Exploring the Mac Baren line of offerings has been a recent preoccupation, and I was excited to embark on a journey into the past with Roll Cake. My editor Avi and I had scored some vintage tins and spent an early evening sampling them at Merchants, one of the few remaining smoke-friendly watering holes in NYC. The three selections on our menu were Mac Baren’s Royal Twist, circa the late 1970s or early 1980s; the newly renamed Roll Cake from the early 1990s; and a current production tin of Roll Cake from 2011.
One never knows what the effects a few decades will have on a blend, or a brand; it’s one of the mysteries that make unsealing a vintage tin so appealing. It’s also a good bit of tobacco archaeology to see how blends have changed, both in constituent ingredients and through the lens of time. The Balkan Sobranie, for example, had famously transformed over its history, as well as the perhaps infamous transitions that Dunhill went through as it changed manufacturers.
Over the course of our tasting that evening, we found that the Roll Cake marque has certainly spanned the gamut in its run, with the earliest example listing Latakia along with the Virginia and Perique, the 90s version being a more even-keeled Va/Per, and the current production a softer Virginia with Cavendish. It was an interesting exercise to sample these disparate decades of cousin blends, and to find a common thread in the thematic of overall flavor. While the blend may have changed, the brand has maintained that special Mac Baren flavor profile; one of quality tobaccos and a pure taste, with a certain character to the smoke that is definitive of the company’s offerings.
Mac Baren’s Roll Cake is one of their premier lines, with five other blends presented in twist, or coin, format. According to Per Jensen, the format is by far the most expensive to produce, both in terms of labor and specialized equipment—as evidenced by the few remaining options on the market today for a coin-style flake. The review is focused on the current production Roll Cake, over the course of several tins.
Tin: A delicate sweetness, familiar of Virginia with its wheatish overtones, opens up along with the tin, and calls to mind the smell of healthy breakfast cereals. The shape and curl of the coins is a trademark of the equipment Mac Baren uses, with the roughly ¾ inch discs showing their golden brown outer layers of Virginia and Burley, while the darker Cavendish and Dark-fired make a bullseye of the center, interspersed with cross-sections of veins from the whole leaf tobacco used. Our waitress at Merchants, Brenda, comments that it has a mellower aroma than the previous incarnations of the blend, “Like when rain hits the pavement.” We find her assessment of the light, earthy scent with a hint of sweetness rather metaphorically spot-on, and charmingly poetic.
Char: On the match there is a decided sharpness from the Virginias and the topping of maple sugar in the Cavendish. While Mac Baren has somewhat of a reputation for tongue bite, slow and conscientious smoking and keeping the palate hydrated is all that is needed to obviate that tendency. There is also some efficacy to leaving the tin to air out for a few days after opening, allowing some of the volatiles to dissipate.
Top: After a tamp and relight, with the initial pungency calmed, floral and woody notes dominate. The Virginia and burley maintain the bright and slightly tart character of the top of the bowl, mildly dry and of a clear tobacco taste. Soon the richer, rounder notes of the Cavendish come into play, forming the backbone of the smoke with a cola-like body and mouth feel. The crisp edge to the tobacco is a perfect foil for a Bierzo wine, as the palate is balanced by the acidity and alcohol in the wine, while the smoke is clear enough to cut through the thicker fruity tones.
Mid: The Cavendish is the star of the smoke here, as the rich sweetness exhibits notes of cedar and maple with the edges of the brighter leaf offering definition to the flavor. The Dark-fired Kentucky component complements the Cavendish and lends it strength and body, and the effect on the smoke is a smooth segue from the brighter Virginia-dominant notes of the top bowl to the thicker, richer bass notes as it progresses. The sweetness of the darker tobaccos stands in pleasant relief to the lighter leaf, and offers some spicy character in the vein of floral notes, cedar, clove and pepper.
Finish: As the bowl winds down, some of the more sour fruity notes arise from the Cavendish and burley synergy. Overall the smoke stays on the lighter side of earthy tobacco flavor, sometimes creamy and more often treading the realm of a Va/Per blend. Through repeated bowls the balance is maintained adroitly, and the impression of a barbecue-like smokiness closes out the experience, with the tobacco burning down to a few crisp flakes at the end. The nicotine content is likewise on the milder side.
Room Note: Mildly sharp at the beginning and filling out to a pleasant earthy range through the remainder of the bowl, with little lingering. Rather unobtrusive to smokers, it’s a classic pipe tobacco smell that’s not overpowering in the least.
Overall: A solid, middle-of-the-road smoke with a unique presentation and flavor. It makes a great after-dinner smoke, particularly when paired with adult beverages, and has a pleasant, mild room note that underscores the flavor.
For presentation, Roll Cake earns a score of 13 for its unique smallish coins, fresh true-to-the-smoke tin note and clean, attractive graphics in the packaging. On the draw and burn, a few points are subtracted for its sometimes fickle resistance to staying lit. While the coins are easy to rub out and pack, a few moments’ distraction would allow them to extinguish, while smoking too quickly would elicit the sharpness of the blend. It takes an attentive pace to draw the best out of this smoke, of course not an unwelcome task, which I found best served in a smallish, conical chamber. Factoring all this in, I’ll give it a 30 composite score, out of 35.
The proof is in the pudding, so to speak, and the flavor and aroma of Roll Cake is where it sets itself apart. It is decidedly a Mac Baren blend, with a signature flavor profile unmistakable for any other blender. While not full of fireworks or nuance, neither is it a one-note song, nor bland in any way. True, it can rebel if smoked carelessly, but when mindfully enjoyed it delivers solid taste. It is firmly in the middle range of flavor and aroma, with no qualms about its softness. I feel it deserves a 41 out of 50 on the scale, with the proviso that it is best with appropriate beverage pairings to shape the experience.
Cellar or Smoke? While practically any blend benefits from some time in the tin to marry the flavors, the balance of Roll Cake shows it to be a good smoke at a young age. The samples for this review were between one and three years old, and were notably consistent with the slightest mellowing as they progressed in age. While I can’t compare the blend to an extremely aged sample, they should fare well in your cellar over the long haul, though I wouldn’t expect any drastic changes over time. I find that like most Mac Baren tobaccos they are a good purchase when you are looking for their particular taste.
Brand: Mac Baren
Blend: Roll Cake
Blender: Mac Baren
Type: Virginia / Cavendish
Cut: Coins (a.k.a. “twist”, “curly” or “spun” cut)
Tobaccos: Virginia, Cavendish, Burley
Room Note: Mild-medium
Tin Size: 100g
Tin Description: Whole Virginia leaves that are specially selected are used as wrapper for all our spun tobaccos. The main tobaccos in Roll Cake are Virginia and the original Mac Baren Cavendish. Just a touch of Burley make the Roll Cake a unique smoking pleasure. Like all our spun tobaccos only a little top flavour has been added. These tobaccos are the closest you get to the natural tobacco taste.