Mac Baren Virginia No. 1

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Kyle Weiss
Mac Baren: simply mentioning the name sends guys into hyperbolic fits. Lengthy tales of warning then get uttered, especially to newcomers, like talking about a dangerous, abandoned house with a vengeful spirit inside. Other guys sheepishly shrug and say they like the stuff. Mac Baren has a lot of aromatics in their lineup, and not surprisingly considering how the Danes feel about their sweet tobaccos. Needless to say, when I first started my relationship with the briar, well-meaning fellas were giving me all sorts of tins to try. It was a test of grace, as I found myself less and less enamored with aromatics (and aromatic-loving guys think everyone smokes aromatics) I realized at times I was the recipient of the “I hate this stuff, you smoke it,” re-gifting kindness that’s bound to happen. I’ve mostly learned enough manners to say “Thank you,” or “No thank you.”

Virginia No. 1 is a Mac Baren product that came to me this very way. Before I even worked at the Tinder Box in Reno, I spent plenty of time there. The tobacco selection was passable, and they were the only game in town. A patron tossed me a half-opened tin of VA#1 and, without pause, gave me the tale most who have been offended by it at some point or another gives, “It’s disgusting!” “It’s shit!” “It’s typical Mac Bite!”

(“…here, Kyle, you have it….”)

The tin reads (or at one point read)

“In 1955 Virginia No. 1 was introduced to the world’s pipe smokers, and today Virginia No. 1 is one of the Mac Baren Classics. The natural sweetness from the carefully selected Virginia tobaccos, are to be enjoyed every time you light up this magnificent blend. In addition to a slow, cool smoke this ready rubbed blend gives you the slightly sweet smoke. Try the Virginia No. 1 and find out for yourself why Virginia No. 1 is reckoned as a Mac Baren Classic Blend.”

Opening a tin, you’re greeted with, as the motto says, “Golden Sweet Pipe Tobacco.” It’s rather apt, as little stacks of lightly-colored oaken ribbons lay compressed next to one another. The smell in the tin is fig-like, with a hint of orange–a wonderfully natural smell at that. Tin moisture levels are nominal, I haven’t had any burn or packing issues, you shouldn’t have many, either. It’s easy to break apart and stuff into a bowl.

The first light of VA#1 consistently had a gentle delivery of honey-toast to my senses. Especially at the time I first tried this tobacco, I was getting away from aromatics as quickly as I could, and this one made me think trickery was afoot. I didn’t want to enjoy it, but hardly a prideful liar, I didn’t mind what it was giving me. The first quarter of the bowl stays in this realm. The Virginia leafs produce plenty of smoke, and even a truffled-fruit quality at the very nasal top of the palate. It’s very important to say if you’re a fast or a hot smoker, don’t do this here. Heat builds up in this leaf rather quickly.

Halfway through, I’ve learned if I’m going to have a problem with any Mac Baren product, this is where it happens. If problems do indeed arise, it’s likely because the tobacco was more “cooked” than smoked in the first half. This leads to a breakdown in some combustion-chemical process in the leaf that I’m not going to profess to understand, but the flavor can get tarry and ashy fairly quickly. This is also where I’ve noticed a bit more tongue-tingle leaning to discomfort than I’d like. Smoked slow, even rested, and ye shall be rewarded–sometimes. A more savory aspect, chicken-like and raisin bread can develop if treated nicely, and careful tamping has been employed here at the halfway point. That is, if everything has gone to plan. If it does, you’re in the clear for the final stage of smoking.

I will never stop crowing about my love for the end and finale of a bowl of pipe tobacco that I’m smoking. I believe that is where the true soul of the leaf resides, after it has been pushed and punished, heated and tamped, and if it can show any resilience and character despite all adversity, this is where it will happen. Mac Baren’s Virginia No. 1 still impresses me here. It is consistent, and there was no roaring comeback. Simple and stoic, it smokes a treat, in fact even with a bit more moisture and heat tolerance, than in the beginning.

Overall it’s a tobacco that probably won’t earn a true following these days, and there’s good reason. It’s largely basic, but that could be part of its charm. No matter what I write here, the pipesters that can’t stand Mac Baren will never give it a chance, nor is that my point. Perhaps I’m a riskier or dangerous sort, more open-minded, or less concerned about how I’m viewed in a public and social standpoint. Most likely it’s because I smoke what I like, and leave alone what I don’t, which is subject to change. Whatever the case, heed my following words, because these will help you navigate this part of the world of Mac Baren. Use larger-chambered pipes with broken-in briar–don’t ask me why, but cobs and other materials held in too much heat and made things dangerous. Chemistry, chemistry, chemistry–pair beverages carefully. Tongue “bite” and tongue “burn” are two different phenomena for a pipe smoker. One is chemistry, the other, temperature from hot smoke. Your natural body chemistry may vary and is likely the culprit behind bad experiences, if any, with smoking certain tobaccos. Adding refreshments to an already tense situation might be your temporary undoing.

Is Mac Baren Virginia No. 1 worth walking on eggshells, balancing spinning plates and juggling hatchets to enjoy? Possibly. I have spoken to a few rare individuals that say they have zero problems with Mac Baren’s non-aromatic products. All day smokers of the stuff they are, and they don’t much care who knows it. As for me, I found it fun I was able to operate VA#1 like a quirky old vehicle. It has its flaws, characters and nuances. Yes, it may break down on you and offer up little solutions but to walk away and try another day–but I enjoy a challenge. There’s days I can’t get this tobacco and the handful of others in the Mac Baren line to work for me. Other times I load up and smoke them and they’re a joy. This in itself is a healthy satisfaction.

