconist to several Kings & Queens, if you haven’t had Fribourg & Treyer, you have no idea what you are missing.

Haymarket Street, Fribourg & Treyer tobacconists.

Gawith, Hoggarth & Co.: An old Kendal tobacco maker that makes snuff as well as excellent pipe tobacco, usually sold in bulk, Gawith, Hoggarth & Co. make the classic “Lakeland” style blends. A heavy-handed use of Kentucky makes many of their old-fashioned flakes and twists very strong, smoky, and savory, but they tend to offer ‘scented’ options as well–fantastically weird floral flavors and something called “tonquin bean” (Dipteryx odorata) which tastes fragrant and medicinal. But these are traditional Lakeland flavors–this tobacco is old-fashioned and totally unique. They also make the only decent chocolate-flavored tobacco–Bob’s Chocolate Flake, and the most interestingly-flavored tobacco I have ever had: Ennerdale flake, which smells endearingly of dried flowers and old perfume.
In my opinion, their thick-cut scented flakes and strong twists are the real achievements of this venerable tobacco house. Not easy to get a hold of, but completely worth the effort.

Old Fashioned ‘Baccy

Germain: A standby of Jersey Island since 1820, Germain tobacco is a well-kept secret. They are not only responsible for manufacturing their absolutely stunning Brown Flake and Special Latakia Flake (which are as hard to come by as any tobacco), but they also manufacture the Smoker’s Haven tobaccos and the fiercely coveted Esoterica tobaccos–and as if that were not enough, they make the widely-appreciated current instantiation of Balkan Sobranie. Typically, they manufacture their tobaccos in a thin shag cut–both their flakes and their mixtures–and are typified by a heavy use of Virginias and Orientals. Their tobaccos are magically complex and age extraordinarily well. Their heavy use of a sweet brown Virginia (who knows from where) takes on a sweet, mapley aroma and flavor after about a year, and it just gets better from there. Although, it must be noted that although their Virginia flakes are particularly fine, they are no slouch when it comes to slow-burning, soft, complex English blends–and their Penzance is a (the?) perfect example of a full-bodied, meaty Latakia flake. Not only that, but their aromatics, which use a minimal amount of topping over high-quality tobacco, are as fascinating and complex as any English blend. In short, you have got to get some Germain tobacco–whether it’s the famous Stonehaven, or their lesser-know blends like Royal Jersey mixtures. You will not be disappointed.

Jersey Island, the location of J.F. Germain & Son

G.L. Pease: Although manufactured by Cornell & Diehl, G.L. Pease has a style all his own. He calls his tobaccos “Preindustrial tobaccos for the Postindustrial smoker.” His slogan couldn’t be more on point. However, these are not your grandfather’s tobaccos. These are not English traditional tobaccos–no sir–these are American down to the bone. His English-style blends are strong and flavorful. His Va/Per blends are nicotine bombs with an incredible punch of brandy, and his Kentucky Dark Fired use in his plugs and flakes is simply legendary. His tobaccos are American–they are present, honest tobaccos with a hard punch and a smile. The complexity isn’t hidden subtly behind layers of cloying politeness, but right there in your mouth from the beginning. His tobaccos are tobaccos of character, that greatest of American virtues. He’s a new blender (relatively), but blends with a sophistication and understanding of his components not found in many older companies. His New World, Old London, and San Francisco series try to capture the spirit of those places, and do so admirably. Try G.L. Pease for an evening smoke–Perfect.

Jack Knife Plug, G.L. Pease’s demanding but rewarding Dark Fired smoke.

Hearth & Home: Another new guy, and American, on the pipe tobacco scene, Russ Ouellette’s Hearth & Home has a special place in my heart for the production of some of the most balanced Latakia blends made today. Heavy on floral and fruity Orientals and Virginias, White Knight, Black House, and Magnum Opus will floor you with their honest complexity and largess. He also has hundreds of other blends and releases, ranging from the rather well-made aromatics all the way to some of the smoothest natural tobacco around. Even his all-burley crumble cake is almost impossible to burn hot or get any tongue bite, because Ouellette, too, is comitted to bringing us high quality tobacco without unnecessary additives. His Marquee series are the best, the blends he hangs his hat on, but don’t pass up his bulk tobacco, either. There are some treasures in there, simple, honest, balanced, and well made.

