What Does Pipe Tobacco Really Taste Like? Expectations vs Reality


If you’ve ever seen anyone smoking a pipe and thought to yourself, I’d like to try that. I wonder what it tastes like? That’s what this article is going to try to answer. For anyone who is curious about pipe smoking and doesn’t know what to expect, keep reading. If you’re already a pipe smoker you may also learn a tidbit or two that you can pass this along to any beginners you may know.


Smoking a pipe is like nothing else. One does not smoke a pipe to get a dose of nicotine and you don’t run your pipe off a battery. People enjoy the quiet enjoyment of smoking pipe tobacco whether alone or with friends or family. It’s nothing like the awful smell of a cigarette and it’s much more complex than a cigar (cigar guys please don’t write in, I’m generalizing).

Even if you have smelled the wonderful aroma of pipe tobacco while someone else was smoking, does that translate into what you taste? To answer it right off, it’s not, but it’s close. The best strategy you could take when trying pipe tobacco out is to hold those expectations loosely and explore what’s out there. The types of pipe tobacco is much bigger than you can imagine and therefore the tastes are just as wide. You need to narrow in on what you like to get the most out of your pipe smoking experience. This article is mostly for the person new to pipe smoking. Hopefully, it’s enough to point you in the right direction.


What is taste? What is smell? How do they relate to one another?

Even though the smell of pipe tobacco and the taste of it are related, they are different.

BrainFacts.org gives us a little description of how smell and the taste work together to help your brain interpret what’s going on.


“Taste and smell are separate senses with their own receptor organs, yet they are intimately entwined. Tastants, chemicals in foods, are detected by taste buds, which consist of special sensory cells. When stimulated, these cells send signals to specific areas of the brain, which make us conscious of the perception of taste. Similarly, specialized cells in the nose pick up odorants, airborne odor molecules. Odorants stimulate receptor proteins found on hairlike cilia at the tips of the sensory cells, a process that initiates a neural response. Ultimately, messages about taste and smell converge, allowing us to detect the flavors of food.”


Another factor a pipe smoker has to consider is you are not consuming the tobacco itself. You are not eating it. You are tasting the smoke from it. Therefore there is also a difference between how a tobacco smells before you burn it, what pipe smokers refer to as “the tin note” compared to what the smoke smells like while you are smoking it.

The Tin Note

Let’s take the first of these, the tin note. It really is a wonderful aroma. Being able to pick out all the aromas in the tobacco is a skill that pipe smokers will usually develop. The different varieties of tobacco play the starring role, especially in non-aromatic blends. The tin note from aromatic tobaccos is usually much stronger. It also includes the toppings blenders add to the tobacco which gives you a wonderful aroma.

The smells you pick up in the tobacco before you smoke it is important because it will give you an idea of what to expect in the flavor of the tobacco. Once you light the pipe tobacco these aromas are much harder to detect. In some cases the smell of the tobacco does not translate into the flavor of it, but usually it does or at least is close. Pinpointing these smells is helpful when it comes to actually being able to describe the taste.

Now the aroma of the actual smoke is something different again. The tobacco has gone through the combustion process and smoke is coming from the pipe itself, and also from what you draw through the pipe and blow out.

The Room Note

One thing that people who don’t smoke a pipe may not realize is that the pipe smoker doesn’t smell the smoke as a bystander would. A person near a pipe smoker can smell the entire spectrum of aromas coming from that smoke. The person smoking the pipe usually can not. The aroma in the air is called “the room note”. It’s what the smoke actually smells like and as I just said, pipe smokers themselves usually do not get the full effect of the room note.

As with the taste, the pipe smoker is only getting hints of what the smoke smells like. It is too bad that the pipe smoker is missing out on the full experience, but that is how it works out. If you don’t believe me, smoke a bowl of pipe tobacco then leave the area. come back in 15 minutes and the smell that lingers in the air will be much richer and more pleasant than you remembered while smoking. Every pipe smoker knows what I’m talking about.

What People Usually Expect


I think that what people expect is a direct correlation to how they taste food. They think that if a tobacco is cherry “flavored” that it will taste like cherries or that if it’s chocolate flavored then it will be like eating a candy bar. That is not the case. Although there will be some hints of cherry or chocolate, you are tasting tobacco smoke. There are complex flavors mixing, some more prominent than others. Taste is somewhat subjective so not everyone will agree on the taste or the degree a certain flavor comes out in the smoke.

