Diesel – Unlimited Maduro 6×60 (2015)

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The Diesel Unlimited Maduro is an extension of the very popular Diesel cigar line by master blender AJ Fernandez. Mr. Fernandez has quite a dedicated following with full-bodied cigar lovers, as he is known for using potent tobaccos in his blends. Popular cigars such as the Man O’ War Ruination and the Diesel Unholy Cocktail are extremely strong, meaty and flavorful. The Diesel Unlimited Maduro follows in this tradition and is a welcome addition to his ever-growing portfolio.

The Blend:

Wrapper: Connecticut seed broadleaf maduro1
Binder: Mexican San Andreas
Filler: Nicaraguan and Honduran ligero2

Appearance and Construction:

A mottled, chocolate brown wrapper covers the cigar. It has a rustic appearance, with a slight tooth and a dull sheen of natural oils. It is firmly rolled and feels well constructed, with no lumps, hard spots or other imperfections. I’ve had many boxes of these cigars and they always seem to be a bit on the dry side. That doesn’t mean they are “dried out”, I just think that they aren’t as oily or moist as many other cigars. With that said, care must be taken when handling as the wrapper can flake or crack if you’re not too careful or apply too much heat all at once when lighting.

Pre-light Impressions:

The cigar has a fairly strong tobacco aroma along with an undertone of what can best be described as barnyard — a mixture of straw, grass, dirt and manure. This is in no way a negative — as a matter of fact the barnyard aroma harmonizes quite well with the tobacco.

Smoking Experience:

Because the cigar contains a good dose of ligero tobacco, The Diesel Unlimited Maduro benefits from a long toasting of the foot to warm up the head of the cigar. Once lit, the cigar burns even and true, with a grey flaky ash that can, at times, create a mess in your lap or on your clothes. The draw is quite good, producing a nice mouthful of smoke with each draw.

The smoke has a pleasant mouth feel to it — light and very flavorful with no off-putting qualities. What’s impressive is that although the smoke is very light in your mouth, it has a strong character to it that really makes you take notice.

Initial mouth flavors are wood, leather and straight tobacco and through the nose it’s mostly spice with a touch of bitter cocoa and black coffee. The finish is clean and very dry with lingering sweet chocolate and burnt wood notes.

This is by no means a complex cigar, as the flavors remain the same throughout — from initial light to the last inch. It never smokes too hot or too cool and provides a good hour and a half of smoking enjoyment. Its bold flavor profile and ramped-up nicotine content is not for the beginner, but veteran smokers will certainly appreciate the consistent blast of flavor and kick in the pants this smoke provides.

The Diesel Unlimited Maduro fits well into the Diesel cigar line, rounding out an already impressive grouping of smokes.

Terms:

  1. Maduro: This is a fermentation process that uses intense pressure and heat to extract more sugar from the tobacco leaf than standard tobacco aging.
  2. Ligero: The top-most part of a tobacco plant. This is the strongest type of tobacco, because it receives the most sunlight and has a higher nicotine content than other parts of the plant.
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Cigar Pairing: 1993 Punch Churchill & Woodford Reserve Bourbon

The weather is absolutely perfect here in New York, with a surprisingly warm 73-degree temperature and gentle breeze coming in from the south. Knowing I won’t have many more days like this I figure its the perfect day to sit outside on my back patio, light up an excellent cigar and pair it with an equally remarkable bourbon.

I reached into my humidor and immediately went for my prized possession — a flawlessly preserved 1993 Cuban Punch Churchill. Now that it was chosen, I had to decide on which bourbon to pair it with. Not knowing the exact strength profile of the cigar, I decided it would be best to choose a middle of the road bourbon that wasn’t incredibly strong or forceful, but still had plenty of character — Woodford Reserve immediately came to mind. It has a wonderful upfront taste with a short and pronounced finish that I thought wouldn’t overpower the cigar. Once I poured myself a taster’s glass worth of the amber goodness and headed outside to begin.

In my opinion, Cuban cigars are not what they used to be. Over the past 20 years, poor soil management, deteriorating quality control and general apathy has led to a dramatic decline in quality and consistency — consequently buying a Cuban cigar today is a hit or miss affair. However, the cigar I was about to smoke was from a different time, when quality and consistency were still high and Cubans were the gold standard in taste. Since I never had this cigar before, I decided it would be best if I smoked it a bit to truly taste it before even attempting to pair it with the bourbon.

After toasting the foot of the cigar and lighting it, I let it settle for a minute or two until the head cooled down to its normal burning temperature. Once the cigar settled down, I took my first few draws. The smoke was rich, but not overpowering, with well-defined, upfront flavors of black pepper, leather and earth. Underneath those flavors lay the very distinctive metallic-like quality prevalent in most Cuban cigars.

