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.