Tin Description


Tin descriptions are what the manufacturer provides on their packaging and in promotional literature. For the most part these descriptions are accurate and informative. Being advertising material they do take certain liberties and can be overstated or embellished. Most will say things like “cool burning” or “smooth” so take those with a grain of salt. DThe descriptions are useful to see what the blender is trying to go for. It will tell you what kind of blend it is, like an English blend or a Burley blend. Using that description you quickly narrow choices down to what you may or may not like. A good reviewer will tell you how close the blend matches that description, so it’s a good idea to use the tin description as a tool but not the last word in describing a blend.

The different Kinds of Pipe Tobaccos

Aromatics

Aromatic tobaccos have toppings added to them to give it distinctive flavors and aromas. During the production of pipe tobacco the leaves can have things added to sweeten them. Sugar, molasses, maple sugars. These are called casings. Most pipe tobaccos have some sort of casings to one degree or another added. Further along in the process after it has been blended, aromatic tobaccos have Toppings added.

Autumn Evening by Cornell & Diehl


What are toppings?
The toppings can be just about anything that adds the flavors and aromas the blender is looking for. Vanilla, Caramel, Fruits, Chocolate are common toppings. This is a very simple description but you get the idea. Aromatic pipe tobacco have these toppings added to them.


Non-aromatics


The second family, the non-aromatics, depend on the blending of different tobacco varieties and the fermenting process of the tobacco leaf to give it its flavor. These blends include English, Scottish, Virginia/Perique, and Balkan blends, to name a few. Let’s take the English blend for an example. To be an English blend it will include Oriental tobaccos particularly Latakia. Latakia is an Oriental tobacco that has been cured in a barn with a smoldering fire. It gives that tobacco a very distinct smell and taste of a wood fire. Not that you would know what a wood fire tastes like, but it give one the sense of a wood fire while they are smoking it. If you were to cook a Hot Dog on a campfire, that flavor the campfire added to the Hot Dog is similar to the flavor added to the tobacco.

The “Tasting” of Tobacco

Let’s take Cherry pipe tobacco as an example.

Does it taste like cherries?
-No
Does it taste like tobacco?
-Yes
Can you taste cherries in it?
-Sort of.


That example tells you a lot and it tells you nothing. Of course it’s very general to say “sort of” but it’s hard to quantify taste. I’m not talking about whether you like something or not. some people love the taste of cherries and I’m sure some do not, but they can agree on what a cherry tastes like. Can they describe the taste without comparing it to something else? Think about that for a moment, what does a cherry taste like? Other than saying they are sweet it’s hard to describe. Even that is not entirely accurate as some cherries are tart. If you had to describe the taste you must compare them to other things to be able to get your thoughts across. Same thing with tobacco. It reminds me of cherries, or it tastes like cherries is descriptive enough that the person reading or hearing a review will know what they are talking about.

What Makes A Good Reviewer


The best trait a reviewer can have is the ability to pick out the tastes and be able to describe them. People often say “my palate is not developed”, or that they don’t have enough experience to pick out the tastes. I don’t buy that. I’m sure they taste the same thing. A new pipe smoker may think they can not taste certain blends which might be bolder than they are used to, but for the most part they can taste what’s going on. The thing they are not good at is putting it into words.

A good reviewer can taste the same thing and tell you the two or three descriptors that stand out. They don’t just say sweet, they can say honey or molasses or Capt. Crunch cereal, or whatever. They can pinpoint the taste enough and put it into words. When the person with the “unrefined palate” hears Capt. Crunch he usually thinks, “yes that’s what I’m tasting”. It was there all along and could taste it but couldn’t describe it.


Tasting pipe tobacco is teasing out those tastes and putting them into words. It is being able to discern how the different tobaccos are acting together along with anything else the blender added. A good blend is an enjoyment to the senses and a credit to the people who made it. From the farmers who grew the tobacco, to the people responsible for curing the leaves, to the blender who brought it all together, plus all the people in the process in between. It all culminates into the bowl you’re smoking and what it tastes and smells like.

