A Rose by Any Other Name…

In my line of work, there are a number of things that can be really frustrating – bad crop years, orders not arriving on time, endless meetings, etc. But in the subjective realm of pipes and cigars, a frequent area of consternation is terminology. If I were to ask you for a can of Coke, there would be little confusion, other than 12 oz. or the 8 oz. size. But things aren’t quite so cut and dried when it comes to things in the field of the tobacconist.

I’ve actually heard voices raised over whether a certain pipe is an apple or a tomato. Shapes might seem to be pretty cut and dried, but what happens when a pipe has some of the characteristics of two shapes. I’m sure that you’ve looked at a pipe and couldn’t say for certain whether it’s a billiard or a pot. If a pipe has a bowl that tapers down from the top of the bowl, has a round shank and a slight bend, is it a: 1) eighth-bent Dublin, or 2) round-shank Zulu?

At what point is a blend no longer an Oriental blend, and when does it become a Balkan? The term Balkan is hard to define anyway. There are two distinctly different definitions for English blend. How aromatic does something have to be before it actually becomes an aromatic?

Robusto grande, corona gorda, or toro?

And so it goes. I’m not going to get into the pipe or cigar shapes today because it’s too open to interpretation. What I want to address are pipe tobacco blend classifications and my suggestion as to what I think will work best.

The industry, in general, seems to prefer these three categories – aromatic, non-aromatic and English. Non-aromatic kind of works for me. That could include Virginia and Virginia/Perique blends along with Burley blends with minimal flavoring. The things is that it’s really nebulous and covers a pretty broad set of sub-groups.

Where I have a real problem is with the groups that are commonly called aromatic and English. Let’s approach aromatic first. Does this mean that it has flavorings added, or can a blend containing Latakia and Orientals qualify because it has a noticeable aroma? The answer will depend upon who you talk to. Most people who took up a pipe in the seventies or later will probably use the definition to mean tobaccos with an apparent top-dressing, but a number of older pipesters I know would have called Balkan Sobranie an aromatic because of the incense-like scent it produced.

“English” blends is another mess. When I began working in this business (in the seventies), “English” referred to tobaccos without a top-dressing, because there were strict laws in the UK regarding flavorings for tobacco. Today, it’s morphed into meaning a blend in which Latakia is the most noticeable component and Virginias are secondary. These blends may, or may not, contain Orientals. There are problems with both definitions. The older meaning is inaccurate because, while the UK regulations were strict, there were a number of approved flavorings that they could use. The latter definition is way off the mark because there are Latakia blends with a noticeable top dressing. Would the fact that there’s flavoring added disqualify these tobaccos?

Balkan derived its meaning from the famed Balkan Sobranie, and the accepted definition was a Latakia blend with Orientals being the second most prominent component. When I developed WhiteKnight, which is my modern-day homage to Balkan Sobranie Original Smoking Mixture, and if my formula is anywhere near that of BSOSM (and the feedback from customers is that it must be), then Virginias make up a larger percentage of the blend than Orientals. Do they mean that the Oriental influence is the secondary note? If so, I could accept that, but my Larry’s Blend is frequently referred to as an English blend, and by that flawed definition, Larry’s is a true Balkan.

Greg Pease has expressed his disagreement with this nomenclature, and after reading his thoughts, I concur that “Latakia blend – Virginias-forward” works much better than “English”, and “Latakia blend – Orientals-forward is more accurate than “Balkan”. I thought of discarding the “Non-Aromatic” tag as well, but it would lead to confusion. If we become more specific, then we have to use labels, such as: Virginia, Virginia/Perique, Virginia/Burley, and so on, ad infinitum. If we can accept “Non-Aromatic” to mean any blend without a noticeable amount of Latakia or a top-dressing that can be discerned, then we can turn to the content listing to figure out if it’s a Virginia/Perique, etc. And I’m okay with “Aromatic” meaning a blend with an easily perceptible added flavoring. I’ll also be fine with “Semi-Aromatic” as a blend where the top dressing is barely noticeable in the aroma and almost negligible in the taste.

Will my little missive here make any difference? Likely not. I won’t reach enough people to make a significant impact, but it’s something I’d definitely like to see changed.


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.