I’ve had this tin of tobacco staring at me, shoved aside and reappearing for some months now. The label is a simple white background featuring an inked character, who is in the act of painting on a very large easel while smoking a pipe. I wasn’t sure what these graphics were suggesting toward the tobacco, but I am guessing it didn’t taste like paint. The namesake of this tobacco is for Norman Rockwell, and I’m not going to get too deep into the history of the man and the artist. To be completely honest, I never really felt particularly moved by his work—maybe if only for his eye for detail and lively style. His art in my mind consists of cherry-picked cozy ideals and views few truly had (or pretended they did), from gee-whiz American youth innocence, to traditional seasonal celebration, perfect family, unquestioned patriotism, pious and humble church and the pride of daily life therein. They were lifestyle snapshots intended for a time long ago, and today it seems to lean somewhat artificial and creepy. Both of my biological parents hail from this time, and they yearned to be Rockwell’s ideal subjects, and they were far from it. It reminds me that old-fashioned simplicity in rose-tinted hindsight usually means someone cut corners or paid for it in scenes better left unseen. I prefer the whole picture. Let’s hope this pipe tobacco, “Portrait,” doesn’t suffer from this.
Fortunately, I’m a pipe tobacco critic, not an art critic. I don’t usually review aromatics because they really aren’t for me, but challenging myself now and again keeps me honest, I suppose. This is what I told myself when I ignorantly opened this tin of Portrait and smelled what was going on inside, anyway. “You open it, you smoke it,”—don’t waste tobacco, Kyle. What greeted my nose was light caramel with barely an idea of hazelnut in the background. Perhaps even a slight apple pie quality somewhere? This is why I have trouble with aromatics, at least in part: I can’t tell where the added flavor ends or the tobacco begins. At least it’s not cherry in any way shape or form. The ribbons are all a uniformly oaken color, slightly soft and not overly damp or dry, and from the feel of them, this is definitely a burley or predominantly so, as most aromatics are. I also happen to like a good burley. There’s probably propylene glycol keeping the leaf soft and the added flavors viable in Portrait. The tobacco barely dried out further than when the tin was first opened, and there’s a sticky and heavy quality I notice from most aromatics when packing—there’s almost no “spring” to the leaf. Once it’s packed, it stays put. I had to repack a few bowls because I was a tad heavy-handed and nearly obstructed the draft hole. Here I am bumbling with tobacco as if I’ve just picked up the hobby. What must the neighbors think?
Getting bowls lit with Portrait wasn’t a big deal. A few false, false lights and tamps and things fired up decently. The flavors are reminiscent of a caramel coffee, a light hint of chocolate, possibly gingersnaps if you concentrate really hard. The room note is pleasant and enough that even I could pick up on it. To this tobacco’s credit, it isn’t cloyingly sweet at all. This is a very mild aromatic. The burley is of great quality, as the mouth-feel is whole and pleasant and the signature nutty component comes and goes respectfully. Tamping must be done wisely or similar impact and draft problems can occur, and a lit bowl is a tad more difficult to adjust than unpacking and repacking an unlit one. I feel spoiled by how forgiving non-aromatics are in this regard.
Mid-bowl a lot of the sweetness subsides, and Portrait can showcase its burley content with a bit of dignity. The simple, lightly cocoa, buttered and sugared smoke isn’t unpleasant. For an aromatic, the burning quality is remarkably good, in that it stays lit with little puffing effort, and though it gets a little too warm in the bowl, it delivers a cool smoke. This is where the nostalgia theme of Norman Rockwell probably ties into this tobacco, because Portrait is about as “classic” as a pipe tobacco can get. When I first started dabbling in smoking a pipe as a teenager, Carter Hall was thrust upon me by my elders, and it, too, has this “classic” poise. The difference here is the tobacco is much cleaner. Many of the older classic tobaccos I smoked had a dirty, metallic or dusty notion to it that I never really liked, but I tolerated. Portrait’s creators omitting or eliminating this problem due to curing, processing or storage really tidies up the flavor experience.
By the end of the bowl, the delicate flavors of the burley have become mute, the additives and toppings have largely been burned away, and all that is left of Portrait is whatever might have been smoked in the pipe previously. In my experience, burley tobacco by itself likes to be smoked in clean pipes. Otherwise it’s going to do exactly what it was designed to do for aromatics: pick up flavors. Remember that Latakia you put in your pipe six months ago after too many drams of scotch? Do you recall that spicy Kentucky mixture while you were barbecuing last summer? No? Well, you will now. One old pipe in which I smoked Portrait, I had worked tirelessly to get rid of what I think was the faint ghost of a Lakeland mixture, probably long enough ago the original pipe’s owner enjoyed it when Leave It To Beaver first aired. That awful flavor came back with a raging terror due to Portrait. It was not my favorite experience, and Portrait (nor Jerry Mathers) was not to directly blame. You have been warned.
My final thoughts on Norman Rockwell “Portrait” are these: I still have no stirring connection to Rockwell’s art. The tobacco that bears his name and work was pretty decent for an aromatic, and I can appreciate the gentle and held-back nature of the mixture. It’s sophisticated in its own way, and it would be a great companion for family barbecues, reunions or other gatherings due to its tongue-gentleness and classic scent. Nicotine is mild, and it could possibly pair with any beverage you like. I have been on a kick of very spicy ginger beer with gin and a squeeze of lime over ice, and Portrait is a good companion for it. Coffee and tea, lemonade and soda pop, all worked just fine.
This is not an innovative tobacco, as this type of mixture has been done 1,000 times, and will be done many more times to come. Portrait clearly makes a point of pure nostalgia, and fortunately doesn’t sell itself exclusively via with a familiar artist featured on the label only to disappoint in the tin. It’s a good smoke. While I think non-aromatic smokers won’t be missing too much, aromatic pipesters and new guys would very much enjoy this old-school style smoke. No new, space-age sedan in the driveway to impress the neighbors nor a toothpaste-clean duty smile necessary.
- Editor Rating
- Rated 4 stars
- Norman Rockwell
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An Old-School Burley Aromatic that's not bad. Great for newbies, and aromatic smokers.