A Defense of (God help me) Aromatics

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As I write this, I am smoking cherry flavored pipe tobacco. Anyone that knows me will understand how difficult it was for me to write that sentence.

I began my pipe smoking journey, the way many do, with a Dr Grabow pipe and a pouch of Captain Black White Label. For over a year I had one pipe and one tobacco, and I was content. Then one fateful day curiosity got the best of me (it seldom gets the worst) I wondered into a tobacco shop in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood near the University of Pittsburgh and received my first formal pipe smoking lesson.

The teacher could not have been a more incongruent subject in my life. You are expecting me to describe some kind and wise bearded gentleman puffing on a Dunhill-ish briar as he explained the secrets of the leaf. But in reality I was met by a gruff octogenarian woman smoking a corn cob pipe. I swear to you that this is true!

I never knew her name, or had much of a conversation with her beyond what I am about to describe. In fact, I don’t think she liked me very much. But then again, she was the sort of person that you wouldn’t expect to like many. The phrase “tough love” comes to mind. But I will be eternally grateful to that dear woman for the lesson she gave me in tobacco.

The counter, a large U-shaped structure that filled the center of the shop, was lined with jars of tobacco. I was overwhelmed with choice and just sort of stared at the jars until she broke the ice with “What do you want?” In those 4 words she made it clear that I was interrupting and inconveniencing her by having the audacity to enter her shop (yikes!) I blurted out something about never buying tobacco from jars and she quickly took me on a tour of the tobaccos. “We have aromatics, and English. You don’t want aromatics, they’re no good.” Then selecting a jar of Lane Ltd. Number 10 Downing Street without any input from me she asked, “How much do you want?”

After an embarrassed series of questions on cost and minimal amounts I left the shop with 2 ounces of my first non-Captain black tobacco and my life was for ever changed. Now I quickly learned that her definition of English was basically equivalent to non-aromatic, and went on to explore Virginias, Burleys, etc. But I faithfully avoided aromatics because “they’re no good.” Well there was one sad experience with a pouch of OTC apple tobacco that is too painful to recount. But otherwise I was faithful.

That began to change about 4 years ago. When the Christmas season comes round each year, I find myself pining for an aromatic experience. The thought of filling the room with a pleasant Christmassy aroma while I enjoy some spiced fruit cake like tobacco became an obsessive fantasy. The first year I gave into marketing and tried McCleland Christmas Spirit. It was slightly better than the above mentioned apple blend, and after about 3 bowls I gave the tin away. The next year was a Cornell and Diehl We Three Kings. The result was the same. I also tried Lane 1Q which is supposed to be the best selling bulk tobacco in the world. I believe that 1Q is actually some sort of elaborate practical joke that Lane is pulling. I just don’t understand how people can smoke this stuff!

The majority of aromatic tobaccos use synthetic flavorings. These, like many natural flavor components, are aromatic compounds that typically contain a hydrocarbon modified ester. For example, the vanilla flavor we know and love in our cakes and ice creams is produced by extracting aromatic components from vanilla beans. The primary component of this extract is vanillin, a phenolic aldehyde.

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Synthetic vanilla can be produced by the synthesis of the above compound, but because the natural vanilla extract has many other minor compounds in it, the flavor is not quite right. Various other chemicals have been developed in an attempt to more fully mimic the taste of natural vanilla. For example, acetanisol is a chemical originally extracted from a glandular secretion of beavers (I’m not making this up). Acetanisol is supposed to have a fruity buttery vanilla flavor that better captures the complexity of the natural product, and is used for a flavoring a variety of products including tobacco.

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Now here is the problem. Acetanisol, and other synthetic flavorings are not necessarily bad, but there are many people like myself that simply can not taste the intended flavor. I smell vanilla, but I taste bitter oily horribleness. I first noticed this problem with the advent of flavored coffee. I could not understand why people drank them. French vanilla, hazelnut, and Irish cream all taste the same to me, and don’t get me started on the annual arrival of “Everything Tastes Like Pumpkin” season. It’s all bitter oily horribleness. And I am able to detect the tiniest amount of these chemicals. I can’t tell you how many cups of coffee I have thrown away because the store used the same grinder or carafe to make flavored and unflavored blends.

