The Joy of Smokes

E. Roberts
Perambulating about the Upper East Side the other day I saw the remnants
of an apartment move-out on the sidewalk, looking for all the world like a shipwreck washed ashore. The grim skeletons of lamps and furniture jutting out at odd angles, black trash bags bursting at the seams with last season’s wardrobe, broken pottery scattered over the curb, and the obligatory boxes of books that Manhattanites tend to amass. Atop the pile of discarded volumes was the amusing title, "Sex for Dummies." Was there really such a book? Who would read it? My mind, working as it does, tried to fill in the backstory to this scene: a middle-aged couple hit a few bumps in the road, bought a few books, successfully rekindled the flames they once had, and packed it all up and moved to Borneo to live out their days in connubial bliss…or something like that.

Cornell & Diehl rewrite the book on cellaring.

As it happens, I’d been spending my evenings in the company of Cornell & Diehl’s latest, the Cellar Series. I’ll get it out of the way right now: they are each amazing blends. Yet despite being quite impressed with them, I couldn’t find the hook I needed to start writing some sort of narrative to string all these tasting notes together. The title of that book on the sidewalk stuck in my head for some reason; it was laughable, surely, but there was obviously a market for it—the Dummies books are a media franchise with thousands of titles and millions of copies in print. But sex for dummies? Was there a walking, breathing adult human who needed this sort of primer to accomplish the instinctual? Then it occurred to me that these three new blends from C&D were like that book, in a way—sure, we all love tobacco, or else I wouldn’t be writing about it and you wouldn’t be reading about it. But once we get into the swing of our ritual of the pipe, it’s easy to become complacent and overlook the foundation aspects of what drew us to it in the first place. These blends were a reminder how amazing and fulfilling good, pure, strong tobacco can be.

Cellaring has been around since man has enjoyed tobacco. That is to say, the knowledge of what the inimitable function of time does to mellow, smooth and generally improve the flavor of tobacco has been apparent since the first early humans in Peru enjoyed it around their campfires and began cultivating it. However it’s not an exact science by any means—while one blend may trend toward improving indefinitely with age, another may fall flat after a relatively short time. That being said, years of experience with handling tobacco can give a pretty good idea of how to increase the probability for improvement with age by creating the conditions favorable to that end. Start with high quality, sugar-rich and flavorful Virginia, add a balance of ingredients that will complement each other favorably as they marry in the tin, press the tobacco enough to crush some cell membranes and mingle the juices together, then seal the environment—and sit back and wait. C&D’s recent merging with the folks brings an unprecedented degree of knowledge and facility to the table, and this first new offering announces a force to be reckoned with in the blending world.

The three blends—Chenet’s Cake, Oak Alley, and Joie de Vivre, all share some of the same qualities. First, and quite unabashedly, they’re all firmly on the robust end of the spectrum in terms of strength, flavor and nicotine content. They also share a good deal of the same component leafs in their respective mixtures; obviously the Perique, but also a superior grade of red Virginia that may already have some age on it, judging by the smoothness. The two-inch-square cakes all crumble easily and rub out to a nice even coarse cut to load the pipe with, and, frankly, look and smell good enough to eat.

A meal fit for a Perique Freak.

Chenet’s Cake: Being a confirmed Perique Freak, the first tin I opened was, naturally, the "Perique powerhouse". Broader cuts of Virginia ribbon are the first thing I notice, lots of red streaked through with a good amount of lemony bright leaf, and of course, heaps of jet-black Perique. Seriously, a LOT of Perique—chalk one up to truth in advertising. The nose from the fresh tin is quite musky and dank with the stuff, redolent with earthy prune overtones. Take a thick, juicy prune, cover it in milk chocolate, pack it in a nest of damp hay, and wrap it in a freshly-tanned leather bag, and that will give you some idea of the flavor and aroma profile here. It’s a real brawler on the strength scale, and can bring on the sweats if one is not properly hydrated (and fed!) before smoking. Consider yourself warned.

The top starts with a briny, peppery tang and mouthfeel, and then deepens quickly. Through the thick plumes of smoke, one is enveloped by the heavy musk of leather, and of mushrooms sautéed in sherry—this tobacco really glides over all the areas of the palate, eliciting salty, sour, bitter and sweet sensations as well as a conspicuous tannic response in the gums. Truly, an umami experience is created with this level of Perique; it’s an ode to the Stickland reaction.

Through the mid-bowl to the heel, there is a steady moderate pepperiness on the retrohale, warming to the nose and the spirit—and this blend goes exceedingly well with spirits. Small-batch bourbon with a corncob is highly recommended (my preference is Basil Hayden’s and, of course, a Missouri Meerschaum) to complement the tannic edge of the young blend. It took a fair amount of tending and relights to reach the bottom of the bowl, even when well-dried, which I chalk up to my own deficiencies in technique as much as the fine crumbled cut that results from breaking the cake apart. Within its estimated peak timeframe of 10-15 years, I predict this blend will become the stuff of legend—some mellowing and sweetening will elevate this to be on par with a Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac (I did say I was a fan of VaPers). Out of the gate it’s a great smoke now: fresh, slightly sharp, and has a lot of boisterous flavor that time should temper well.

