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.
AGE YOUR VIRGINIAS.
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.