Comparison to wine tasting

The best analogy to use that most people will be familiar with is wine tasting. People who have never had really good wine will often downplay tasting wine. They will say that it’s all the same, when anyone who knows what they speak of knows that there is a huge difference between not only fine wines and cheap wines, but between different wines themselves.

Wine is basically grape juice and although it doesn’t taste like grape juice, the underlying taste of grapes is always there.

No matter the pipe tobacco blend the underlying taste of tobacco is always there.

Different varieties of grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sangiovese to name a few, will produce much different wine. Tobacco varieties are the same. Virginias (Brights) and Burley tobaccos are related but quite different. Getting to know the basic characteristics of the different types of tobacco is the first step in being able to get the most out of tasting tobacco blends.

One More Thing

One more time with the wine comparison. When tasting wines, the taster can pick out different aromas in the nose of the wine and it gives them an idea of what the wine will taste like. When tasting wine, the best way to detect the flavors is to sip it. The taster is looking for descriptors to be able to describe what they are tasting. Wine tasters use common descriptions like Leather, berries, herbs even tobacco to get their point across.

You should also sip a pipe. That is an important point. A pipe should be sipped, just like sipping wine. Do not smoke your pipe fast. The only way to be able to enjoy the flavors is to smoke it slow so it stays as cool as possible.


Different Tobaccos and Their Tastes


 Burley 

Burley tobacco is a very common variety. It is used in many blends because of its subtle flavor. I has a low sugar content and tastes earthy or nutty. Blends with Burley can give you a little of a nicotine sensation. Many aromatics use Burley but the blends are so heavily cased and topped you may not get the full effect of the tobacco.

Cavendish

Cavendish tobacco is not a variety of tobacco but a process in which it’s cured. The tobacco leaves are pressed into blocks and are heated with either fire or steam and then left to ferment. It really brings out the natural sugars in the leaf . Often times flavors are added prior to the process and it produces a wonderful tobacco infused with flavors like cherry, chocolate, rum and vanilla. These are a favorite with many blenders.

Dark Fired Kentucky

Dark Fired Kentucky is a bold tobacco that is full bodied. It is cured in barns over a fire and it produces a very ’smokey’ taste but not as pronounced as Latakia. Blends using Dark Fired Kentucky have a little bit of a beef jerky taste to them.

Latakia

Latakia is an important ingredient in many blends such as English. It is also cured over a wood fire and has a very strong peppery taste. Latakia is often blended with other tobaccos to ad a zing to them. It has a aroma to it that reminds you of a campfire. Very distinct and very strong tobacco.

Oriental

Oriental tobaccos are those that have originated from the East. Turkey and the Eastern Mediterranean. They are very spicy although not peppery like Latakia.

Perique

Perique is probably the most unique of all tobaccos. It is produced in a very small area in St. James Parish, Louisiana. The tobacco leaves are pressed into wooden barrels and allowed to ferment and cure. It is a very strong tobacco which is very spicy. It can not be smoked by itself but rather added to other tobaccos to add spice to a blend.

Virginia

Virginia Tobacco, referred to as Bright tobacco by tobacco farmers. It is a light tobacco that has a high sugar content. As it ages the sugars come out and the tobacco sweetens, and you can detect a slight citrus or fruity taste to them. They are often described as having a bready or hay-like taste to them.

Different factors can effect the sugar content and the color of the leaf. As they are cured longer the color darkens and become less sweet. When you hear Golden Virginia, Red Virgina or Lemon Virginia they have come from the same plant but just undergone a slightly different curing process or length of the process.

Different Tobacco Blends

English Blends are made from blending Virginia tobaccos with Latakia and Orientals. No toppings are used in English blends. The ratio of different tobaccos is left to the blender but the Latakia and Orientals play a supporting role compared to the Virginia.

Scottish Blends are like English Blends but have very little Latakia in them, and may not have any Oriental tobacco at all.

Balkan Blends are the opposite of the English Blends. They contain the same tobaccos but are Oriental and Latakia forward and use a much smaller amount of Virginias.

 Va/Per or Virginia/Perique is a Virginia based blend with a complement of Perique added to spice it up. Va/Bur is similar but Burley is used in place of the Perique.

What Are People Tasting?


