I’ve been a big fan of Perique since I started smoking a pipe 40 years ago. I was fascinated by the dark, sweet aroma of it in a jar, and enjoyed what it did to a blend even more. I’ve made well over 100 blends in those 40 years, and probably 30 or more have contained the Louisiana leaf. In the past, I’ve talked about Latakia and Cavendish, usually prefacing my remarks by saying that they aren’t tobaccos, they’re processes. Perique is different, though. It’s a tobacco and a process, and it’s a rather involved process, at that.
It all begins in St. James Parish in Louisiana, in an area bordering the Mississippi River. That stretch of land is referred to as the Golden Triangle. It’s divided up into four regions – Belmont, Paulina, Grande Pointe (north of the river) and South Vacherie (south of the river). The seeds aren’t planted directly in the soil they grow in, they’re cultivated in seed beds and the seedlings are then transferred to the fields. The plants eventually reach a height of around two feet and they’re harvested whole, rather than leaf by leaf, with the harvesting being done at night.
The tobacco is moved to open-sided curing barns where they’re left to dry out for around two weeks. The leaf should still be pliable at this point and the leaves are washed and sent for processing. The Perique used in American Spirit cigarettes is a bit easier to make because cigarette smokers won’t notice that the Perique has stems. When made for use in pipe tobacco, before the leaves are processed, the main vein or “rib” has to be stripped out with the remaining portion being referred to as “frog’s legs”. These are then bundled into torquettes, a kind of log-shaped bunch. The torquettes are then put into whiskey barrels and a lid is placed on top. The barrels are positioned under stout beams and a jackscrew is put on the lid and twisted up until it comes into contact with the beam. Additional pressure is applied until almost all the air is pushed out. When this happens, anaerobic fermentation begins and some of the cell walls break, releasing fluids from the leaf. For about the first six months of processing, the fermentation is vigorous, with visible gas bubbles being released.
Every few months, the barrels are opened and the torquettes are rotated to make sure that the fermentation is consistent throughout the barrel. The pressure is applied again, restarting the fermentation. This is done until the Perique has spent a minimum of one year in the barrel. The resulting tobacco is dark brown to black with an oily feel to it. The aroma is somewhat fruity and vinegary, with a bit of briny olive. The flavor is often referred to as “plum and pepper”, and I think that’s a fair assessment, but it’s more complex than that simple phrase would imply.
Most of the Perique used today is a blend of St. James Perique and Green River air-cured Burley that is processed in the exact same manner. Some processors had been doing this since the fifties, and almost all Perique sold for use in pipe tobacco is this mixture which is called “Acadian Perique” to differentiate it from straight St. James. The reason this is done is twofold. Perique is a very sensitive crop, grown in a very small area (less than 16 acres). A hard rain, blue mold or a pest infestation can wipe out an entire crop in a matter of days. Also, Perique can vary widely from year to year. Since the Burley that they buy is hand-selected, there’s very little variation in that component, so the blend will be quite consistent from one year to the next. When you take a look at all the labor that goes into making what is a rather obscure product, you can easily see why Perique is expensive. One more reason that nobody uses straight St. James anymore is that it’s more than twice as expensive as Acadian.
Although I’ve never been to the facility (I plan to visit there this October), I can speak with confidence on the subject as much of this information comes to me directly from Mark Ryan, the owner of L.A. Poche and Daughters & Ryan. Mark absolutely loves to talk about the Perique operation and is justifiably proud of its growth in recent years and how the production is becoming more modernized. When you consider that ten years ago, there were only three farmers growing Perique, we were on the verge of the tobacco going away completely. Under Mark’s guidance and fair treatment of the farmers, there are now 11 farmers growing the crops, and he’s built a greenhouse to start the seedlings earlier and has upgraded the processing plant, moving it into a new building with four times the previous capacity. So the next time you light up your favorite Perique blend, you’ll know who to thank for it, and maybe you’ll appreciate better all the work that goes into making this singular tobacco.