Let’s take a break from the world’s nonsense for a moment, because something more important is happening. Allow me to elaborate:
When I first heard about Mac Baren’s HH Bold Kentucky being released, I was working as a tobacconist at the local Tinder Box. I picked up the phone and dialed my rep and I had five tins dashed my shop’s direction. This was because when I first heard about another HH release, Old Dark Fired a year prior, I was not yet working as a tobacconist and it was a hard product to acquire at first. My personal history with Mac Baren is much more love story than it is with most people: the first time I dove into Plumcake, and then Virginia No. 1, it was heaven to me. It wasn’t until I began enjoying it and peddling it to customers to try I would get the old timers calling it “Mac Bite” and wincing disapprovingly. Clearly, it wasn’t for everyone. For me, they had a handful of favorites, and that seems to be growing, by my reckon. Perhaps the company had a different way of doing things way-back-when, but whatever incarnation of tobacco they had going on when I discovered them made me truly appreciate their style and approach even more today. With the famous (and serious) HH lines for which they are now widely known, I’m always one to seek out the latest releases.
Henrik Halberg is the current head of the Mac Baren tobacco dynasty. With every other tobacco producer seemingly been acquired or acquiring other companies, different flags are flying over our favorite brands all the time, but Mac Baren is one of the juggernauts in the tobacco world—number two, to be precise. They are in more danger of ever-expanding tobacco regulations than they are of falling under a different banner. As it stands, they are owned completely by the Halberg family. Harold Halberg, the original founder of Mac Baren, gets an honorable shout-out with the “HH” that graces every tin of this series of pipe tobaccos—just in case you were wondering.
Mac Baren has a newcomer to the HH line: “Rustica.” The moment I read about what they were doing with Rustica I had to get my grubby hands on some. I’m not a tobacco historian by any means, but I rather like tobacco history. Tobacco as we smoke it in modern times is not really the “original.” Like everything grown and consumed by humans over the years, tobacco has been selectively-bred, cross-pollinated, manipulated and adapted for our needs, tastes and trade, as well as for necessary growing qualities. Tobacco, more specifically nicotiana tobacum, is what we usually smoke. There are other varieties that helped us get this cultivated joy (or reviled scourge to an uncultured swine) to what we know today. N. rustica is one of the tobacco varietals that was discovered along with its cousins in the Americas during European exploration some centuries back. It was also possibly genetically involved in upping not only the nicotine content but toughness qualities in cultivation in what we smoke today. Also known in Nahuatl as piciyetl and Mayan as ucuch “Aztec tobacco” is still smoked by the rest of the world as you read this, though it likely grew native more southerly of historical Aztec territories. “Makhorka” (махорка) in Russia, campeche (Mexico), thuoc lao(Vietnam), and mapacho (S. America), n. rustica gained quite the international following. It is reported to have as much as 10 times the nicotine content of what we are used to in modern tobacco – quite the warrior’s smoke. “Rustica” by name, the Mac Baren product anyway, is probably not made with genetically-original n. rustica leaf. Instead, HH Rustica is a mixture of our familiar n. tobacum (Virginia) what we now have available as n. rustica. While I like the outlandish idea of Aztec gatherers still plucking the leaf from native, wild patches for me to smoke, I’ll have to make do with the promised punch to the senses when it comes to nicotine and flavor. Here we go!
Upon opening the black labeled and brass tin, Mac Baren shows off its HH line with a pristine gold paper cradle, and three neat rows of perfectly stacked, cut flakes, each being about the size of a stick of chewing gum. The smell is absolutely wonderful: meaty, bacon-like, and buttery. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited. This is the kind of tobacco that gets me excited. I left the lid off the tin overnight, because those hot-pressed flakes are heavy and laden with moisture. This did nothing. Eventually I resorted to roughing-up a few flakes to let them air-dry for a half hour or so before loading into my pipe. Mac Baren flakes can be tough to get lit, and these are no exception. The hot-pressing breaks down a little of the leaf structure so attempting to rough them up to ribbons can actually lead to small balls of sticky, broken tobacco, which don’t fare well to the experience. Leaving them in slightly thicker-than-ribbon strands is the best way to go, I would suggest.
