Three Nuns Walk Into A Review …

E. Roberts
You heard it here first, back in May—Three Nuns was returning to the American market.
And no, it would not be the storied VaPer blend of old; rather, it would be the new recipe, available in Europe for several years, which eschews Perique for Dark Fired Kentucky. I hope Kevin’s assessment has laid to rest the proverbial elephant in the room as regards to its namesake, so that we can all come to the table with an open mind and a clean slate with which to experience the smoke as it is, on its own merits.

Dark Fired Kentucky leaf has become the darling of the pipe tobacco world in the last couple of years, highlighted in some prominent recent releases such as GL Pease’s JackKnifes and Triple Play, and of course Mac Baren’s hugely successful HH Old Dark Fired, not to mention the New York Pipe Club’s Hell’s Kitchen blend from Russ Ouellette’s workshop. The beauty of dark fired leaf is that it bridges the gap between the backbone flavor profiles of Virgina and white burley and the condimental profile of Latakia or Perique with its smoky defining note. This dark-leafed varietal* has a richer, earthier spice than its lighter cousin, more akin to cigar leaf (and indeed often used in cigars), and a hearty nicotine content to accompany the stout flavor. For the terroir-minded, it’s worth noting that the tobaccos employed in this incarnation of Three Nuns are sourced from Africa, perhaps explaining the hot and dry leanings of the taste.

The beautiful bouquet of coins in a fresh tin

Tin: In the can, the light hay-like aroma of the Virginia rides behind the deep, earthy note of the dark fired, with faint intimations of sweet fruit notes playing at the edges. Nicely aged Mission figs are a dead ringer for the slightly musty aroma, tempered with the very tobacco-centric tinge of oiled leather and a certain oaky tannic edge. The coins themselves are beautifully presented, well packed in the tin and displaying alternating layers of dun brown and jet black leaf in their three-quarter inch diameters. They are also at the perfect moisture content for immediate consumption, whether you choose to stuff them straight into your pipe, as is my preference, or to rub them out or cube cut them.

Char: "Salted cork" is the descriptor that immediately came to me on my first taste, and at every subsequent tasting has only been reinforced. Not salted pork, mind you, but not far off—a tart, tangy savory flavor with definite woody overtones are in the charring light, every time, with an ever-so-slight oily finish of leather on the palate. Notably absent is any hint of casing or top flavor, only a pleasantly pure tobacco bouquet.

Top: The Virginia, though dominant in the percentages, is subservient in the composition. Taking the true light there is the expected piquant sharpness of bright leaf, but it quickly recedes to play second fiddle to the roundness of the dark fired. Even in the absence of Perique there is a clearly defined peppery flair, which is readily apparent on the retrohale—enough to bring a tear to the eye when overindulgent on the draw. Lingering around the edges, the Virginia continues to add its color to the flavor: tart on the border of sweet, in the vein of Spanish cedar, with some turpeny qualities.

Mid: Growing gradually in intensity, the dark fired really comes alive in the middle. The nicotine is also sufficient to be well felt by mid-bowl, a factor that commends this blend to accompany working with one’s hands or otherwise engaging one’s concentration. I find it a perfect accompaniment in both the workshop and the writing den, and suited to repeated bowls. The dark fired offers all its savory flavors: wine cask oak, white pepper, salty meat, with a hint of baker’s cocoa and secondary scents of cinnamon and turmeric balanced in the background. The Virginia cradles and directs the flavor, and is almost felt indirectly it is so muted.

"A man who works with his hands and his brain is a craftsman."

Finish: Reaching its crescendo of flavor in the middle bowl, it remains at this plateau through to the heel, leaving little ash in its wake. Once it hits the sweet spot, it stays there with ease and coasts to the finish line. My own experiences lead me to recommend a pairing with somewhat sweet beverages, such as soft drinks, white-spirit cocktails and even sweeter wines like Rieslings and Moscatos. The thick and hearty smoke, with its decided tannic character, balances well against lighter fruits and florals, each lending definition to the other.

Room Note: The dark fired is a hearty leaf, and takes this smoke into the range of a mild cigar. A bit dry on the retrohale, and certainly peppery, though the flavors do not translate overtly into the room note. Overall, the room note may be a bit strong for non-smokers, but not off-putting to the rest of us.

Rating: 84

What’s in a name? Branding is the heart of marketing; a science in its own right, measured and expressed with Bayes estimates and Dirichlet distributions. While the tobacco itself is judged on its own merits, a not insignificant portion of presentation is beyond just the look; it’s an expectation of what the packaging (and yes, marketing) is delivering—brand promise. Despite retaining the iconic black and orange color scheme and unique typeface, the tobacco itself is a redesign of the original product that created the identity of the brand. While only time will tell if this new incarnation will fully redefine the identity of Three Nuns, I do feel obliged to subtract a few points for this predicament. Balanced against the perfect out-of-the-tin moisture, beautiful coins, and quality leaf, this results in a score of 8 out of 15.

The tobacco itself is where this blend’s strengths are shown, and it is a great smoke in its own right. The draw and burn are extremely easy, flexible and consistent throughout, in any variety of preparation. Whole folding and stuffing the coins may take a bit more stoking of the ember, they reward one with articulated waves of flavor. The tobacco burns down to the heel with no moisture troubles or tongue bite, and retains its flavor profile well regardless of chamber. A 33 is a fitting score in this category, out of a possible 35.