Russ Ouellette of Hearth & Home

MacBaren: MacBaren is a 125-year old tobacco company from Denmark, run by the Halberg family for the entire duration. Their tobaccos come from Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, Malawi, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Greece, Turkey, Syria, and Cyprus–the whole gamut of great growing regions for pipe tobacco. Despite the massive variety of tobacco they use, their product is remarkably consistent, and can be described as leathery, oaky, with just an edge of spiciness. Their most famous blends are perhaps the absolutely beautiful Golden Extra, their coin-cut blends (Roll Cake, Dark Twist, Club Blend), and their near-perfect HH Series–Vintage Syrian, Matured Virginia, Acadian Perique, Old Dark Fired, and Latakia Flake, all absolutely incredible in their complexity and natural tobacco flavor. They are very…Danish. It’s hard to describe the underlying leatheriness of their tobaccos, and some people don’t like it, but if you do like it (which I certainly do), it’s hard to get enough.

Their factory in beautiful Svendborg, Denmark

McClelland: This tobacco company, operating since 1977, might be located in Kansas City, but it is impossible to talk about McClelland without understanding that a large amount of their Virginias are the famous North Carolina reds. This sweet, rich, acidic, sun-drenched tobacco when combined with McClelland’s hot-pressing and aging process generates an aroma similar, say many, to ketchup or vinegar. Although this may not seem normal, it is not based on any special flavoring that they use, but on the character of the tobacco that they use. Famous the world ’round for their Virginias No. 27 and No.24, Blackwoods Flake, Christmas Cheer (a vintaged single-source aged Virginia broken flake), 2015 Virginia Perique Flake, and Red Cake No. 5100–but don’t think McClelland stops at Virginias! Perhaps their best-loved tobacco is the mild, sweet, and utterly satisfying Frog Morton series. Mixing the Frog with several slightly different tobaccos has resulted in Frog Morton On the Bayou and Frog Morton’s Cellar, which are after the original the best sellers. Their Grand Oriental series gently puts elusive Turkish tobaccos on parade, and are fantastic as well. But the real treasure of McClelland is its owners. Mike and Mary McNiel are not only talented beyond measure, but absolutely sweet and helpful. The industry would not be the same without them. Give them some support and join thousands of others (including me, the addict to Christmas Cheer) in cellaring some of McClelland’s stunning tobacco.

The famous McClelland Seal (which is a whale, oddly)

Peter Stokkebye: He may not make anything in tins, but Peter Stokkebye is rightly known the world over as the gold standard in Danish tobacco-making. Although they make a variety of Aromatics that are well-known and liked, with their classic berry-like cavendish, and high-quality components, and although they make some incredibly solid and even exceptional English Blends through both their regular line and through Newminster (which is owned by them), you really need to try Stokkebye’s Virginias. Luxury Navy Flake, Luxury Bullseye Flake, Luxury Twist flake have taken and held top places in the rotation of smokers for many years. They use a yellow, grassy Virginia as a base, not as leathery or woody as MacBaren, not nearly as sweet as McClelland, but right in the middle. Hay and barnyard flavors abound, and their delicate use of Perique and cavendish makes for an excellent smoke every time. Ask for it at any tobacconist–the entire world smokes this, and for good damn reason.

