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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.