The flavors blended together quite well and produced an incredibly balanced profile. This Punch is a very complex cigar, and the mix of flavors constantly evolves as you smoke it. At one moment, the leather is more pronounced; the next moment it would be another flavor at the forefront. The finish is light and pleasant, with lingering spice and metallic tastes in the mouth and nose. Overall, I would score this as a legendary smoke. I’ve had a few cigars that are better, but this is certainly one of the best I have ever experienced, and achieves legendary status easily.

Fortunately, my pairing instincts were correct, and the experience truly got out of hand when I introduced the Woodford Reserve. Both the cigar and the bourbon benefitted from each other, and the synergy between the two truly hit my sensory sweet spot. The bourbon blunted a bit of the metallic taste of the cigar and enhanced the smoke’s spicy character, while the cigar’s leather and earth notes played quite well with the Woodford’s caramel and spice notes. After a puff and a small sip, I would sit for at least three minutes, taking the whole experience in before even contemplating another.

This is one of the best pairings I have ever had, and the experience left me relaxed and fully satisfied. The only thing that would have made it better would be having a prime porterhouse beforehand. It’s very rare to experience a pairing such as this, and I certainly savored every minute of it. I only wonder what would have happened if I upped the bourbon game and tried the cigar with Pappy Van Winkle 20 year old. Alas, I’ll never know.

While Woodford Reserve is easy to find, getting your hands on a 1990s Punch is quite difficult, if not impossible to procure. I’m lucky that I have a very (very) rich hedge fund manager as a client and he is well stocked with classic Cubans — that’s where I got this incredible smoke. That being said, below are some cigars that are much easier to find that pair well with Woodford Reserve:

Partagas Black Label
Tatuaje Brown Label
Nica Rustica by Drew Estate
Don Pepin Garcia Blue Label
Old Henry by Holt’s
Diesel Unlimited Maduro

 

Chris Pervelis, best known to most of you as Internal Bleeding guitarist and composer, also writes for a number of underground metal publications.

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Deafheaven – New Bermuda (2015)

Deafheaven - New Bermuda (2015)
On a less rigorous, and slightly looser site, my thoughts on New Bermuda could be expressed as something along the lines of “whatever”. The music here has been performed before by a cavalcade of metal-themed indie acts, each more individual and revolutionary than the last, yet stunningly conformist for their efforts. Deafheaven enjoys rather more media attention at the moment, even sometimes drawing our attention for their little escapades, but they’re pretty much cut from the same fabric – a few hints of loud guitars and blast beats to liven up boring sugary pop stretched far beyond the limits of its songwriting.

The stylistic deception is pretty shallow, to be honest. I found it mildly amusing that the album began with a few minutes of more overtly black metal flavored material, which was then abruptly cast off in favor of the basic rock riffing and reverb textures that Deafheaven seem to so particularly enjoy. It returns every now in then in case you forget you’re supposed to be listening to the future of black metal, but I can confidently say New Bermuda relies more on the band’s rudimentary modality (major-minor ad infinitum) than their rudimentary dynamics to occasionally wake up a sleepy listener when the soothing, inoffensive guitar strumming has lulled them into a dreamless slumber. The drumming in these sections gradually devolves into basic modern rock downbeats and timekeeping, as if to represent your transition towards a drowsy (indie) state of mind. That probably wasn’t the intent, but the idea that it could’ve been is dangerously tempting.

Now, I’m not the kind of person who tries to fall asleep to music, but were I to treat this as a collection of lullabies, it would still be fairly underwhelming. That it has loud sections at all is counterproductive for insomniacs, but even those are rather predictable in how they play out. The straight ahead black metal sections consistently move sluggishly under the blastbeats, with a vocalist who has learned but one type of shriek and a few basic vocal rhythms. Given how Deafheaven is marketed, that these sections sound like an afterthought is problematic. Maybe the album would be better if it was divested of the clearly unwanted black metal, but then you’d be left with just another unwashed (but charmingly patchouli and spice scented) post-rock/emo/indie-pop album essentially indistinguishable from all the others and guaranteed to gather dust after something newer and more exciting comes out.

I slept well last night. What about you?

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Brouwerij Affligem – Affligem Dubbel (2015)