Peter Stokkebye, 3rd (of 4) generation tobacconist

Rattray’s: Based originally in Perth, Scotland, since 1903, and now manufactured by Kohlhase & Kopp (the solid manufacturer behind many excellent European blends), Rattray’s makes some very traditional English blends, some old standbys that are quite unique, and some excellent Virginias. Red Rapparee is one of the most interesting English blends around. It’s red Virginia base makes for an acidic, sweeter smoke than the traditional English style. You simply must try it–if it’s your thing, there’s nothing else that will do. Their Virginias are not unique in flavor profile, but of the absolute highest quality. Old Gowrie is an easy-smoking, slightly sweet red Virginia that will never shock your palate but always satisfy, and Hal O’ The Wynd (a strong, spicy yellow-red mixture) and Marlin Flake (a mature, balanced, oaky dark Virginia flake) are rightly renown in the Virginia-lovers world as some of the best tobaccos to age; they develop almost magically. Rattray’s never intends to knock you off your feet; they intend to be your everyday smoke, and as someone who buys poundfulls of Old Gowrie, that’s exactly what they achieve.

The original Rattray’s shop in Perth.

Samuel Gawith: How does one even begin? Along with Gawith & Hoggarth (a family split a long time ago), Samuel Gawith tobacconists defines the Lakeland style tobacco. As such, they have their traditional scented flakes, the most famous (infamous?) being 1792 flake. But that is just the beginning. Their English/Oriental blend Squadron Leader is one of the most beloved of all tobaccos. Their Full Virginia Flake, in my humble opinion, is among the best tobacco ever manufactured and does nothing but improve with age.  St. James Flake is a highly-sought-after perique masterpiece. Their Best Brown is a pure Virginia that tastes as complex as a VA/Burley/Perique mixture. That’s not to mention Golden Glow, their yellow VA offering, Kendal Creme, the most subtle vanilla flake I’ve ever had, and their twists and other Englishes and floral aromatics, not to mention their recent collaboration with Stanislaw tobacco of Czech Republic… Get my point? Smoke Samuel Gawith. Oh also they make some amazing nasal snuff.

The Man Himself–Samuel Gawith

Honorable Mentions:

I only noted great tobacco companies that have a wide range of very excellent products. I feel that to leave out Lane and Sutliff is unfair, because they can make excellent blends–and they make many adequate, dependable blends that we’ve been smoking for many many years. I also feel compelled to mention old standbys like Capstan, Three Nuns, Sobranie, Escudo, Orlik, Erinmore, Presbyterian, and others that are amazing tobaccos, but don’t offer a wide range.
Let us also recognize small companies with limited but excellent offerings: McConnell, Peter Heinrichs, Solani, Reiner, Sillem’s and (especially) Wessex.
That’s not to say that these are all the good tobaccos, either. Pipe companies often own proprietary tobacco companies which do a good job. Peterson makes a couple excellent blends, and Savinelli’s recent offerings are fantastic. Larsen has been making fine Danish aromatics for many years now, and who hasn’t tried the Ashton or Davidoff blends (from cigar companies!). However, all these proprietary companies are often hit-and-miss and I tried to stay true to who I felt were the true greats, both old and contemporary, of the pipe world.

You owe it to yourself, as a fellow partaker in tobacco joy, to sample each one of these tobacco companies offerings. Do so now with the extra knowledge that you are partaking in a noble tradition and helping to keep these cultural treasures kindled.

In smoke,



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On Sport and Tobacco.

A sacred bond once existed between tobacco and sports.

Golf and long, mild cigars.
Baseball and chew.
Bowling and cigarettes.
Hunting and Pipes.
The victory smoke.
Not to mention billiards, darts, and those other venerable bar sports which were often completed through a haze of tobacco smoke. Not to mention the long-standing tradition of spectator smoking at Polo, Cricket, Horse-racing, Croquet, and those other vaguely European sports that most Americans consider mere pastimes.


The downturn of this bond is not just indicative of the modern hatred of tobacco, but the modern attitude towards sports. The mere fact that we refer to physical games as ‘sports’ rather than ‘sport’ means a lot; we refer to a collection of commercialized, industrialized, televised games that provide diversion to millions, rather than the original meaning of the word, which means, simply, “play.” To say “sports” refers to our inactivity, our detachment from the games rather than opening up the possibility for our possible real interaction, our sport.

