Latakia gives a special kind of gift, one that appreciators will understand, anyway. We might find ourselves reaching for a tin of something containing the leaf and seeking that “just right” smoky balance to satisfy expectations. For some, it’s the smoothness of the smoke overall. Others, the role of that campfire-like pungent goodness, be it minute, piquant or proclaimed. I’m not willing nor qualified to tackle directly the whole differences between what makes a “Balkan” pipe tobacco mixture versus an “English” counterpart. The arguments are many, vast, and left to men more interested in specifics in purity and nomenclature; eventually, someone out there has to actually smoke the tobacco. I like picking up a new Balkan or English tobacco, though I’ve learned to have neutral expectations when taking on a new mixture. There’s been plenty of disappointments, perhaps just as many as there were “oh wow” moments. Tobacco, if we give it a chance speaks (or submissively squeaks) for itself. No matter the name or the contents, it’s simply a matter of what it says to us, and whether or not we accept it. Moments and simplicity are just as important in getting to know each new blend we discover, and Peterson’s Balkan Delight reminded me of this.
Optimistically, I like to think every tin of tobacco in existence is made with the same time and care necessary to create a good product. Meaning, not something that isn’t purely new for the sake of satisfying an ever-hungry public. Some blenders aim for the middle, making something so inoffensive it yawns, others race to assault the senses. I’m dubious of both approaches, personally. Right or wrong, and not being a tobacco mixer or blender myself, I can only imagine the pressure and patience a person tasked with this responsibility must go through. As a cook and a writer, however, I do know it often takes a team of colleagues and trusted opinions to get to the desired end result. It’s often a group effort. One tongue or set of eyes is very rarely enough to present a masterpiece for all to enjoy. Sometimes, it’s a win. Sometimes, it flops and fails miserably. Sometimes it’s so out-there or overworked, it loses itself. Sometimes it’s so subtle it simply disappears. Dealing with success is easy, but in base criticism or complete failure, all any creator can do is dust themselves off, regroup, learn and get better.
The Company known as Scandinavian Tobacco Group/Lane is the source of concern for some. They have and are currently taking over many of the traditional brands, blends and mixtures out there, sometimes to the disappointment of those who grew up and grew into liking the originals from years past. Being a reasonably opinionated man and experiencing some of the products both before and after STG took on these challenges, I’ve been pleased with a lot of what they’ve done lately. Granted, old incarnations of tobacco are different from the new versions, but I find letting them stand on their own is just as important as comparing them to what was. My heart goes out to the old smokers who try to chase their sentimental leaf brands, but it’s also gotten me interested in what my generation’s version of that will be: which “new classics” are going to perhaps be gone one day? Which mixtures and favorites will be no more, and which will I miss? If one is good, even great, as with any consumable pleasure, I’d better get as many good sessions with it as I can–nothing lasts forever.
Peterson’s Balkan Delight is something I tried about two months ago upon a gift and suggestion of a customer at my shop. Curious because of the temptation of a new Latakia offering, I accepted a tin. It’s a relatively recent mixture but with a familiar idea–it isn’t a reboot of an old Balkan favorite, but it has been on the market for a couple of years. This is a good thing, as most tins out there have likely achieved decent “shelf time” to meld flavors in sealed tins. Bearing the Peterson name in a green and red tin, STG/Lane quietly jumped into a crowded pool of Balkan offerings on the market.
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Everyone who makes pipe tobacco has to have a Balkan-style pipe tobacco in their lines. Why, I’m not sure, as the genre is probably one of the most ridiculously debated and least understood of them. One old codger once told me a while back on the subject of trying Latakia themed tobaccos: “…if you like Virginias, smoke English; if you like the Oriental spice, smoke the Balkan.” Simple, but reasonable. It’s also a slightly misleading maxim, as what I’ve discovered in definition of “Balkan” has flip-flopped a few times. For further reading and consideration, I’ll defer you to an article here at PipesMagazine.com by G.L. Pease from mid 2010 titled "What is a Balkan Blend?"
In the case of Peterson’s Balkan Delight, my relationship with it went beyond nailing down ingredients or terminology. This time of year, as weather steadily increases temperatures, I find myself smoking less and less Latakia. The days get longer, and the lighter my tobacco, usually in the form of redder and brighter Virginia leaf, which by the time autumn comes back, has me really craving spicier and smokier offerings. For some reason, I’ve been bucking that personal trend. A customer of mine at the shop insisted I break my routine and try it.
The tin notes are direct: “A traditional mixture comprising the finest of Virginia tobaccos plus a hint of Louisiana Perique and a generous portion of Cyprus Latakia. A delight for the seasoned pipe smoker.”
Upon opening, the screw-lid tin of Peterson’s Balkan Delight reveals a very tortoise shell colored mélange of chunky yet ribbon-like tobacco. It looks as it smells, nothing particularly dominant or subtle; it’s not heavily light or dark in color, it’s somewhat smoky, it’s slightly sweet, woody, and it has a light texture to the touch. As is preferred with most of my tobacco, I allowed it to dry for a few minutes before I loaded a bowl. I chose an old Mastercraft billiard for initial tasting. This pipe isn’t a show-stopper, but it is a pipe that I had been repeatedly grabbing since about mid autumn last year and performs admirably with anything Latakia. This is where surprise took over from my naturally skeptical nature when I try something new. I didn’t instantly love this tobacco, because it hit me differently than others bearing the same pedigree. It had smokiness, smoothness, a touch of distant spice, and a good flavor, but it was oddly simple. I didn’t get any direct Perique, and I found it strange to put Perique in the tobacco mixture at all. Many Balkans I have jumped into, even liked, tend to lean towards separating themselves from English tobaccos by simply being different, and especially different from other Balkans. Not knowing the secrets or intents of their creators, Balkans have the ability to sometimes lean more edgy, or more briny, or more sharp as compared to English counterparts. Balkan-style tobacco can be all over the map, weirdly rough and rebelliously unbalanced, wherein I find English tobaccos often are reminiscent to other English tobaccos, probably due to old purity laws. Even more, revisited or remade classic Balkans can range from very brash to very good–if not a perfect facsimile. In contrast, Balkan Delight, being a new kid on the block, stands on its own with one peculiar difference: it’s interestingly simple, and I really came to like smoking it.