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What sort of beer would you want at a metal gig? Strong, savage perhaps, but flavorful. What about a metal gig with keyboards? There you might have Affligem Dubbel, a tasty and strong double-fermented beer with a fruity and spicy undertone that is less extreme than found in most Belgian ales. It pours in a thick medium brown stream with minimal head, and immediately presents the scents of a rich beer. In flavor, it is mostly a darker sensation with mostly a malt flavor, some bitterness from spices (coriander in a blend unique to this variety of beer) and as it spreads and warms on the tongue, a fruity flavor like apple and pear baked together with a citrus topping. Alcohol flavor melds smoothly with the beer and is hardly detectable, melding into a strong caramelized flavor with a pleasant aftertaste of molasses. If you want a comparison to more familiar beers, consider this a richer and denser German-style version of Newcastle Brown Ale as made by Belgium corporations… err, Trappist monks (the first hipsters to popularize the beard). At 6.8% alcohol, this beast provides enough of a dose in a single 750ml serving to satisfy the metalhead who still wants to remember the show. Affligem Dubbel succeeds at making a beer for daily enjoyment, which is a process of understanding how flavors meld to make a satisfying beer experience, and its wide availability suggests it is geared for a market other than the foodie-style novelty crowd. It does not yet rise to the level of an iconic taste like many of the best-loved beers, but presents a solid middle ground which incorporates the Belgian style without going over the top. While many of the nu-Belgian style coriander-and-citrus beers are outright disgusting, this one is worth the time and fighting through the burly men with long bears and tattoos who are buying IPAs at the beer counter.

Quality rating: 4/5
Purchase rating: 3/5

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Cornell & Diehl – Billy Budd (2015)

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This enterprising blend combines a raft load of Latakia with a base of Burley and bright Virginia, then salts it with Maduro cigar leaf. This presents a challenge because the Burley and cigar leaf both present dark, rich flavors, in contrast to the sweet of the Virginia and the spice of Latakia. Like lower sounds, however, these dark flavors are stronger than sweet or spicy, which means that bowls of this burn in three levels: first, a friendly but slightly overwhelming Latakia spice; then, a smouldering Burley sensation with undertones of cigar leaf; finally, a merging of the flavors into a pleasant hum of lower registers, with the Latakia emerging as a slight alkaline flavor.

While Billy Budd has its charms, the Burley flavors dominate this blend after the Latakia boils off, which gives it a different flavor than its smell and breaks the balance established by harmony of its ingredients. Cornell & Diehl’s Burley is second to none, and many of us enjoy its rich and nutty flavor, sort of like a cedar-roasted chestnut. In theory, the higher flavors of Virginia and Latakia would balance this out and hide the cigar leaf so that it retained a “condiment” status, but in actuality, the cigar leaf becomes too present and the Burley dominates everything else. The rough cut of this blend, which has big chunks of moist Latakia in with shredded Burley and semi-ready-rubbed Virginia, means that flavors do not occur in a smooth transition as they do with the thinner ribbon cuts from, say, Dunhill. Further, little marriage of the flavors has occurred as happens with blends from Peterson for example. Those little “maturation” processes can make a huge difference, and here it is definitive. This blend has a good start but needs improvement.

Quality rating: 3/5
Purchase rating: 1/5

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What thrived and what died from the 1990s (Part I)

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While the new last.fm redesign seems to me another exercise in pointless self-justification by middle management, the ability to see statistics on my listening has entirely changed how I view the music held closest to my heart. Seeing the numbers has shown me how it is one thing to list a band as a favorite or recommendation, and one far different animal to listen to it on a monthly basis. One is assessment alone, as if listening were your sole task, and the other utility, showing that this piece of music has a place in your life of many tasks and goals.

This assessment filters among the upper level of the highest echelon of metal. The assessment itself filters out the nonsense, all of which suffers from a single sin — disorganization — which takes many different forms but reveals a lack of will, purpose and principle in constructing art and always red-flags a directionless listen. But among those bands who have escaped the madness, there is no equality in listening. Some have risen and some have fallen over 20 years of pounding out metal from my speakers as I work or relax at home. In most cases, the reaction was first shock and then realization that the seeds of this knowledge were there all along. Let us look at a few pairs where listening habits elevated one album over a similar one…

Blasphemy Fallen Angel of Doom vs. Blood Impulse to Destroy

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Over the years metal has frequently benefited from punk influences because metal, as befits its partially progressive rock heritage, has a tendency to create layers of abstraction and complex musical discourse where punk cuts to the chase. This is both a strength and weakness for each genre; metal is abstract, which makes imitators very obvious but can get lost in muddle-headed musical wanderings, and punk is concrete, which makes it effective but imitation easy. Blasphemy introduced a punk-based genre, grindcore, into black metal. It adopted the aesthetic approach of Sarcofago but underneath applied the percussive lower-five-frets texture musik of grindcore. The result is very effective, and easy to listen to, but also — if you have many other options — kind of boring. In fact, many of these riff patterns are the same ones, albeit simplified, that speed metal bands tried and failed to use to revitalize that genre. As raw motivational material, the music is fantastic, but over time, it fades a bit as one realizes that its strength as low-complexity high impact music also means that its content is one-dimensional. Over the past 20 years, I have thrown this record on five times and apparently terminated it early each time.