The Sultan of Swat

The Sultan of Swat

To say Babe Ruth was an avid smoker would be an understatement. The concept of a top-class sportsman (athlete?) smoking seems unbelievable to us. The modern athlete (no longer a sportsman) is a human machine, a compendium of exercise routines, protein shakes, and expensive, high-tech gear which, in my opinion, takes all of the ‘sport’–the ‘play’–out of sports, along with the fun. It’s not a game; it’s a business, and woe betide the athlete who jeopardizes his or her all-important bodily health (which is owned by investors) by ingesting tobacco (alcohol and performance drugs seem to be less of a problem).

Sport used to be beautiful–the courts and the fields were kept pristine, not to maximize “performance”, but to exist as part of the beautiful world in which leisure time to play games was prized as what it is–a great gift.

Tobacco smokers inherently understand the difference between leisure and relaxing. Why else would a cigar smoker spend a large amount of money on a beautiful lighter? Why would one opt for the most beautiful pipe? What need is there for a cigarette case? What need is there for tobacco in the first place? None at all–it is a great gift, a way of enhancing a beautiful moment in our hours of leisure.

I miss wooden tennis rackets and golf clubs, leather football pads, and balls made with actual pigskin. I miss going to a baseball game or a rodeo and not being bombarded with advertising. I miss these things because they gave an actual measure of what a person could do with the body they were given, not a measure of what a body could do if augmented and stretched to its limits with millions of dollars, and gave the indication that watching a game was a break from the economic hustle-and-bustle of mankind.

Tomorrow, on the superbowl, as you enjoy your beautiful cigar from The Briar Shoppe, or perhaps a long bowl of pipe tobacco, or even a nice chaw as you barbecue, I challenge you to shut your eyes to advertising and ‘stats.’ Put your T.V. on mute to shut out the inane comments of the sports anchor. Focus instead on the beauty of the game, on the great triumph of human time spent doing economically useless but endlessly meaningful games, and on the blue and grey smoke that symbolizes the greatest gift of civilization–leisure.

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On Cuban Cigars

It has long been held that Cuban cigars are the best in the world. But recently, prominent tobacco magazines and cigar manufacturers have been claiming that Cubans are terrible now, and what you should really be smoking are Nicaraguans and Dominicans. But, customers insist: there’s just a magical something about Cubans.

What’s the truth? It isn’t just that Cubans have a mystique about them, that grass-is-always-greener feeling, although that certainly plays into it. Having enjoyed a few contrabandos myself, I have to admit; despite my prejudices against Cuban cigars, I found them to be truly wonderful.


Nearly all tobacco used for cigars are “Cuban Seed.” This is quite telling. The fact is that although Cuba undoubtedly grows some of the best tobacco on the world, they don’t make the best cigars. Cuban farmers have been growing tobacco for cigars 50 years longer than anyone in the industry–the farmers and producers of the tobacco taught everyone the trade. But when the embargo hit, the best rollers and blenders moved elsewhere–mostly to La Republica Dominica and Nicaragua. So, while the tobacco grown in Cuba still is truly magical, the cigars have gone down drastically in quality–in fact, new cigar companies which sell to European markets intentionally roll their cigars too tightly, because that is what Europeans are used to, consuming mostly Cuban cigars. The reason for the bad rolling technique comes from a lack of competition in their major markets, a governmentalized push to produce millions of cigars a year, and the fact that the American market attracts the best rollers and blenders to the Dominican and Nicaragua.

Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, Cuban farmers are a separate community and industry than the cigar manufacturers themselves, leading to an unfriendly relationship in which the rollers and blenders do not communicate with the farmers and producers of cigar tobacco. Compare this situation to modern Nicaraguan and Dominican cigar manufacturers, who often own the tobacco plots. This makes for a more consistent and interesting product, and a product that has much more care and thought put into it. Compare this to estate-grown-wine. Wine whose grapes are grown on the estate which also produces the wine is almost always of higher quality and consistency than wineries which merely by grapes from many estates and blend them . When a vintner walks every day among his grapes, his final product will reflect a deep understanding of the grapes and will almost always result in a more balanced and interesting wine. So too with cigars–and the Cuban cigar mystique has suffered from the lack of care and attention that used to be the hallmarks of the brand.

