“Burley doesn’t age” is a common wisdom that any pipe enthusiast who’s begun building their cellar has certainly come across. The truth is that all tobacco will age, though differently, with the greatest flavor changes dependant mainly on the sugar content of the constituent tobacco. The noble Virginia leaf, being a sugar factory, of course ages wonderfully, and often takes all the surrounding leaf along with it for that wonderful ride. All-burley or burley-forward blends, I feel, unfairly get a bad rap for not taking on the epic qualities we often hear of in Virginia-based blends. As proof of a burley-forward blend that has the ability to age gracefully, emphatically and deliciously, I submit for your approval Mac Baren’s Burley London Blend. It is primarily a white burley that has been aged in wooden casks, along with a sprinkling of Virginia. This is a blend that, for all its inherent simplicity, is certainly memorable as a solid, tasty smoke. The review is based on a comparison of a 1980s vintage tin with a current production tin from December 2012.
Tin: Breaking the seal of the new tin releases a smooth, sweet chocolaty top note, as promised from the description. It is a subtle and earthy tobacco aroma with a faint sweetness that bespeaks its refined nature. Popping the lid of the almost thirty-year-old tin reveals a surprising depth, with top notes of honey, white wine, orange peel, pastry, and (dare I say it?) a chocolate croissant from a particular local bakery. With a few minutes’ time to air out, the blend develops much like a good wine; the confused tangle of top notes calms to a deep, rich tobacco aroma, redolent with hints of tawny Port wine and the unmistakable dry, bittersweet scent of baker’s chocolate. Visually it’s rather unassuming; with its broken flake presentation of a decidedly chocolaty brown, very evenly colored and lightly tumbled, easy to pull apart and portion into your pipe as-is. As evidenced in the photos, the aged tin has developed a much darker luster that perfectly describes the deepening of the flavors in the blend—think raw cocoa bean. A few pre-light pulls on the pipe affirm the pleasant suggestion of chocolate, though in an entirely non-aromatic way.
Char: On the light it’s a deceptively standard burley fare, with slightly acrid dryness and the very definition of ‘tobacco’ flavor. The Virginia perhaps comes forward a bit more in the aged blend, with a slight grassy sharpness and fruit note lent to the char. After the first few pulls, though, it is apparent that this bowl offers a lot of subtle, gentle flavor if one is willing to slow down and savor it.
Top: Through the top of the bowl, there is an ever-so-slight edge of sweetness that tempers the burley perfectly, and gently highlights its natural taste. Familiar Virginia notes of citrus and wheat waft through the deeper, bready baseline of the burley, and set the stage for the heart of the smoke to shine. It should be noted that this tobacco is remarkably easy to light and keep burning, bowl after bowl, no matter the pipe or chamber—so easy, in fact, that several times I’ve smoked through to the heel on a single light, with minimal tamping.
Mid: As the ember settles, the body of the smoke develops into a rich, hearty baritone of earthy flavors—olive, date, damp soil, even some truffle oil are readily apparent. The Virginia has had its moment on the top of the bowl, and now the burley takes over like a steady, insistent wave. With some tart sharpness on the retrohale, a full mouth feel and creamy body, it sings with a unified voice and comes into its own with aplomb. Sweet on the bottom with savory overtones, it also responds remarkably well to the Delayed Gratification Technique. It’s a style of preparation that is admittedly not my preferred method, and more often employed on Latakia blends, yet with Burley London Blend it elucidates a striking intensity and piquancy, becoming a very meaty, contemplative smoke when returned to after several hours’ rest.
Finish: Too often the bowl finishes before I’m ready to stop smoking this tobacco; fortunately, it responds well to repeated refills after a short wait for the pipe to cool. The flavors hold steady through mid-bowl to finish, leaving a pleasant cola aftertaste on the palate, and it consistently burns down to a dry, clean ash. When slightly moist, or with a well-prepared DGT, it continually deepens with salty-sweet notes of pecan pie or molasses, wisps of well-oiled saddle leather, even sometimes a fragrant gamey note like venison or a Churrasco-style steak. For such a seemingly simple blend, it certainly delivers on subtle flavor.
Room Note: Mild with hints of pastry and chocolate, Burley London Blend shouldn’t overly offend non-smokers, and may have some fellow pipe enthusiasts asking for a bowl.
Overall: For some reason, perhaps owing to its rather aristocratic name, Burley London Blend always calls to mind Beethoven’s string quartets, notably Nos. 6 and 16, particularly in the cello voicings. On the surface a rather plain and straightforward blend, it develops nuance and character if you attune yourself to its soft delivery. Mild to medium in nicotine, and very well balanced, it also makes an excellent blending base for home experimentation. In the interest of full disclosure, this blend is a regular addition to my own cellar, ever since I was offered a sample from a fellow PipesMagazine.com forum member (thanks, Tommy!). Rising head and shoulders above the more common OTC burley blends, this is a truly refined pleasure.
15 points are available for presentation, and Burley London Blend takes 13. The tin art is simple, and the newer design is actually rather more appealing and "classic" than the older one. The broken flake is the perfect cut for this tobacco, marrying the leaf well and evincing the refined mélange of flavor, and it needs no further preparation to enjoy. The fact that it’s available in bulk, at a price point that beats some OTCs, only makes it better.
I’ll award a startling 34.5 of 35 points for the draw and burn, if only because I am hesitant to give it a perfect score. Perhaps the one thing this blend could do to improve its burning characteristics would be to pack and light itself—it’s really that easy, and my technique is far from flawless. I find it superb for breaking in a pipe as well, as shown with the vintage Dunhill in the accompanying photos.
From a possible 50 points for flavor and aroma, I’ll score this at a solid 43. Although I’m quite fond of it in the current production, realizing how well it ages and develops makes it all the more enticing, and worthy of a few bonus points. Soft enough for all day, and with enough character for contemplative moments, this is my benchmark burley.
Cellar or Smoke?
I think this one has been resoundingly answered in the review; the opportunity to experience what several decades’ development has done to the tobacco really opened my eyes to the longevity of a quality burley. London Blend certainly proves that it’s got legs, and long, sexy ones at that. Very notable is the extreme consistency of the blend, too—it is apparent that painstaking care is taken to produce the blend true to profile, and the quality of the leaf is evident in its ability to go the distance. I would not be surprised to find this tobacco still great at fifty and beyond, which the first production tins from 1965 are approaching.
Brand: Mac Baren
Blend: Burley London Blend
Blender: Mac Baren
Cut: Broken Flake
Tobaccos: Burley, Virginia
Room Note: Mild
Tin Size: 100g
Tin Ages: 1980s / 2012
Tin Description: This beautiful tobacco was developed in 1965 and consists mainly of carefully selected Burley tobaccos. Just a little Virginia tobacco has been added to give the blend a natural sweetness. You will notice the slight natural chocolate note, which is found in all good Burley tobacco. The very special top flavour in combination with the tobaccos gives you a very distinct smoking pleasure. ( – from the current production tin)