blood_-_impulse_to_destroy

I chose Impulse to Destroy because Germany’s Blood also occupies the narrow space of grindcore bands who think like black metal or death metal bands. Grindcore generally self-reduces to extreme minimums and must, like junk food, reintroduce sugar and salt at the surface to spice up the otherwise one-dimensional utilitarian approach. Death metal on the other hand is not utilitarian, while it is consequentialist (“only death is real” being the ultimate statement of that belief) and yet also has a highly aesthetically-motivated but not aesthetically-expressed transcendental outlook. At its best, grindcore overcomes its utilitarian tendencies for a ludic or playful view of the collapsing world, and from that some of the best material emerges. Blood for example creates a dark and morbid absurdism which brings to light all that our society suppresses with itself, and like Blasphemy, creates it through patterning cut from the chromatic strips of the lower registers of guitar. In this case, however, the textures take on a life of their own, like a three-dimensional house made from flat punch-out cards. Different riffs interact with one another and dramatic pauses and collisions give rise to interesting song structures. Like Disharmonic Orchestra Expositions Prophylaxe, Impulse to Destroy provides a wealth of riff archetypes applied with enough personality and purpose to create unique compositions which may be enjoyed for decades or longer despite their simplicity.

Napalm Death Scum vs. Carbonized For the Security

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This is one of those albums that most people get for the sake of novelty. “But check these guys out, they’ve got one second songs and stuff, it’s just about noise…” — rock music does not get more ironic than that. And ultimately, that was the power of grindcore. Like punk a decade before, it removed all the pretense of rock and boiled it down to simple songs. It then sometimes added in new flourishes of song structure which made those songs more interesting than radio pop, which had been studied by MBAs and PhDs and reduced to a simple formula distinguished only (barely) by rhythm, production, instrumentation and vocals. But once the money men and white lab coats were able to look at rock as a product like any other, they saw that to please enough people in the audience to make it a hit, they did not have to innovate at all. They only needed a new skin for the same basic patterns and they could produce it over and over again with high margins (well, until digital piracy hit). Like the punk rock and then hardcore punk, grindcore stripped away illusion and replaced it with innovation. The problem here is that these songs are very similar themselves because they rely on dramatic confrontation within each song, which like all things “turned up to 11” becomes expected and thus a sort of background noise. Every time I have listened to this album it has made itself into sonic wallpaper before the halfway point.

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Some of the albums which were considered “also-rans” back in the 1990s had more to them than people initially considered. This one has been a favorite for me, along with the second album from Carbonized but not the third, for two decades. I listen to it regularly, finish the whole thing, and sometimes start it over. Record labels tried to shoehorn Carbonized into the “death metal” model despite some clear warning signs, and consequently bungled — the root of all evils is incompetence at some level, starting with the ability to be honest — the career of this promising band, but for those of us who lumped this in with aggressive grindcore like Terrorizer and Repulsion, the similarities outweighed the differences. For the Security expresses paranoia, existential insecurity, melancholic doubt of the future and a desire to explore all that life offers in depth, all within and as part of the same outlook. This is the music of a brighter-than-average teenager who perceives the world honestly and rejects the foolishness but wants to look deeper into the interesting stuff that, because it does not affirm the dominant lie, is rejected by the herd. Chunky riffs alternate with broader rhythms derived from punk and yet are dominated by a desire to make song structure vary with content inherited through metal from progressive rock. Each song forms a sonic sigil to the topic at hand and the response of the artist, making each bursting with personality and reality portrayed in finely-observed ways at the same time. This is a masterful album which will never bore.

Roundup

As you can see, Dear Reader, these albums are both quite similar on the surface — and quite different underneath. That bands can do so much with a handful of power chords, and have such different outcomes, is endlessly fascinating. Yet not every metal-influenced album is, even among A-listers like these. It may be time for all of us to go back through our listening, search ourselves honestly, and see what has actually stood the test of time.

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Metalhead pipesmokers unite!

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The old saying goes that those who love to use tobacco smoke cigarettes, and those who love tobacco smoke cigars and pipes. The cigarettes give you a quicker hit because the lungs, with their much vaster absorption area, deliver nicotine to the brain within about three seconds. The cigarette ends within three to seven minutes and the craving subsides momentarily. With pipes and cigars, the nicotine slowly oozes in through the mucus membranes in the mouth, tongue and (sometimes) throat, creating a stronger dose of nicotine but without the sudden “falling off a cliff” sensation. Many metalheads smoke cigarettes, but more are branching out to pipes and cigars for the flavors, more intense dosage and less damage to the body.

Please do not read this as an anti-cigarette rant. They are wonderful, in their own right, and much less work than cigars or pipes. However, burning any leaves and inhaling them directly into your lungs 10-20 times a day would cause some kind of long term health problem as gunk — tar, ash and irritants — builds up on the alveoli. On top of that, our industry and lawmakers have decided to mandate all sorts of processing of the tobacco, so who knows what else is being inhaled. If you would not mind going into a fast food joint, taking home their lettuce, dehydrating it and sitting next to a giant pile of it burning all day, cigarettes might not bother you. And keep in mind that there are brain-boosting benefits to nicotine in addition to resistance to neurodegenerative disorders, an effect which you do not get with the charred salad.