But this is not to say that Cuban cigars are bad. The tobacco itself carries the weight, and has a buttery, silky texture that is naturally balanced, with an aftertaste that lingers like incense or perfume. Never insult Cuban tobacco, but feel free to criticize Castro for the push that made the quality drop.

If the ridiculous embargo is lifted, which I both doubt and hope for, the benefits would be fantastic. Not only would Cuban cigars be forced to raise their quality standards, but the great blenders that now work in the Dominican, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, Costa Rica, and other countries would be able to blend their now stunning tobaccos with the experience and care that Cuban tobacco exudes. The result, in other words, would be better cigars all around, and a whole new set of flavor and texture profiles.

So, when some snide guy swaggers up to you and says “I only smoke Cuban cigars” (“you poor, uncultured buffoon” you’re meant to understand), smile and think to yourself, “If only you knew.” Although it might not wipe the smirk off his face, you still can puff proudly on your Padron, waiting for that fateful (and probably nonexistent) day which our government is less restrictive than Cuba.

In Smoke,


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The Noble Clay

Clay pipes are on their way to The Briar Shoppe!

And the question is, why? 

The answer is complicated–the clay pipe gets a bad reputation among many serious pipe smokers for its fragility, its lack of portability, and its tendency to heat up. So why smoke a clay pipe?

For one, it is a very strong aesthetic statement. You think pipe smokers already get comments about being old-fashioned? Just wait until you pull a 16″ clay pipe from your tricorn hat. We’re talking colonial-era rustic image here. Bring your mandolin. 

If that’s not enough of a sell (and it is for me!), let’s talk about the experience that you’re going to get–you’ll be smoking the pipe from which the first fragrant fumes of tobacco wafted in the Old World. You quickly get a sense of what it was like to be a pipe smoker 300 years ago. Old-fashioned tobaccos smoked in a clay pipe is the sort of tobacco-joy that sets me spinning; it’s like remembering something that never happened to you, like you lived a past life as a bucolic Dutchman playing the lute in some remote village. In other words, you need to have a clay pipe in your collection for the sheer joy of smoking while reading an epic fantasy novel. For best pairing, I suggest The Wheel of Time with Rattray’s Hal ‘o the Wynd in a long clay. With a mug of a dark cask ale. By a fireplace. Okay, I’m getting ahead of myself.

But when it comes down to the bare smoking experience, do not doubt that the clay has something to offer besides nostalgia and extra costume points at your local reenactment society. No, the clay pipe is a good pipe. In fact, it is a great pipe for certain tobaccos. Aromatics that cloy and disgust a smoker in your best briar come alive when stuffed in a clay. The clay is absorbent, and will keep your smoke cool and dry, and it will color as beautifully as meerschaum. And it lends a beautiful earthy flavor to tobaccos that you simply can’t get from anywhere else. 

Tips for smoking your clay:

1. Pack a little lighter than you would a briar pipe. You want a very easy draw through the usually smaller bore hole. 

2. Hold by the stem, not by the bowl. You pipe-palmers often complain that the bowl gets so hot! That’s because you’re not supposed to hold it there, silly. 

3. To clean, throw in a fire. Sounds counter-intuitive, but your pipe will come out clean and white. These pipes are fired to harden, so there’s no risk of your campfire getting hot enough to break it.

4. Don’t clench. I’m a clencher, so I know how tempting it is. It’s uncomfortable, and it’s not made to be held in your teeth. 

5. Don’t puff–Sip. This is true for any pipe, but a clay pipe especially. They call it tobacco-drinking in Holland for a reason. You will get a much better smoke and it won’t get as hot. 

6. Finally, Don’t smoke harsh tobaccos. A straight Virginia that melds like butter with briar will burn like hell in clay. Stick with soft Virginias, burleys, and aromatics for the best smoke a clay can offer. 