One word: Sumptuous.

Oak Alley: VaPers with a touch of Oriental are two great tastes that taste great together, to borrow a phrase. Oak Alley is another potent brew, though not quite as heady as Chenet’s Cake. Interestingly, the Oriental leaf coupled with the burley and Perique in this blend creates an opening flavor profile surprisingly akin to a Honduran cigar—mildly spicy, nutty, toasty, and with a hint of floral top note. After the top third of the bowl it segues nicely into a more traditional VaPerO profile, though much heartier and fuller-bodied than any others that I’m accustomed to. The Katerini here, though slight in proportion, manages to define the flavor profile by the way it enhances and draws out nuances in the other leaf, particularly the Perique. Often throughout the bowl wisps of Latakia-like smokiness snuck into the menu.

Notice the olive Katerini leaf in the upper left.

This blend is all about a variegated bouquet of complementary flavors. There is a good portion of red Virginia that imparts a fruit liqueur-like sweetness, while the Perique straddles the fruity and vegetal aromas and flavors masterfully. The burley, in turn, balances it all while lending its own voice of nutty nuance, as well as a kick of nicotine. Mid-bowl is dominated by a dark chocolate and leather tone, with a slightly caustic edge of tannin that justifies the name of "Oak Alley". It’s very wine-y and reminds me of some underage California Chardonnays.

Breaking apart the cake there is a nice mixture of ribbon that seems crosscut to further blend and meld the overall mixture. For me, at least, it had an easier draw and burn than Chenet’s, but still took some tending to make my way to the bottom of the bowl. I speculate that in the 10-15 year peak timeframe suggested on the tin, this blend will temper down some of the cigar notes, transmuting them into more of a spicy sweetness, and really burst with the chocolate and wine flavors.

Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Joie de Vivre: Now that I’d settled into a heady groove with these rich and redolent cakes, I was prepared to meet the Latakia blend in the lineup. What I found striking from the moment of opening the tin is the incredibly deep, dark chocolate & leather bouquet, with oaky campfire liberally mingled in. The Latakia here is surprisingly well tempered in the bowl compared to its aroma in the tin. It’s obviously of exceedingly high quality, probably with some age on it, and emphatically Cypriot with its loamy flavor profile.

Breaking apart the cake, I note there is overall a dark balance of leaf with a sprinkling of bright that seems probably less than it is, percentage wise. The leaf is mostly a fairly coarse crosscut, and the bigger pieces actually seem to burn a bit easier in testing. My clays and cobs seem to perform the best, doing justice to the cut.

The pre-light draw is like sipping bourbon through a straw. A surprisingly soft "charred nose"—that being the term I’m coining to describe direct nasal olfaction (or smelling) of the business end of the bowl—is somewhat unanticipated, considering the strength of the smokiness in the palate. Slightly tangy, the Virginia pokes its head in more at the bottom half to the heel of the bowl with graham cracker / s’mores hints.

Joie de Vivre is not yet as balanced in its presentation as the others in the trio. This is not a knock against it; rather, I simply feel this one tastes the "greenest" of them, and will benefit most dramatically from as little as a year or two in the tin. There is still a hint of a tarry tilt to the smoke, and it can come off as unfocused (even a tad riotous!) when trying to pin down the profile. And, like the others, it took some tending to keep the ember down to the heel. I’d venture to guess that in the 8-12 year suggested peak the Virginia will have stretched its legs, greatly sweetening and balancing the mix, while the Latakia and Perique will have mellowed considerably, perhaps resulting in a more Syrian complexion to the smokiness.

Though it will take supreme effort of will to exercise the patience necessary to hit the targeted peaks of these blends without opening them, I have a lot of faith in Cornell & Diehl’s history of blending excellence and will do my best to wait out at least a couple of tins. In the short term, I think they’re all just a shade green now, although wonderfully smokable; in a year or two they should be exhibiting the beginnings of brilliance that are already apparent, and are safe bets for wonderful smokes as time goes by.

Tune in again in 2024 for the second half of the review!

Order the Cellar Series Here.

7 Responses

  • Thanks for a well written and nicely illustrated article describing C&D’s latest offering. I stowed a tin of both Chenet’s and Oak Alley, but it’s doubtful I will wait 15 yrs. to sample them.

  • Bill
    I enjoy reading your reviews, the way you are able to match flavors to words with such ease and grace- but I will admit this time I was drawn in with gusto to see how you would combine ‘sex for dummies’ with a pipe tobacco new addition…
    Well done, as always.

  • Who’d read *Sex for Dummies*? Why, Vince and Larry, of course. After a good smash up for GM, they tend to need help remembering a lot of things, actually.

  • One of your finest articles yet, I especially love the first two paragraphs… Beautifully written.

  • Bill, another nice set of reviews. A friend of mine has been smoking the Chenet’s and Oak Alley for a while now and really loves them. They didn’t do so much for me , but with my two taste bud palate (good/bad) that is hardly surprising. I didn’t find them near as robust as you did, but as someone who can smoke brown rope in the morning that’s not much of a complaint.
    C&D seems to have really stepped up their game of the last couple years.