The winter winds are really whipping at the windows here in the northeast, lashing out the last gasps of the season. Not the best weather for outdoor pipes, frankly. Luckily here I am, snuggled tight inside next to a purring cat and a cozy heater, with a mug of warm chai, a book filled with adventures in tropical realms, and a pipe full of the taste of warmer climes. This month the particular blend in question is McCranie’s Roanoke, a delicious two-ounce serving of summertime-in-a-jar.
A tobacco house patterned after the classics, McCranie’s is well known locally to Charlottians, and to pipe tobacco aficionados the world over. From its humble beginning as an Edward’s franchise back in 1979, its current incarnation is led by its third-generation namesake Matthew McCranie, who was interviewed by our very own Brian Levine on the PipesMagazine.com radio show (Interview here.) Ask any veteran piper about McCranie’s Red Ribbon or Red Flake and they’ll likely get a wistful, far-away look in their eye as they recall the singular nature of those monumental marques that will unfortunately never be repeated.
The McCranie’s story is intricately tied to the McClelland story. McCranie’s landmark blends Red Ribbon and Red Flake, which showcased exceptional single-crop, single-year, local Carolina offerings, were processed and tinned by McClelland, and with the passing of that blending house a vacuum was created that was felt far and wide across the tobacco world. Not to be deterred, Matt McCranie dusted off the family blending cap and set about sourcing leaf and creating a whole new legacy for the brand. So it was that while shopping for review blends I navigated to the McCranie’s website and decided to sample some of their new offerings—and am I ever glad that I did. As I get older I find that it sometimes takes a more conscious effort to break out of habit and routine; I’ve hoarded plenty of Red Ribbon and Flake tins in my own cellar, yet had only tried one other of McCranie’s offerings, the also-erstwhile Murdock’s Pipe (a delightful blend, but not to my general preference). Well, it was high time to rectify that situation.
The first thing of note is the presentation: McCranie’s own-label blends are now being offered in glass jars holding a full two ounces of leaf. As a matter of course I generally buy tobacco with the intent to set the majority of it aside to age while I whittle my way through a tin or two, and stocking up with glass jars makes me feel better about that investment in future enjoyments. The jar itself sports a simple label bearing the McCranie’s logo, the name of the blend, and a portion of the William James Linton engraving The Lost Colony, referencing the famous lost colony of Roanoke located in Dare County, on the Outer Banks. From the website we find the description of the blend:
McCranie’s Roanoke is a rich and complex blend made of Red, Gold, and Dark Virginias with a helping of Louisiana Perique, perfect for Virginia Perique lovers. The Red Virginia provides a sweet and tangy flavor that complements the bold and spicy notes of the Perique. It’s a tobacco meant to be savored slowly to fully appreciate the flavors that develop throughout the bowl.
Simplicity is what McCranie’s does best, and Roanoke is a perfect example of that simplicity in all its glory: a Virginia-Perique blend par excellence. Unscrewing the lid releases a burst of a sweet, tart bouquet that immediately carves out its own place in the genre. Top notes of raspberry jam and buttered toast hint of the tobacco’s sugary richness, and are a tantalizing departure from the more common lemony complexion of most VaPer blends. Some airing time brings mid-tones of driftwood and clay soil—a natural allusion to its namesake—along with more typical VaPer notes of mulled wine, ketchup, stone fruit, milk chocolate, and leather, along with the telltale nose-tingling that accompanies a healthy portion of Perique. The leaf still feels a little young at times, with the tiniest of edges and errant notes on occasion—this does, however, bode well for its future in the cellar, and did not intrude on the smoking experience negatively. The supple, chocolatey ribbons come at a perfect humidity for packing directly or allowing a short drying time, and the jar keeps a clear concentration of the aromas contained like a brandy snifter, without the cardboard or paper wrapper in tins that can color the aromas, if ever so slightly.
In the bowl, Roanoke is a midwinter’s dream. Smoking lightly and effortlessly despite its obvious richness and youth, the first ounce disappeared within a week, before I’d even finished my tasting notes. It’s an easy one to recommend as an all-day blend—my own smoking habit has decreased significantly in the past several years and leaves me readily susceptible to a too-sharp Virginia tongue bite, but this never even nipped at the edges. On the contrary, it delivered a rich and colorful smoke bowl after bowl in the same pipe, with a flat-cola mouthfeel and aftertaste better than any blend in recent memory; I’d place it alongside an aged Escudo or Sunday Picnic in a heartbeat. The Perique component is at a good amount, alluringly drawing out the complementary flavors of the variety of Virginias employed and providing a finely nuanced cohesion to the overall. Repeated rations in the same pipe were never an issue, and in fact seemed to improve the flavor of each subsequent helping. For all its flavor it’s notably mild in nicotine, and the room note, though it lacks the richness of the direct smoke, casts a pleasant afterglow that doesn’t linger overlong.
This blend certainly tells me that McCranie’s is still a name that carries its weight in the pipe world.
Not many tobaccos make me want to plan a pilgrimage to their source.
(I wonder what the airfare to Charlotte is this time of year…?)
Also a blessing and a curse is that McCranie’s isn’t a behemoth blending house; theirs is a rather under-the-radar, smallish-batch production, and catching them in stock on the website can be hit or miss. The chance to wrap myself with a delicious blend like this, full of nuance, variety, and flavor, is the perfect anodyne to the winter doldrums—one which I’m sure to be repeating, and stay tuned in to PipesMagazine for future reviews of their other blends.