Oh, and don’t drop it. Clay pipes are very cheap, but they break like…well, clay. 

Come in next week, hopefully they’ll be in by then. I want to start a clay pipe revolution in Texas. Huzzah!

In Smoke, 


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Pairing Tobacco and Drink

Soup of the Day: WHISKEY

So it goes with almost every advertisement, online suggestion, and customer question.
“What whiskey would go well with this cigar [or pipe tobacco]?”

And I answer, “well… what whiskey do you like to drink?”

“I like good single malt; Macallan, Glenlivet, Glenfiddich, Highland Park…”

“Well those go well with any tobacco, and if you already like those…”

“Sounds good, thanks!”

“BUT WAIT! There’s more…”

But they’re already gone.

Too many people stop at whiskey when pairing with tobacco. Not even the interesting whiskeys make the list. There’s nothing wrong with the classic malts, nothing wrong at all, but why stop there? If you like mild to medium cigars with a touch of sweetness, why not head for Glenmorangie, Dalwhinnie, or even (heaven forbid) Auchentoshan? A little fuller? Islays are not quite on the menu for medium-plus cigars, but for God’s sake, try a little Glenrothes, Craggenmore, Oban… If you like full-bodied, spicy and oily smokes then I dare you to crack open the Laphroaig. Or try the smooth, dark-fruit backbone of Lagavulin, or the much-unjustly-maligned Caol Ila (only for experts to detect the subtle complexities of iodine and cardamom), or the King of the Islays, the great eternal, butter-smooth smoke-bomb Ardbeg.

With pipe tobaccos, ditch the fair isle and turn to home shores. Be brave. Drink bourbon. Nothing says “Virginia” like its closest neighbor, Kentucky. To start off, pour some Buffalo Trace. Leave Maker’s Mark and Jack D in the dust along with Wild Turkey and Jim Beam. Do yourself a favor and get yourself some Eagle Rare, Woodford Reserve (the Oak and Maple Cask editions are mind-blowing) and Four Roses single cask. Or if you’re brave and like a little kick-and-crawl down the throat, try the legendary (and too-hard-to-get) Fighting Cock. Please, drink bourbon with pipe tobacco. You will be forever changed. Bourbon or Rye.
Okay. The exception: Islay scotches with Oriental-heavy Englishes. Mama Mio–that’s a match made in heaven. Or England.


But let’s be honest. There is a world of enjoyment out there for your sensation-starved tongue. Why let whiskey have all the fun? What about Rum? Brandy? Port and Sherry? Why not wine? Beer? Hell, why not even liqueur?! Cocktails are meals in themselves, and can be left gently aside, with the exception of a properly made Old-Fashioned (without the girly cherry) or Manhattan. But good aged rum is hard to beat with a cigar. That goes for brandy and cognac, too–I especially enjoy Asbach Uralt with a Padron 1964 Maduro.
Spare than tequila, try 100% agave Mezcals with your next contraband Cuban, or Arturo Fuente.
Port and a dark Virginia or a rich aromatic somehow launches you back in time to a nineteenth-century drawing room, and sherry is simply made for yellow Virginias. Both red and white wine can be an excellent complement to pipe tobacco is you stop being a snob and opt for slightly sweet rather than bone-dry (which works well with certain cigars). And there is something truly decadent about a Davidoff Grand Cru with champagne.
Nut-brown ales work well with mild aromatics, brown Virginia flakes, and aromatic Englishes, Stouts like matured Virginias, black Cavendish, and Latakia-heavy blends (try it with Rauchbier, German smoked porter!). Lagers and Pilsners like light tobaccos, and I find them especially nice with Dunhill Flake, Orlik Golden Slice, Hamborger Veermaster, and Reiner Golden Flake.
Liqueurs are dangerously sweet without some ice, but plum brandy, Calvados, and some Maraschinos work really well–orange liqueur with a touch of ice and maybe a spritz of aromatic bitters make an excellent companion to a sweet-leaning mild cigar. I fell in love with Cointreau (or Grand Marinier for you luxe types) and the Avo Domaine, which has just a hint of orange note. And please, please find out why Benedictine and Samuel Gawith’s best brown flake aged 6 months has become one of my favorite combinations.