Cigars are beyond the scope of this article, but pipes are its focus. Pipes are essentially little wooden, stone or clay cups for burning tobacco with an inhalation tube attached. The smoker fills the pipe loosely with tobacco, then ignites it with some of the many means available to us ex-hominids, inhaling the smoke into his mouth and savoring it before blowing it outward into the personal space of those around him. While the topic of smoking pipes merits a full book, this article provides an introduction to pipe smoking designed to be as simple and low-cost as possible.

***

To get started, you will need:

  • A pipe. Generally between $35-$65 for a good starter pipe. Look for 0.7inch diameter bowls and filterless stems. This tool may help.
  • Tobacco. This comes in tins and bulk, usually found at Brick and Mortar (B&M) shops, and Over the Counter (OTC) usually found at drugstores and supermarkets.
  • Pipe cleaners. Each time you smoke, you will want to clean your pipe. Pipe cleaners have two ends, so that is two smokes per cleaner. It is not a terrible habit to include a bundle or package of these each time you buy tobacco.
  • A pipe nail. Demystifying this tool: it can be as simple as a key. You use one end to cut up tobacco, allowing it to collapse into an ember, and the other to tamp it after you light it for the first time. Tobacco rises like a demon unleashed when touched with fire, but compressing it allows it to smoulder so you can sip the pipe.
  • Fire. I favor the compressed cardboard matches in matchbooks, but you can use anything. For some, lighters and zippos taste horrible, so they prefer the match. The only trick is to burn off the tip before lighting.

To avoid the usual drama, let us launch into the process of smoking:

You go to some place with little wind, but some air circulation, where you have a comfortable chair. Sitting in it, you take out your tobacco. Holding the pipe over the tobacco container, let the shreds of tobacco fall into the pipe. When it is half-full, gently tamp with a finger. When it reaches the top, pinch from the center to one side and then the other, compressing the tobacco and letting it fall back into place. (Much has been written on this topic, usually under the unfortunate appellation of packing a pipe, when the correct word to use is fill: put tobacco into the pipe so there are no fully empty spaces, but fall short of compacting it so air — necessary for fire and smoke — can flow through. Ignore all other advice.)

Put the pipe in your mouth, holding it gently with teeth and firmly with lips. Light a match, and hold it vertically at a slight angle so the flame climbs the stalk of the match, then when the head has burned off, move the match over the tobacco in slow circles while inhaling. Take the smoke into your mouth and the top part of your throat if you wish, but try to avoid it leaking further down toward the lungs. You can compress it by gently blowing out the air from the front of your mouth, which draws in smoke from the pipe. The best way to inhale that I have found involves flaring the nose and drawing in air slowly but steadily.

My favorite cycle runs in seven second increments. For bigger mouthfuls, draw in your smoke, then keep it in your mouth for three seconds, then exhale and wait another four seconds. For slower sips, take one for about a half-second, then wait at least three seconds before the next. It helps to have a slight background circulation of air to keep the pipe oxygenated and smouldering well.

Many smokers do a “char and light” where they torch the top layer of tobacco, then tamp it lightly because it has risen up as it burned, and then light again to get the resulting compressed tobacco to blaze. At two-thirds through the bowl, it may be helpful to use a poker or the pointy end of your pipe nail to chop up the resulting ember and set it ablaze again. The lighting requirements vary between tobacco types, which will be addressed below.

When no more smoke comes out of the pipe, and you sense that the tobacco has been converted mostly to ash, tap it out into convenient bushes or a metal trash receptacle without a plastic bag. The ash will be hot and melt plastic. To tap out, hold the pipe in your hand and swing it downward to shake the ash out of the bowl. You may have to stir it with poker or nail beforehand.

Then comes the most important part of the ritual. If your pipe lacks a filter, run a pipe cleaner from the mouthpiece into the pipe and leave it there for a few minutes to absorb both direct and ambient moisture. This will keep your pipe fresh-tasting for its next use.

Pipe smokers vary. Some are hard-hitters who blaze through a bowl quickly, where others are sippers who have a pipe going all day for an hour at a time. If you re-light too frequently, or smoke too fast, the pipe may get hot; if this happens enough and to a great enough extreme, it may cause a condition known as “burnout” where the material of the pipe chars and cracks. To help avoid this, smoke on the seven-second method and also, allow some nice thick gunky tar to line the bowl, especially on the bottom. I always smoke some OTC aromatics, which are full of sugary flavoring that bonds together the goo and forms a kind of tar cement, down to the bottom of the bowl to layer it with a nice thick coating of glop. This glop chars over time and becomes a sort of pipe creosote that insulates against extremes.

