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.
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.
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.
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
Cut: Coins (a.k.a. "twist", "curly" or "spun" cut)
Tobaccos: Virginia, Dark Fired Kentucky
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 http://www2.ca.uky.edu/agc/pubs/id/id160/id160.pdf 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".