“Can it be done; should it be done?” I ask myself this in many areas of my existence, and this happens to include pipe smoking. Travel and enjoy at your own risk.

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18 Responses

  • It’s one of the more bizarre relationships I have with tobacco.
    Wait until I do a write-up of “Plumcake.” 😀

  • Every MB blend I’ve tried, 3 or 4, has been bites; on the other hand my technique is piss poor. In sum, I don’t even try to smoke any of their blends, though I find the tin art and prices attractive.

  • I wish they didn’t come in such large tins…it probably is why they get passed on to other guys so much if they’re not a hit. The tinned stuff is a little easier to dive into versus the bulk. Something about that initial pressing and packing that makes a big difference even after just a little shipping time. After a year, even better. Five years, it’s quite tamed by comparison.

  • Mac B is expert grade tobacco, and expert quality as well. Learn to smoke this, and other blends and blenders will suddenly also blossom into flavor. It is a life-changing experience for the pipe smoker if he/she can master these.

  • I’ve had all the HH line, and like all of them. The only other MB I’ve had is The Solent Mixture, which I like. I’ve bought a few of the MB flakes, but have not smoked them yet. I’ll have to try VA#1.

  • Great review. Kyle,Thanks for the info think I will stop by the tinderbox and buy a tin. On another note. It looks like the pictures of your pipe is posted with a tomato seedling? . They are very susceptible tobacco mosaic is a little more information about it. thanks Randy

  • Thanks for putting a tin of MB on the front page. Happy to say I’ve got a tin of Virginia No. 1 in the cellar and this article will help me enjoy it even more, as soon as I’m ready to delve into straight Virginias.

  • Thanks for a nice write-up, Kyle. My experience with Mac Baren Virginia #1 is entirely with the bulk form. For someone who has been smoking a pipe since the late 1960’s, I’m a relative late-comer to the Mac Baren line. Because of Mac Baren’s reputation for tongue bite, I denied myself half a lifetime of Elysian pleasure on the basis of hearsay! The lesson learned: never trust authority or consensus in matters of taste; sample it for yourself.

  • Sas: I will accept my “mastery” as I would drunkenly operating a moody old tractor and not killing anyone–as long as I’m having a good time. I’ll leave the Formula 1 cars to the true masters. 🙂
    Randy: Too late now. I use tobacco tea and tobacco compost frequently as bug abatement. The poor little tomato plants were mystery seeds we sprouted anyway, we’re not farmers. This is the desert, what doesn’t kill them may make them stronger. C’est la vie.
    Cortez: Yessir, empirical evidence in the hands of the ridiculous might suggest the earth is flat, but it is a deciding factor for intelligent personal enjoyment…haha.
    Everyone Else: Happy smoking.

  • Criminy, I almost forgot to mention:
    To those who are readers local or close to Reno, it is sadly the end of an era.
    Over four decades ago, the Tinder Box in Reno was an institution that established the standard of pipes and tobacco for the area. It has come to my attention it will be closing its doors permanently in April 2018. Rising rents, increased product cost, and an influx of Californians have taken its toll on the bottom line of the store. I haven’t worked there in nearly eight months, but I am not surprised by this. Unless someone buys out the stock and the fixtures, perhaps takes over the lease, it will leave Reno with no true place for pipe smokers. Being the wealthy investor I am not, there is little I personally can do to keep it going.
    It’s a sad day when another B&M store closes. Enjoy them while you are able.

  • Also to mention, the Tinder Box in Reno is closing its doors at the end of this April. Over four decades of serving the area and Reno’s only pipe store, it’s the sad end of a troubled era.

  • It’s going to be a changed landscape when the effects of deeming roll out in 2021. One thing will affect the other, and those two will affect a third, and so on.

  • Well written article. I’ve never had issues with MacBaren’s blends. I don’t smoke their aromatics so I can’t say nothing about that department. Once been bitten by MacBaren’s blend but it was my own fault. Smoked too fast in a pipe which was not cleaned properly. HH series is nice bold Kentucky is favorite and from classics Plumcake and Golden Blend are top notch. Virginia No.! is used to smoke it more when I was younger

  • I always liked VA Number 1. It could bite if you weren’t careful, but was very good if you took it slow and easy. Smoked particularly well in a Meer.

  • I’m a fan of Plumcake, Navy Flake, Mixture: Scottish Blend, and Golden Extra, though this last one is bit mild for me. It’s a great company that aromatics a good name. Thanks!

  • Nice review. Thanks. Funny things going on here, at least for me. I started smoking MacBaren tobaccos way back when i was involuntary working for the US Army. The first tin I bought was Virginia #1 at an Army PX..For a few years I rambled around the entire MB lineup, finally settling on #1 as my go to tobacco about 1975. Probably 90% of the tobacco I purchased for the next thirty years was this stuff. Hmm…sure, it bit me at times, but I don’t recall ever having had any serious problems with it, or for that matter, any other MB tobaccos. I haven’t tried them all, but have smoked most of them at one time or another. My tastes have changed, but my current favorite is the Vintage Syrian by MB. I also like the larger tins. Perhaps I am just a naturally slow smoker, as I have never thought much about my technique. i also tend toward larger bowls and haven’t owned a cob in forty years. Maybe now is the time for me amble on down to the local brick and mortar shop and grab a tin. Thanks again.