So I was doomed to never enjoy a nice bowl of holiday aromatic tobacco. I am biologically incapable of tasting what everyone else tastes. And yes, I did say I started with Captain Black. But I did not then know what tobacco was supposed to taste like and I guess I just assumed that you had to take the bad along with the good. I revisited Captain Black a few years ago and found it to be vile. I believe that my problem is not that uncommon as every time I talk about it folks step forward to say that they have the same problem. Sometimes they say that they think it is the humectant propylene glycol that they are tasting, but I don’t agree. I smoke tubs of Carter Hall that certainly have more than a healthy dose of propylene glycol and have never noticed the taste.

So I like to think that the gruff cob smoking lady of Pittsburgh shared my affliction and was not simply being closed minded. But even so, was she right? Are aromatics “no good” for those of us with a taste handicap? Well….no. As part of my stubborn quest for a holiday aromatic I stumbled across Germain’s Plum Cake Mixture and my eyes were opened!

PlumCake

There are good and bad (in my opinon) aromatics! And a it seems that many European aromatics are made with more natural flavorings. Actual spices and fruit peel and juice added to the tobacco to create the flavor. Plum Cake Mixture tastes of orange and honey and spice and wine and…it is wonderful. In the years since I have found a few others that have made it into my holiday rotation, and even as an occasional non-holiday treat.

Cornell and Diehl Autumn Evening was another eye opener. This one is harder to explain. I taste butter and maple and according to my wife it fills the room with the smell of pancakes. I doubt that it is all natural flavoring as C&D claim it to include fruit, citrus, maple, rum, sugar, and whiskey. They use a special steam process that supposedly infuses the flavorings into the leaf as opposed to the usual “topping” method. I can’t explain why I find this tolerable, but it is a very nice treat and I probably go through a tin every year often smoking it early Saturday mornings with coffee.

AutumnEvening

The ArtfulCodger, a dear friend of mine from YouTube, introduced me to Sutliff Black Spice as a alternate holiday blend. This one does not get a lot of love from the online pipe community, and I’m not sure why. It is a delightful smoke with a rich vanilla cinnamon nutmeg flavor that is just wonderful. As with Autumn Evening, I don’t know why this one gets past my broken pallet, but I thoroughly enjoy it and have added it to my holiday rotation.

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And now we come to my current smoke, Peter Stokkebye Cherry #3. Of all the vile aromatics, cherry always ranks vilest. What was I thinking?? Iron Rails And Pipe Dreams, another friend of mine from YouTube has a pallet that often agrees with my own. We seem to like similar non-aromatics, and an occasional cigar. But he also smokes aromatics. Now I always just dismissed this as he does not suffer from my taste affliction. But then one day he presented his impressions of PS Cherry #3 and gave it a glowing review. I was confused. Peach cobbler, Christmas cookie, even Lane 1Q I can accept, but no one should like cherry tobacco. I said as much in a comment and Andy encouraged me to try it. A few weeks later I need to spend a bit more to make the free shipping cutoff on a tobacco order and wound up owning 2 oz of PS Cherry #3.

peterstokkebye-cherry

I fully expected bitter oily horribleness. What I got, to my surprise, was cherry. Not cough syrup, but cherry. Perhaps leaning a bit towards cherry cordials with some minor chocolate notes. I smoked a bowl, then another, then the sample was gone and I ordered another 4 ounces. It’s an occasional treat and I doubt I will need to by more for at least a year, but I want to have this tobacco available.

So I thought I had it all figured out. Only natural flavored aromatics were going to be tolerable. That certainly explained Plum Cake Mixture, and maybe it could be stretched to explain Autumn Evening. But no one is going to believe that Sutliff and Stokkebye are using real nutmeg and cherry juice. What started as a beautiful theory ends as a cautionary tale. There are some good aromatics, keep an open mind. Now I’m not going to become an aromatic smoker other than a bowl or two each month for a change of pace. But I have new respect for some aromatic blends. Of course, Lane 1Q is still awful.

Now where I did I put that Burley Flake #3…

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