Ramen is a bowl of happiness for me, perhaps just as much as a bowl of tobacco. This Japanese comfort soup becomes more and more popular in the United States, but it can be hard to find in remote places like my state of Northern Nevada. We are lucky enough to have one place I enjoy, and it’s the real deal. Great noodles, delicate dashi, and a host of other great ingredients like pork cashu and soft-centered eggs. With plenty of sansho for me please: the Japanese peppercorn.
No, you haven’t stumbled across a foodie review in error. This love for ramen starts to stir about the time the days get shorter and the air much cooler, and this coincides with what I reach for in tobacco. I’m a seasonal tobacco guy, and richer, spicier flavors are what I tend to grab. I’m more into October for fire pits, horror movies and skeletons than those pumpkin spice things, anyway. When I first heard about Mac Baren’s Stockton Spun Cut, I put the idea on the back burner because at the time, I had so many Kentucky dark-fired tobaccos to get to know. It took a handful of years, but my first dive into Stockton Spun Cut was apparently a matter of timing. It’s autumn, and it’s my favorite time of year—and the only ghosts I don’t like are in my briars.
The tin of Stockton Spun Cut is a vibrant green with block lettering, in Mac Baren’s signature round tin—and a large one at that. On the reverse label, the introduction is basic but with a little history, mentioning it’s one of the oldest in the Mac Baren line as well as crafted in a more than 400-year-old tradition. Whole leaf Virginia and Kentucky dark-fired comprise the contents. When the tin is opened, there is an unmistakable smell of the dark-fired leaf, which has an almost spiced plum quality to it. Underneath the Elizabethan-pleated collar of paper are charming little coins of the product, some of which are brown Kentucky eyes surrounded by Virginia staring back; others are delicate, contrasting spirals. This is where the ramen connection comes in: kamaboko are cakes or loaves of delicate fish cake made in Japan, often sliced into small coins with a pink or orange spiral in the center. I’m clearly a sucker for crafted, beautiful little presentations such as this.
Each coin of Stockton Spun Cut is easily rubbed into just the right ribbon for packing a bowl to smoke and the moisture content is just right for my tastes (which tend to be like my humor—a tad dry). Lighting is fairly easy, but the tobacco has the tendency to want to jump out of the bowl, so keep a tamper handy. The first puffs explode with the Kentucky dark-fired flavor, however the richness of the smoke suggests the rolling and pressing, even some steaming, has mellowed out the normally spicy and sticky tobacco. Fret not, dear reader, this tobacco still has quite a bit of backbone. The Virginia adds a stiff dryness and a pleasantly fresh-cut alfalfa sweetness. The plum scent when the tin is opened doesn’t transfer much if at all to the first puffs—if this smells too sweet to your nose, not to worry. This isn’t an aromatic.
By the time the midway point of the bowl is reached, Stockton’s dark-fried really takes over the more subtle flavors. It’s more of a pine wood flavor, but it’s backed up with a distinct buttery richness that even leans nutty in some aspects. If I might go back to the ramen comparisons, the pork that is included in the soup is usually quite fatty. In many cases, a gently seared and/or braised pork belly is used, and the fat globules float around in small, round pools. This is where the Japanese peppercorns come in, which have a distinct, direct spice and a wood-like quality. This is the same pleasing quality of Stockton: richness is enhanced by spice, not by thinning it out. It frames the flavor in a way without being apologetic for the bulk it carries on top. As with each spoonful of ramen, each puff of Stockton is both rich yet balanced in spice, and this isn’t an easy thing to do properly in cooking or in tobacco production.
About three-quarters through a bowl of Stockton, I found a little of a problem some people have with Mac Baren: it threatens to be rough on the tongue. I’m a slow smoker, methodical by some standards, and this has been one of the key elements of tobacco that has a bad rap for being a bit of a bully to the taste buds. I usually attribute this to body (and by that, mouth) chemistry, because our bodies are as much chemistry as tobacco is. Bad reactions happen, and yet there are so many variables, often we blame the tobacco and not so much ourselves. Genetics, what we ate for dinner, the beverage we chose to pair with our smoke: there’s a lot going on even if we’re in blissful clouds of blue relaxation. The flavor of this tobacco I adore, but I had to pay attention to how I approached it. I’m of Slavic (Ukrainian) descent, and I prefer a clean rye vodka from the motherland, and this went quite well with Stockton. Rye whiskey after a bunch of shell pasta and tomato sauce? My mouth was not very happy. When all things are balanced with Stockton, the flavors continue to be meaty, somewhat smokey, almost fatty and lively on the tongue. This tobacco has an added bonus of being favorable to the “delayed gratification technique,” because the flavors after letting the pipe sit and relighting are fantastic—there’s even a hint of lemony citrus that floats along courtesy the Virginia.
By the end of the bowl, and mostly through the tin, any minor disagreements Stockton and I might have had were worked out. Another factor is the lower in the bowl the tobacco smolders, the less it likes to keep lit. Which is great, because each light and tamp revives the flavors of the smoke beautifully. Like many good relationships, it’s about being understanding and to a greater or lesser degree, compromise. The point is to bring out the good stuff, not the imperfections. Stockton finishes consistently gentle by the time the bowl is dwindling to its last gifts, and the concentration of tars, flavors of allspice, and that wonderful nuttiness all come together in a well-rounded finale of smoke. In addition, tobacco gets naturally sweeter and punchy as the flavors concentrate in the heel, and this is something I look forward to.
I think I’d happily add Stockton Spun Cut to my cellar. There’s many tobaccos I enjoy, but perhaps that are so niche for my personal tastes that I don’t want to have a dozen tins on hand. Stockton, on the other hand, would be great aged a decade or more. The charming coins that are so easy to work with are a charming plus. Nicotine is fairly solid in small amounts, and it would be advisable to pair beverages with an open mind until you find the right combination. The downside I think it’s fair to mention at this point is newer smokers may get a bit of a road block with the tobacco’s need for such mindful puffing, and veteran smokers may either judge it too quickly because it might not be the first choice for an “all-day raking-the-leaves smoke.” With that in mind, the wild, hearty and rich flavors available in Stockton are well worth the effort.
Happy Halloween; spook what you like and like what you spook.
- Editor Rating
- Rated 5 stars
- Mac Baren Stockton Spun Cut
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Pipe tobacco tasting is quite similar to food tasting as this review aptly demonstrates.