But, did you ever think that we’re letting alcohol have all the fun? I certainly don’t suggest drinking a soda with your cigar, but coffee and tobacco, as the New World’s dual narcotic gifts to the world, were born in the same breath and should be consumed in the same mouth. Especially for our connoisseurs who have not reached the ripe old age of 21, I suggest a good cappuccino (not from Starbucks, mind you) with mild cigars, drip coffee for medium, and espresso with a full cigar. For pipe tobaccos, I generally shy away from the milk and stick to drip and French or Aero press (espresso and pipe tobacco go well together, too, but light Virginia flakes don’t agree with the acidity of a well-made espresso). Head over to Blacksmith for an excellent hand-pour, which is the perfect complement to a medium-bodied Virginia, or to Mercantile, right across the street from the Briar Shoppe, for the Gold Cup.


Now I’m going to blow your mind. Alcohol is made from fruit or malt, usually. Coffee is a fruit with a roasted “bean” pit. But tobacco, my friends, is simply a leaf. A leaf. What drink is made with leaves?


In my opinion, tea is the perfect complement to tobacco. In the winter, we consume hot tea (with a touch of whiskey, some sugar, and lemon… if you wish) with our tobacco. Earl Grey is great with cigars and lighter pipe tobaccos. Darjeeling and Oolong are wonderful for dusty, musky Virginias, light Englishes, and Burleys. In the summer in Houston, try a slightly sweetened iced Darjeeling with an Orange slice with Dunhill flake. It changed my life. Or an iced tea with no sugar and lemon with an Ashton Churchill. Blew my mind. Or, if you are really brave, ice down some jasmine tea and try some Spring Time flake from Stanislaw/Samuel Gawith. Whoa buddy.
In the winter, though, you must MUST try Winston Churchill’s drink of choice with a full-bodied smoke. Discover the wonder of Lapsang Souchong. A smoked tea (the Chinese scoff at Westerner’s taste for full-bodied teas, but hey, cigars are palate-wreckers), it is reminiscent of a forest floor, which has just undergone a forest fire, which was then doused by a thunderstorm. You think tea parties are for little girls? Think again, mate. This is tea to put hair in places that make your chest look like a doily. Drink this tea with a dark English, or with a full Virginia. Drink this tea with maduro cigars. Drink this tea with the strongest tobacco you can throw its way, and it will surprise you every time by outdoing the flavor. Man-tea.


But even if thunderstorm-fire-forest-tea is too much for you, don’t shirk other teas as a complement for tobacco. Roasted green teas and Claro wrappers go well together. Gunpowder green tea goes excellently with Nicaraguan tobaccos, and Habano wrappers. Again, Oolong and Darjeeling are fantastic with almost any medium-bodied tobacco. And maté with a little milk is perfect with Connecticut wrappers and mild aromatics. African Rooibos with rich aromatics and Dominicans work well, too. Pick up these teas, and more, at the best British tea shop in Houston, the village’s own British Isles.

Never be afraid to try a new pairing. Go for complementary flavors rather than trying to match them up flavor-for-flavor. Stay away from “soapy” or “herbal” flavors, if possible. As much as I love Campari and IPAs, they are not made for tobacco. If you follow those general rules, I guarantee you will find something amazing. And be sure to share. Half of tobacco-joy is about the company which you (and your tobacco) keep.

In smoke,



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On Nasal Snuff

Recently, I have been enjoying nasal snuff immensely. I have a few friends who are getting into it as well–apparently, I have odd friends.