There are underlying tastes in that smoke that you should be able to pick out. Raisins, fresh baked bread, citrus are all common tastes found in non-aromatic tobaccos. One, now closed, tobacco manufacturer is known for their blends having a ketchup taste.


You don’t have to have a “refined palate” to be able to taste the various elements in a blend. Some flavors are more subtle than others. The real ability is to be able to single out the individual tastes and be able to describe them.

How to find what you might like

One of the best ways to find information about a particular tobacco blend is to read reviews or watch reviews on YouTube.

The descriptions that reviewers provide is usually much more accurate than the tin description.

You can refer to an article we wrote How To Get the Most Out of Tobacco Reviews. That article can be found here.

We spoke to Eddie Gray, owner of The Pipe Nook and asked him what he recommend for a new pipe smoker to start with to begin exploring the different flavors of pipe tobacco. Here is what Mr. Gray had to say.

I’m often asked for tobacco recommendations, so here is a quick list of various tobaccos, many of which I carry, broken into basic blend categories. I would recommend you try at least one of as many of these categories as you can, to get a better idea of your own taste preferences I’m sometimes asked for only one pipe tobacco recommendation, but that’s impossible. It’s similar to someone saying, “I’ve never really listened to music before, but I’d like to get into it–what kind of music should I like?” My tastes in music, and my tastes in pipe tobacco, may be wildly different from yours. Part of the fun with both is learning what you personally like and dislike.

Eddie Gray’s List of Recommendations

Light Aromatics – Cornell & Diehl Stovepipe or String Duster

Medium Aromatics – Cornell & Diehl Autumn Evening, GL Pease Virginia Cream

Heavy Aromatics – I don’t generally recommend, as they tend to smoke wet and are kind of a goopy mess.

Light to Medium Virginias – Mac Baren HH Pure Virginia

Medium Virginias – Cornell & Diehl Yorktown

Light Burleys – Carter Hall, Sir Walter Raleigh

Medium Burleys – Cornell & Diehl Three Friars

Heavy Burleys – Cornell & Diehl Big ‘n’ Burley or Haunted Bookshop

Light Latakia – Cornell & Diehl Americana or Privateer

Medium Latakia – Cornell & Diehl Sea Dog, GL Pease Maltese Falcon, Mac Baren Latakia Flake

Heavy Latakia – Cornell & Diehl Pirate Kake, GL Pease Quiet Nights

Light to Medium Perique – Cornell & Diehl Blue Ridge, Bluegrass, or Speakeasy

Heavy Perique – Cornell & Diehl Chenet’s Cake

Dark-Fired Kentucky Blends – GL Pease Navigator, Mac Baren HH Old Dark Fired

Cigar Leaf Blends – Cornell & Diehl Gray Ghost, GL Pease Key Largo

Oriental Blends – Savinelli Brunello Flake

What is a Good Approach for a Newcomer?


Art from Pipes & Spirits made a video to encourage new pipe smokers. In that video he talked about what people expect and sometimes it doesn’t live up to what they imagine. The video is only four minutes, take the time to watch.

“It will take time for a new pipe smoker to enjoy a pipe. it’s an acquired taste and you need to understand the entire experience of it before you will get the most out of pipe smoking”

Art

One thing we would like to add to his comments is that in that time you will not become addicted. Pipe tobacco does contain nicotine but not in any significant amount and you don’t inhale it into the lungs. The warning label says nicotine is an addictive chemical, but I have never once in my life met anyone who was addicted to pipe tobacco. I’ve never heard of anyone who craved it or couldn’t quit anytime they wanted. It’s not uncommon for people to put their pipes down and not touch it for weeks at a time. This article is written for adults and they can make up their own minds. We are just trying to give you information so you can decide for yourself.

About the Author

The Pipe Nook helped in the writing of this article. They are Your Virtual Brick & Mortar Store. The Pipe Nook carries a wide range of pipe tobacco, including Cornell & Diehl, Mac Baren, G.L. Pease, Savinelli and more.

Anyone looking for pipe tobacco for the first time, read the tin descriptions carefully and get an assortment of blends to try. If you’re not sure where to start, contact the Pipe Nook and ask for help, they will be more than happy to point you in the right direction and help find the blends you might enjoy. For the more experienced pipe smoker you know what you’re looking for, just jump right in.


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