***

Tobacco originates as leafy plant in the genus Nicotiana, which when cured, dried, pressed and shredded becomes a delicious flammable method of nicotine delivery. The great variations in what are called generically tobaccos occur in the different strains of tobacco plants, and the different methods used to grow, cure, dry, press, and cut the leaves.

That process produces a number of tobacco types, which are then combined in varying amounts into different blends, which you might think of as “tobacco recipes” because they achieve a unique flavor through the ingredients — different types of tobacco — mixed within them. These blends are also distinguished by their cut or how they are sliced, which is related to the flavor and tobacco characteristics in each blend. Many blends are then coated in flavoring known as “aromatic”; if the primary flavor to the smoking blend is the flavoring and not the underlying tobacco, the blend is referred to as an aromatic tobacco.

For the end user, tobacco is then shaped by another force — the consumer market — and placed into the following silos:

  1. Over-the-Counter (OTC). OTC tobaccos are designed for convenience. They are usually either aromatics or a type of shag-cut tobacco that is also used for Roll Your Own (RYO) cigarettes. These burn most easily, cost about $2 an ounce, and are generally mild in both flavor and nicotine level.
  2. Luxury. Like most things in our society, the good stuff only starts when you step off the mainstream and pony up some more cash. You would not buy Budweiser to drink, nor Marlboro to smoke, so you will choose a pipe tobacco made under the brand name of an established firm. A handful of producers make these tobaccos now, but they tend to be stronger and rely more on the flavor of natural tobacco, although many are also aromatics but with a wider variety of flavors than OTC.
  3. Boutique. A cottage industry has sprung up in making this variety of luxury tobacco which aims for unique and intense flavors, sometimes combining aromatic and unflavored tobaccos. These are more expensive than “regular” luxury and are made by a handful of blenders who also own mail-order tobacco shops.
  4. Vintage. In the past, everything was better. People have been saying that for generations, and apparently each were correct: the tobaccos of only 20 years ago were stronger and more flavorful. Luxury tobaccos, once considered regular tobacco, have been stored in sealed tins (if you buy one on eBay, make sure it is also “unopened” as opposed to re-sealed) and are now much sought-after.

I recommend starting with a solid OTC like Carter Hall, Prince Albert, Captain Black, Five Brothers or even Drum. These are the easiest to learn to pipe with, and give you a feeling for what mild levels of nicotine and flavor are like. In addition, they are low-cost so you will not howl and scream if you accidentally ruin a bowl or spill some.

You may find that these are pleasing enough for you and that you are content to smoke them for life. There is nothing wrong with this; many have done so and it provides the least fetishistic and complex smoking experience. Five Brothers stands out from most of these because it does not use aromatic flavoring or propylene glycol (PG), a moisturizing agent added to many OTC tobaccos. If your OTC tobacco comes out of the can or pouch and seems damp, it probably has a good dose of PG. Many aromatics, including those sold at the luxury level, also have this treatment.

From that point, the next stop is an entry-level luxury tobacco. I suggest going with a Dunhill blend because they are widely available, not overly flavored, and tend to be sliced for easy burning. You can generally get a tin of 50g/1.76oz for about $9 online or $15 in the real world, if you are in the United States; this will vary with local tobacco taxes. You may notice that you are paying quite a bit in taxes throughout this whole process, and wonder if that is in fact the impetus for the whole societal jihad against tobacco. Keep wondering. In places like Canada and Europe, they pay multiples of what you pay here. Scary.

At this point, I would stop moving up the ladder. Boutique blends are a variety of luxury blend that costs more and has more unique, ironic, oddball, quirky, and otherwise off-the-beaten path blends. However, it tends to be lower in nicotine content and it is unclear whether these weird little blends are actually that distinct from their archetypes. There are only so many types of tobacco and while many different combinations can be made, most of them resemble a few fundamental types. I have never ventured into Vintage tins and can say that, while undoubtedly these older blends were of a finer quality, that may not have been preserved over the years. Nicotine levels especially degrade. To my mind, the piping experience cannot be separated into “taste” or effect but must include both, and so the fetishism with flavor — even if grounded in science and experience — strikes me as perhaps being a mistake.

Tobacco comes in several cuts which reflect how the leaves are presented:

  • Shag. Cut laterally across the leaf, leaving an interlocked mess like peat moss that loads easily and burns well.
  • Ribbon. “Normal.” Thicker slices that seem to be vertically up and down the leaf.
  • Flake -> Ready Rubbed. Flake occurs when tobacco is pressed in blocks and then sliced; Ready Rubbed is the result of “rubbing out” those slices.
  • Plug. Tobacco is pressed together and allowed to mature that way, then cut into little pucks.
  • Cake. Like a plug, but loosely packed, resulting in a crumbly “coffee cake” style.
  • Cube. Cross-slicing the tobacco produces tiny cubes; sometimes hard to keep lit.
  • Twist -> Slices. Tobacco is twisted in plugs or flake is re-twisted in tubes, then cut into little “coin” shaped bits called slices.