I tend to smoke sparingly compared to other guys, usually my needs are “one in the morning, one at night.” This is not a strict practice, as there’s times at the shop when I’m having a great time loading and reloading a bowl of this tobacco as I’m cleaning the store, weighing out tobacco for customers, or when I’m driving and have some distance to cover. I adore smoking and driving, the music playing over the hum of the engine and road noise while the world whirrs by at a steady clip. There’s also social occasions where people are gathered around a fire or a barbecue, drinks in hand and conversation intertwines with laughter, great smells and light breezes. These are the times I reach for more than my daily routine and its for this reason certain tobacco must perform differently. For my needs, it has to be present and alive, without being fatiguing in either taste or nicotine content. There’s nothing worse for me than having too much of a good thing, whether it be a nicotine buzz or a dominant flavor.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I couldn’t put down Balkan Delight. I had a tin of it on me nearly every time I went to the porch, went out for a drink, or went to work. I loaded a bowl in anticipation nearly any time I could. It was the simplicity of both taste and performance that was making me happy. The Latakia is typical Cyprian, not too acidic or fruity, lending savory notes and a bolder smokiness that I’ve come to appreciate more than its rarer, Syrian counterpart. Cyprian Latakia can be overdone in a blend, and it’s extremely important to my tongue there be balance in the end result. Balkan Delight stays right in the properly-tuned realm, and the darker (I’m assuming content here) red Virginias play subtly in the matrix. It’s a woody smoke, warm and even pine-like, and even has kind of a fresh-cut alfalfa hint wafting somewhere in-between. I still have yet to be overwhelmed, offended or even notice the Perique content, which is fascinating, since I am not much of a Perique fan. I couldn’t get the tobacco to burn poorly, even if my mind wandered to other tasks, and even when the pipe is set down for a moment to ease jaw muscles or have a conversation, Balkan Delight stays very true to its original.
A few more weeks pass, and I have since gone for a few more drives, enjoyed a few social gatherings and paired the tobacco with various adult beverages. My customer who had insisted I try this tobacco loudly pointed out my tin one day upon a visit to the shop, “Ah! I see you really got into the Balkan Delight! What do you think of it?” I sheepishly answered him in instant rhetoric, mentioning it is easy to smoke, has nothing offensive about it, it’s clean, and how much of a treat it was to have a tobacco that was a good daily choice in a genre of tobacco that seems to trend on the side of declarative. I couldn’t find a specific reason why I liked it, and this bothered me. I began realizing that though I might be putting this tobacco away soon in lieu of my seasonally-chosen favorites, I also could see myself getting excited to bring this tobacco on autumn fishing trips, for refreshing late season camping excursions and smoking during day hikes in the woods as the leaves begin to fall. Something as simple as a porch and a nice scotch or rye, or a craft brew brown or amber ale proved to be just as enticing a prospect. The potential of this tobacco to be a good future, long-term companion became evident. It was a risk for STG to create another Balkan for the market, and yet make it so specifically un-Balkan–to which it became clear to me this was a strength, not a shortcoming. Charmed by this conclusion, it was then I decided to challenge myself to actually write a review about it.
It’s difficult to organize and make conclusions on thoughts and process about a tobacco I actually paid very little attention to as I enjoyed it. The Balkan Delight doesn’t call unnecessary attention to itself. When there is little pretense or statement made by the act of smoking, sometimes it’s about the “right now” instead of the heady definition of what it actually is. It is these times that I actually find value of paying attention to the experience of the smoke itself rather than trying too hard to find the individual nuances, the key flavors and the artistry of the tobacco. Balkan Delight reminded me of another way to smoke tobacco, which is to make it part of what is going on at the moment, rather than the sole reason. Being at one with tobacco that is enhancing the moment by not being the focus is just as important. With all of the crazy trends and the public’s yearning of something new, I believe every smoker needs an honest “utility” tobacco that can simply get the job done and done well, perhaps throughout the day. This is a tobacco that will kindly, with spirit, go along for the ride.
In the end, I discovered simplicity is the secret behind this tobacco. It’s always refreshing when a detailed person must force himself to be content with what is, rather than forcing the abstractions of what he wants. Debates, expectations and terminology are unnecessary at times, and simple does not have to mean “boring,” and I for one cannot tolerate a neutered pipe tobacco. As such, Peterson’s Balkan Delight quickly became one of those rare, simple-yet-alive smokes for me, the guy whose pipe isn’t always in the corner of my mouth from dawn until dusk. When those times come when I really am getting into the smoke being a part of my whole day, be it for recreation or as a companion to manipulate the ticks of the clock in my favor, this tobacco became an effortless choice. I didn’t necessarily choose it, it chose me, and I allowed it to do so. This could be one of those new classics I spoke of earlier, something I could smoke and get into for the long haul. At this point I think I’d be sorely disappointed if twenty years later it had changed or disappeared, which sadly, is a fact throughout pipe tobacco history. In the meantime, though, it’s not even summer and I’m already looking forward to cooler weather with plenty of this tobacco in mind.
(Credits: Thank you to Anthony W. for use of his pipe for photography and “Trucker Rod” for insisting I try this tobacco!)