Ultimately, the final measure of this new Three Nuns is the flavor and aroma profile, which it has in spades. With its husky, meaty taste and hearty retronasal olfaction, 43 out of 50 points are easy to award. It exhibits an assertive mid-bowl, and an unambiguously peppery nose very much in the vein of a VaPer blend profile. The nicotine content is in keeping with the strength of flavor, more than sufficient to satisfy.

Cellar or Smoke?

The proportion of Virginia used should lend Three Nuns a decent cellar longevity, though it is not a high sugar content blend; I wouldn’t forecast any dramatic changes. Considering that it’s ready to go straight from the tin, and so consistent in its delivery, perhaps packing a few tins away for safekeeping while enjoying it as the mood strikes for a medium-full dark fired fix is the best recommendation.

Brand: Mac Baren
Blend: Three Nuns
Blender: Mac Baren
Type: Virginia / Dark Fired
Country: Denmark
Cut: Coins (a.k.a. "twist", "curly" or "spun" cut)
Tobaccos: Virginia, Dark Fired Kentucky
Strength: Medium-Full
Room Note: Medium Cigarette / Cigar range
Tin Size: 1.75 oz.
Tin Age: New—under 1 year
Tin Description: NONE

* Reference the Kentucky & Tennessee Tobacco Production Guide particularly pages 9-11, for an exhaustive technical look at dark leaf varieties.

Editor’s note: Read more on the history of Three Nuns, including confidential corporate documents in "Three Nuns and the Shrieks of No Perique".

9 Responses

  • I’m almost done with my first tin of Three Nuns and this review nailed it. This is a unique tobacco and a bold move by Macbaren. From a business perspective, had they used perique in this new incarnation it would suffer from tiresome comparisons to Escudo. The DFK is a worthy player and it’s interesting to see how it is flattered in this mixture. That being said, I mixed a little Virginia/Perique flake in with my Three Nuns and the result was fantastic. But the coins stand on their own and are worth a smoke by anyone who loves the full spectrum of tobacco flavors.

  • I haven’t disagreed with many of Bill’s reviews (his palate is far superior to mine) but this one is off the mark. The New Three Nuns is not Three Nuns. It doesn’t even attempt it. Instead they have reformulated it and put it into the old packaging. Very similar what Coca-Cola tried to do when they issued new Coke and put it into the old Coke cans.
    I agree there is nothing wrong with evaluating this tobacco on its own. Where Bill refers to it as “…husky, meaty taste and hearty retronasal olfaction…” I would describe it as boring and undistinguished. It is not bad , just unexceptional. It is very mild with little distinguishing flavor profile. This is the nub of the problem. Not only did they not put the Perique in the tobacco they failed to create anything of note.

  • Thanks for the review. I’m just getting into this hobby, and have a bunch of aro’s. I read your review, and read comments on Three Nuns in the forums, and decided to get a tin.
    I opened the tin to jar it, and my first impression of the aroma is that it is very smoky. I can’t wait to actually smoke it.

  • Thanks for the input guys. You know, I smoked through 3 1/2 tins of this for the review, and I smoked them concurrently, with nothing in between, through mainly the same 5 pipes, so that I could be sure that I had a good handle on the flavors. While I agree with you, KCGhost, that the naming of the blend with no qualifiers (it most certainly is not the blend enjoyed by CS Lewis)was a…let’s say “questionable” move, it’s also nothing I’ll lose sleep over–and more importantly, I try my best not to let it influence my taste perception. There are a few over 400 Virginia / Perique blends on the market currently, so we’re only suffering for choice. I have had the “old” Three Nuns; and while it was good, very good even, it wasn’t mind-blowing. And that’s just my opinion.
    For the purpose of the review, though, I take great care to ensure that I’m only judging the tobacco against itself (unless it’s a comparison review, of course). I found it consistent over the course of the tins, a definite umami mid-bowl with a just-on-this-side-of pleasurable nasal burn on the retrohale, and quite a bit more nuanced and flavorful than, for an example that makes sense, the recently reviewed Mac Baren Roll Cake–a similar presentation, some similar ingredients, but a very different end product.
    It’s difficult to completely shed one’s expectations or preconceptions when faced with this type of a situation, admittedly. It’s also a lot easier when one doesn’t really have a horse in the race, so to speak–I’m not an ardent fan of any previous incarnations of Three Nuns, so took no personal affront at the blend change. At the end of the day, it’s just a product which you can choose to buy, or not. That being said, don’t expect the same cheery editorial when they change Escudo :0

  • Hey guys! I post very few comments here but this time I had to put in my two cents worth. My very good friend of mine sent me a tin of the new Three Nuns so that I could try it out. This blend does not seem to have reached any of the shops here in the Austin Texas area where I now live.
    I lit of a bowl of the blend and was shocked at how different it was from the most recent Danish version I was used to. For the record, I am a three nuns lover and was very happy to see it back – until I smoked that first bowl. In the past I have been able to smoke the original blend from Scotland and from England and I have to tell you that the blend that was available up until 18

  • continued
    Best of these was the Danish that is no longer made. The worst of these is what is being sold now. I felt that it was so bad I could not even finish the bowl. So sad that they could not come up with something better than this.
    If you want a great VA with Perique the best out there is St. James Woods from McClelland. Age it 5 years and it is much better. Age it 10 years and it is profoundly better.

  • There is a nice Rib-eye Steak — cooked to perfection and topped with a nice herb butter.
    There is the hamburger Steak — quite modest but kinda OK with eggs and homefries.
    They both say they are a steak.

  • I don’t know how I missed this article when it was initially published. Kudos for a very well written review!