The above simplifies a fairly complex process. You might also enjoy these viewpoints from P&C blender Russ Ouellette and Lane Limited manager Leonard Wortzel.

Multiple types of tobacco dot the landscape. These refer to the strain of tobacco plant and how it was cured and prepared. These are:

  • Burley. Think cigar leaves. This air-cured tobacco has a nutty flavor and higher nicotine and oil than most others. It is used to complement other tobaccos in blends, and is known for its tongue “bite” from high alkalinity.
  • Virginia. High sugar content and sweet natural taste make this type a favorite in many blends. Although this tobacco comes in many colors, its flavor stays within the mild range and makes it the basis of many blends.
  • Cavendish. This term applies to any tobacco that has been aged and cured with a heating process that brings out a fuller taste.
  • Latakia. This is Oriental tobacco which has been cured with smoke from burning oak, pine, juniper and yew wood to give it a bittersweet taste.
  • Oriental/Turkish. Sweet and low in nicotine, this is tobacco grown using the Eastern method of low soil nutrients and plenty of sun, which produces its fragrance and flavor.
  • Perique. Fermentation in its own juices after Burley tobacco is pressed into barrels gives Perique a spicy-sweet flavor. This is generally an additive to other blends to give them some spark
  • Dark Fired. Leaves are cured with smoke under carefully managed heat and humidity, producing a blend both strong in nicotine and flavor. It is used as an additive more than a main ingredient because of its intensity.

For more information, check out Russ Ouellette’s descriptions.

These are used in the following blends:

  • English. Mostly Virginia, with Latakia for body and Oriental tobaccos to provide spice.
  • Scottish. Similar to an English blend, the Scottish blend uses less Latakia and more Virginia, with little or no Orientals.
  • Balkan. Strong in Orientals and Latakia, this tobacco blend uses Virginia to balance those dominant flavors.
  • American. Although there are some similarities to the English, the American blend uses more Virginia with possible Cavendish or Kentucky style tobaccos.
  • Danish. These resemble the English, but with a deeper flavor and less spice, using more Burley and Cavendish but emphasizing stronger, more balanced flavors.

You will probably find yourself shopping by blend, which could be a substitute term for flavor. What type of smoke do you wish to taste tonight? There are several indexes for ranking different blends:

  • Harshness. How much acridity and bite there is. Strong smoke can be hard on the smoker, and “bite” is created by the alkalinity of the tobacco, which raises the pH and increases absorption of nicotine but may also cause a tangy burning sensation on the tongue.
  • Strength. You are smoking a nicotine-bearing plant. How much nicotine is delivered? A tobacco with high nicotine may be worth pounds of low-nic fruity aromatics.
  • Note. This refers to the smell left behind after the tobacco is burned. This influences both your taste of the tobacco, and what your friends, family and coworkers experience.

The de facto standard for tobacco assessments is Tobacco Reviews. Like other crowd-sourced sites such as Wikipedia and Metal-Archives, or reviews on Amazon, it is good for basic factual information and opinions from people whose judgment you have verified and who — as a result — you trust. It is not good for randomly reading reviews because most of them are written by twitchy, bitchy and queeny internet consumers who complain about all the wrong things, like all the irrelevant, and miss the point. Some of the tobaccos rated highly by this site’s users are excellent, but others are simply quirky hipster fodder. Tread carefully, and consider using the various pipe forums out there: Puff, Pipes, Smokers Forum, and Tamp and Puff. The private reviews at this location have endured because they are frequently strikingly accurate. The main point is: find someone whose opinions you respect and tastes who align with yours, even if the exact opposite of yours, and you can figure out what you will like.

***

A word on lighting pipes: some prefer magnifying glasses and sun, others coals from the fire, still others matches and apparently, most like either butane lighters or Zippos. As a diehard match user, I can say that matches fail in the wind, and there is more wind that you might think, but that they seem to create the least influence on taste. Perhaps a laser is appropriate.

The pipe world is full of both facts and lore. Lore refers to anything passed on by groups of humans in social circumstances; the idea is that if it survives a dozen generations, it might be true. In the meantime, you will be wading through mountains of nonsense and worst of all, unnecessary complexity added by people who wish to seem profound or wise. Pipe-smoking is simple: you are lighting dried leaves in a tube and inhaling. The rest is mere adjustment.

The following resources may be helpful for those seeking to know more:

Here are some good places to go shopping for pipes and luxury tobacco:

Places to buy OTC tobacco, which online is sold in bulk:

Resources for those who wish to grow or blend their own tobacco:

Tobacco blenders and brands:

If you do not see your favorite blend, it is probably an imprint licensed to and manufactured by a larger group, or a boutique variety manufactured by one of the tobacco shops linked above.

