What’s The Deal With Latakia?

Latakia is one of the most famous pipe tobacco components, but it’s definitely a love-it or hate-it thing. For some people, it’s the elixir of the gods and for others it’s foul, rank and acrid. No matter how you feel about it, Latakia is a staple and a lot of people are curious about it but are reticent to give it a try.

A view of Cyprus.

Firstly, Latakia is not a tobacco; it’s a process. Latakia also comes from two areas- the island of Cyprus and Syria. The leaf that comes from Cyprus starts out as a Oriental varietal called Smyrna. It’s harvested and cured in a structure in which a fire burns using aromatic woods indigenous to the area, mostly of the evergreen type. When it turns black, the tobacco is ready for cutting. Virtually all the Latakia on the market currently comes from Cyprus.

The other Latakia, Syrian, is not currently in production. All of the Syrian Latakia being used is from older crops. The problem in Syrian Latakia production is not just the civil unrest, but also the governmental restrictions. In Syria, a tobacco called Shek-el-Bint is used and is smoked over a fire made with herbs and Syrian Oak. Here’s where the problem lies. For years, Syrian Oak was overharvested to the point where it was threatened with extinction. A number of years ago, the government stopped Latakia manufacture, but let it start up again in the last decade, but have pulled the plug again. How much of a supply is out there? It would be conjecture on my part. All we can hope is that they can begin again before the stockpiles are gone.

The difference between the two types is a matter of flavor profiles- Cyprian is bolder and more aromatic, whereas Syrian is smokier and more delicate. But one thing in particular is similar between them and, next to the flavor is the greatest draw- very cool smoking qualities. Personally, I’ve never smoked a Latakia-based blend that I would consider hot-smoking.

What’s the appeal of a tobacco that has a wood-smoke flavor and aroma? It mainly comes from the combination of other tobaccos and the percentages used. Mixing Latakia with a blend consisting of, primarily, Virginias will produce a sweet, smokiness that approaches a barbeque flavor.  As an example, you’ll get a hint of this in our Hearth & Home Victorian Stroll. If the blend contains a bit of unflavored black Cavendish, the similarity is even more pronounced.

When Turkish-type varietals become involved (like Smyrna), notes of leather and anise or licorice may come out along with a backbone of mustiness reminiscent of mushrooms. Our Larry’s Blend is representative of this type of mixture.

The brighter and more floral types of Orientals (Yenidje, Xanthi, Basma and the like) have, in my opinion, the most dramatic effect upon Latakia, bringing out a vibrant, incense-like aroma with a commanding, but very clean flavor. For varying types of blends of this sort, our Hearth & Home Marquee Series has three entries that showcase these properties- Magnum Opus, Black House and Fusilier’s Ration (coming in October 2012).

A close up of C&D Pirate Kake, a blend made with Latakia.

Today, we have an immense number of Latakia-based tobaccos on the market, many of which are among the most popular blends. They include such favorites as most of the Frog Mortons, many of the G.L. Pease line, such as Westminster, Star of the East, English Oriental Supreme, Balkan Sasieni, Balkan Sobranie, Commonwealth Mixture, and these are barely the tip of the iceberg.

Latakia is referred to as a condimental leaf, as a relatively small amount (less than 10% of a blend) can have an immense impact on the flavor and aroma. That said, a percentage of more than 60% can be found (such as Cornell and Diehl’s Pirate Kake and our Hearth & Home Marquee Series Cerberus), and yet the flavor of the other tobaccos can still be noticed.

Although I can’t prove it, I would conjecture that the cool smoking properties of this black leaf has something to do with the smoke particles that coat the outside of the tobacco acting as a type of insulation. Whether that’s true of not, there’s no question that of all the varietals used in pipe tobacco, nothing is easier on the tongue.

As for me, I’ve been a fan of Latakia since day one. After trying a Cavendish for my first blend, my father had me try his tobacco, which was a mild Latakia mixture. Right from the beginning, I was enraptured by the smokiness, how easy it was to puff all day. I’m just glad that I found the pleasure of it early on. If you haven’t tried a Latakia blend yet, don’t be afraid of the pouch aroma; give it a shot.

About Russ

Russ Ouellette is the blender/creator of the Hearth & Home series of tobaccos for www.pipesandcigars.com in Bethlehem, PA. He has been a pipe smoker and blender for over 30 years, and enjoys feedback from the pipe smoking public. You can reach Russ at russo@pipesandcigars.com or by calling 1-800-494-9144.