Nasal snuff is tobacco which has been as carefully cured and flavored as the most delicate pipe tobacco, the most complex cigars. It is then ground up, sieved, and packaged for freshness. Unlike full-leaf tobaccos, I doubt that nasal snuff would age well, even if carefully sealed. When one snuffs, a pinch is taken and inhaled through the nose with a short, shallow sniff. It takes some practice to not let it hit the back of your throat, where it burns like the dickens, but when done successfully, it provides one of the most unique and enjoyable tobacco experiences; a vibrant, intimate, and intoxicating smell fills your nose and mouth. Depending on the ‘flavor’ it can range anywhere from wet and fermented tobacco leaves to minty fresh burn to fruity to merely pleasantly sweet. 
There are different types that center around each country; the U.S.A. has a love for dry, dusty, sweet snuffs, while England seems to like a little wetter, clumpy medicinal snuffs. Germany has both types, but their traditional schmaltzer has an oil base (using, sometimes, the clarified butter known as schmaltz). Their drier snuffs are almost always mentholated. 

There is something charmingly antiquated about snuff-taking, and in certain circles it surrounded with a ritualistic fervor. Take, for instance, the guidelines for snuff-taking from the website of London’s Worshipful Company of Tobacco Pipe Makers (the Guild for tobacconists): http://www.tobaccolivery.co.uk/about-us/our-traditions.html

How to partake of a pinch of snuff

“The true snuff taker, who is bold in his propensities, always has a large wooden snuff-box, which he opens with a crash, and which he flourishes about him with an air of satisfaction and pride. He takes a pinch with three fingers, and then bringing the whole upon his thumb, he sniffs it up with that lusty pleasure with which a rustic smacks a kiss upon the round and ruddy cheek of his sweetheart.” A Steinmetz, “Tobacco”, 1857.

Derby Miniature Toby Jug An early 19th century Derby miniature Toby Jug showing a snuff taker with striped breeches and hat lid, 4.25 ins, sold at Gorringes’ Auction House, West Sussex, 2010

The artistic and perhaps more genteel method of “taking a pinch” consists of at least eleven separate operations:

  • Take the snuff box with your right hand.
  • Pass the box to your left hand.
  • Rap the box on the lid to clear any snuff from the lid and hinges
  • Open the snuff box with care
  • Present the box to the company
  • Receive the box after it has gone the round
  • Gather up the snuff in the box by striking the side with your middle and forefingers.
  • Take up a pinch between the thumb and forefinger of the right hand. Note: this should not be too large an amount – a little goes a long way!
  • Keep the snuff a moment between the fingers before carrying it to the nose. This aids the release of the delicate oils. DO NOT place it on the back of your hand.
  • Sniff it with precision by both nostrils (and without any grimace!)
  • Close the snuff box with a flourish.

You will probably sneeze at first, but this is entirely natural. Persevere by taking another two pinches of snuff within the next half hour and the desire to sneeze should disappear. You should now begin to experience that indefinable pleasure which only a good pinch of snuff can give.”

Now, with a ritual like that, it’s hard to imagine a snuff, as indelicate as it may seem, being coarse or ugly. It was popular among gentleman and rustic alike, ladies and crones, beggars and kings. I hope we see a resurgence of its use here in Texas, since it’s so dad-blamed hot here. It opens up a different part of tobacco tasting–indeed a different part of tasting in general. Too often we only feel food, drink, and leaf with our mouths, letting our poor noses go un-stimulated. Snuff opens up those sensations, and reminds us that scent is as important as our other four senses. 

It also allows for several beautiful accessories–some of the most beautiful jewels and precious metals have adorned snuffboxes. Just take this Faberge for example:


We have three varieties of snuff at the shop, all American style, and are about to get in a fourth–the famous Wilson’s of Sharrow. I’ve tried all three, and can honestly say that they’re all fantastic. Dental Sweet is a spicy, but chocolaty snuff, Dean Swift is smooth and very flavorful, and Silver Dollar lets the savor of the tobacco shine through its delicate aromas and strong sensation.  

Come give nasal snuff a try! It’ll make your nose tingle with tobacco-joy. 

In Smoke (and dust),


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