For kicks, here is a list of famous pipe smokers. You can add me on there when I get famous, but be sure to mention I detest wimpy tobacco and think it should leave the hall.

Finally, the best metal for pipe smoking…

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Grupo Modelo S.A. de C.V. – Modelo Especial

modelo_especial

Many Americans know the comforting brown appearance of bottles of Negro Modelo, possibly the last good decent beer for sale on the shelves of your average grocery store or Wal-mart. The others have fallen to consumerism, which is separate from capitalism because it relies on mass preference, and have become the fast food version: essentially soft drinks with beer flavor and separately distilled alcohol injected. This creates a wasteland of plenty. There are many options, but almost all of them cater to morons, and so the options are paltry.

Modelo Especial turns out to be not a Corona clone, but a relatively rich beer with plenty of grainy taste and some spice behind the sweetness. I was pleasantly surprised since, given its widespread availability, I assumed it was designed for morons. However, its obscurity as a Mexican beer — at the time when most people are drinking hipster microbrews that are universally bad because they overemphasize difficult and obscure flavors over simply making a quality beer — may have protected it from the Great American Gold Rush. Every weekend, millions of zombies leave their undead jobs and get in their cars to go home. Because their heads have been drained of any thoughts by the sheer stupidity and illogicality of what they are called to do, there is one option for the weekend… get loaded! — and they do this by trotting on down to Wal-mart in their golf shirts and buying, well, you wouldn’t want to get the usual mainstream beers would you? Just something enough imported to be quality… that means you go to the 9.7-11.8 cents/ounce category of Familiar Imports… and it turns out most of these are fakes… so you grab whatever looks good, go to the checkout and head home. If you drink five of them quickly you might not notice that they are basically burpwater soft drinks flavored like beer, and get a good buzz going. Modelo Especial has escaped this crazy rush because it remains consistent and marketed at lower income, so it does not have the pretense and “unique/different” factor of hipster beers or Familiar Imports, and thus is bought only by — you guessed it — actual appreciators of quality beer. The crowd cheers.

But this beer, unlike the unfortunate Corona Extra to which it is frequently compared, has an abundance of flavor that is more balanced than it is extreme. The hipster beers shit the bed by trying so hard to be ironic they become subtly disgusting, and the audience of sheep is too neutered to simply stand up and say that these beers are vomit fodder. The Familiar Imports are all basically watery and have a pulpy, rotting vegetation taste at this point. But Modelo Especial carries on, with a slight undertone of the pungent smell of its fermented origins, but mostly a warm and broad taste that works in sweetness like a summer evening. Like Negro Modelo, this is a beer to be enjoyed during normal events in life. It will impress no one from the label, but they will actually enjoy drinking it instead of pretending to like another over-priced over-fetishized hipster brew. Full of warmth, it is like the best of Mexico, a simple but entirely rewarding experience.

***/*****

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Villiger 1888 – Early Day

villiger_1888_early_day_pipe_tobacco

This one came to me as a hand-me-down. A friend wrote it off as a clone of Dunhill London Mixture. Being an intrepid sort, I shoveled it into the pipe and lit up, expecting nothing. Surprise awaited instead: Villiger 1888 Early Day is a Danish take on English tobacco that calms its extremes and leaves a deeply satisfying flavor.

Generally, when we think of “English tobacco,” something like the Dunhill London Mixture comes to mind. But really, English tobacco is a state of mind. It is distinguished from the Danish interpretation of it by its appreciation of the clash of flavors. The Dunhill mixes are spicy, sweet and full-bodied all at once; the Danish interpretation balances the three, so that it is full-bodied with hints of flavor from the spice and sweet without overwhelming. In my inner self, I find this to be a better approach, as it reduces a riotous clash of flavors to a comforting taste that deepens the more it is smoked.

Open opening, the tin emits a thick earthy smell like mulch breathing alongside rich earth. When smoked, the characteristic tang of English tobacco appears at first but muted, then fades to a rich dark chocolate taste tinged with the taste of the air from the deep woods. It burns thoroughly, with thick smoke, and avoids becoming the greasy mess that many English tobaccos become after the initial taste. A satisfying aftertaste remains; it can be smoked either fast, or slowly, but burns roughly the same. A sense of balance pervades this entire blend.

While Villiger will never make headlines — in part for the unfortunate name which sounds like “villager,” a term in English that conveys simplicity and mundanity — this tobacco remains undervalued for those who want a quiet smoke that continually rewards the peripatetic puffer with muted flavor and an absence of the extremities that render trendier pipe tobaccos annoying. This would be a good all-day smoke, on a boat or in a living room, for someone who has worked through the need to define themselves with the radical extremes of external objects, and instead intends only to savor the bounty of life itself.

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