The first puffs, once lit, are like a macuahuitl to the senses. Well, in a good way. There’s a definite and delicate delivery of the Virginia, but there’s a lovely, unyielding spice and punky-wood flavor supported by a grapefruit bittersweet aftertaste. Even out of the gate, the other leaf will not be ignored. The meatiness smell from the tin is not lost, it simply gets transferred to the smoke. I can immediately feel the nicotine rush to my heart, which is either beating in joy or simply being affected by the strength of this mixture. This is the adventure I signed up for, after all.
About mid-bowl, I kept taking note in how many relights were necessary to keep Rustica going. Tamping is almost laughable because of how naturally dense the flakes are by themselves, and a few times I realized I probably could have packed my bowls a little looser. This tobacco really does it for me, and it’s difficult not to overindulge on the flavor components, yet it does take a bit of a skilled hand to manage it at times. At this stage, Rustica is like smoking a beef roast and having a dark Irish beer at the same time. The meatiness will not quit. The tip of my tongue tingled in the best way possible, and the aftertaste is much like angostura bitters (which I adore). The realization is the smoke is not symphonic in complexity, but it is not simple. Retro-haling is an adventure in its own right, and a note of freshly-ground black pepper will delight your nose, or make your eyes water. In either case, it’s a bonus I cannot help but replicate. This is not the most nicotine-rich tobacco I’ve ever smoked, but it’s up there. Quite a few times I found myself getting so heavy in the chair I didn’t want to refresh my cocktail or do much more than stare at the hillside as relaxing tunes bumbled round my ear canals. Ferocious, no; ever present, yes.
In the bowl’s final stages, the tobacco achieves its best burning qualities. I could smolder away and get lost in wherever the heck I was and not think about my puffing. For as much that is going on with this tobacco, it doesn’t lose the Virginia quality that lends both familiarity and a bit of sweetness to the event. The smoke’s balance of bold and gentle is fantastic, and it is remarkably clean in flavor I might add. The meatiness is the dominant aspect for sure, and while it has great body and volume of smoke, it doesn’t coat the mouth in an unpleasant way. The end of a bowl is actually the sweetest part, and though it could be a little ghosting from other blends, the consistency suggests it might not be. Briar that is well-kept and has a good cure will only add to the experience, as Rustica seems to become one with the pipe. There is no heavy “grand finale” with this tobacco, and that’s okay—the show starts strong and ends strong. Delicious.
My final verdict on Mac Baren’s newest HH release are probably not going to be a surprise, but fair is as fair does. My criticisms are how damned dense it is, and this quality isn’t unlike its flake siblings in the lineup. I don’t like the sensitivity one must have while loading a bowl each time, making sure it is just dry enough and the air flow is just right. It can be a bitch to light and keep lit. For me in the end however this is a winner. This is what I needed to fix an ailing and crazy world at the moment. It might take the top spot over the other HH favorites of mine. If I were to use a metaphor as example, I’d say Rustica is like barbecue, real barbecue. It takes effort, time and patience. If you do it right, it will delight. Even if it’s not quite right, it’s still going to be really good. Unless you do something absolutely downright wrong, or simply don’t like barbecue, you’re going to be in for a treat. The room note is pungent but not entirely disagreeable. Pairings for this tobacco in which I had good luck are whiskey, IPA beers, and black coffee. Gin, a favorite of mine, had a weird interaction of the botanical essences, which was a shame. Unless it’s a particularly dark-leafed tea I’d stay away from those as well. As mentioned, these flakes pack a nicotine punch. Do not operate machinery, smoke on an empty stomach or in direct sun. If anything I’ve mentioned thus far has had you saying, “…yes, yes and YES!” you’d be advised to pick up a tin or several—they are in numbered quantities, 7100 tins to be exact.
- Editor Rating
- Rated 5 stars
- Mac Baren HH Rustica Review
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Full flavored and full strength tobacco - Mac Baren HH Rustica.