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Pipe Smoking: A Realm of Confusion
Part Two: Tobacco Terminology ©

Pipe Smoking: A Realm of Confusion

Part Two: Tobacco Terminology

By Tarek Manadily

I'm sure you will agree that the world of tobacco and tobacco terminology, in particular, is quite mind-boggling. I have my own humble observations, criticisms and suggestions. What I want to provide here is: (I) A description of general tobacco type, (II) A description of tobacco forms that a tobacco blend is made into and sold in, and (III) Suggestions that could lead to a (clearer) way of classifying tobaccos.

I. Tobacco Types

Tobaccos are normally divided into four types: English (with Latakia), Straight Virginia (possibly with Perique), Straight Burley, and "Flavored" Tobaccos (commonly known as "Aromatics" or "Scented"). A typical English Mixture has as its base one or more Virginias, Orientals/Turkish, Latakia, and possibly a bit of Perique. Same tobaccos that contain, or are based, on Burley and Black Cavendish have found their way into what I prefer to call "modern" English mixtures. In some countries, and in particular the USA, the word "English" is used to describe tobaccos that contain no additives, regardless of the ingredient tobaccos or the type of blend; that is, a blend could be with Latakia or a straight Virginia (pressed or not). Straight Virginias are usually found in pressed form, that is, Flakes, Slices, Curlies, Plugs, etc.). These tobaccos are *traditionally* free of artificial flavorings; however, they can currently be found with slight to heavy "casing". Some pressed tobaccos that contain Latakia are also available and some of them have become very popular over the years, for example, Bengal Slices (whether or not this tobacco is in fact natural or not is another issue).

Straight Burley is an all-American tradition. These blends have always been so highly appreciated by some American connoisseurs. Unfortunately, in the minds of many smokers, Burley is associated with flavored tobaccos, which is not always true. Part of the reasons behind this is that it's hard to find a natural all-Burley blend, at least outside the USA.

I very much prefer to use the word "flavored" to refer to the so-called "Aromatic"/"Scented". This is simply because a tobacco is "aromatic" when it has a pleasant NATURAL aroma; if we insist on a word derived from "aroma" to describe flavored tobaccos, then it should be "aromaticized" (which means uninherently aromatic). In the UK, as well as elsewhere, the word "Scented" is used to mean "Aromatic" (in the American sense); this is again inaccurate, since I believe "scent" has to do almost exclusively with the "smell" or "aroma" of a tobacco, and does not refer to its "taste".

Tobaccos can be flavored with so many different agents, ranging from the 100% natural to the 100% artificial (i.e., chemical). Among the most popular flavors used in pipe tobacco are: vanilla, fruits (peach, strawberry, etc.), and alcoholic beverages (such as whiskey, cognac and rum).

II. Tobacco Forms

(Please note that most, if not all, of the tobacco forms described here can be viewed on the tobacco pages of this site.)

If you are adventurous, then you will have seen and tried a wide range of tobacco blends that differ not only in their "type" (English, straight VA, flavored) but also in the way they were "manufactured" and hence the "form" you buy them in.

Such tobacco forms include:
  1. Mixture: Here the way the ingredient tobaccos were before blending is the way they remain once the mixture is finished and ready to be smoked. Of course, a blender may choose to use a flake, rub it out, and mix it with other ingredients; however, in this case the tobacco form before blending, to me, is the rubbed out version and not the flake, since it is the the RR version that you see in the final product (i.e., mixture). Examples: St. Bruno and Walnut Flake.
  2. Flakes: Once the tobacco blend is made, it is exposed to varying degrees of moisture, pressure and heat to turn it into "blocks" of pressed tobacco that are then cut and slices into flakes.
  3. Slices: Same as Flake, but usually thicker (and sometimes longer). Examples: Bengal Slices and Edgeworth Slices.
  4. Ready-Rubbed: Flakes or Slices already rubbed out before being tinned. I find this to be no different from the so-called "Cavendish Mixtures", such as several of the Amphora tobaccos (mainly Brown and Red). Examples: Rattray's Old Gowrie and Pipemaker's Dark Strong Flake.
  5. Navy Cut: This is the most mysterious and confusing term. It has been used to describe "flakes" but mainly flakes that are different in a way or another in size (length and width) and as well form. For example: Player's Medium Virginia comes in a form like flakes, with each flake cut almost in three smaller pieces. Another example is Mac Baren Navy Flake (another weird combination of words; here the 'flakes' are cut to fit into the small rectangular tin, one on top of the other. Most examples of "Navy Cut", I think, fall into this category.
  6. Curly Cut: The most commonly used name to tobaccos rolled into a "rope", with pressure, heat and moisture, and then slice into little round discs. Typical examples include: Four Squares Purple and Three Nuns. Other names for the same tobacco form include: "Roundels" (which I've seen only on the now discontinued State Express Roundels, "Sliced/Cut Twist" (mainly used and produced in the UK).
  7. Twist: The procedure to make a Twist is very similar to the one used to make cigar: There is a filler and a wrapper, and the whole is made in a sort of "rope". This long rope is then cut into longer pieces, and sold either by weight or by length. Twist tobaccos are generally more expensive than other tobacco form because its production is a labor-intensive process. Examples: Gawith Pigtail and Gawith Hoggarth Black Irish Twist. (This type is known in the USA as "Rope".)
  8. Sliced/Cut Twist: Another way to describe "Curly Cut". Example: Gawith Hoggarth Sliced Brown Twist.
  9. Plug: When a whole "block' of pressed tobacco is produced, and instead of cutting it into flakes or slices, the manufacturer would cut it into smaller "blocks" or "cubes", usually each weighing around 50g. (25g Plugs are also available in the UK, but they're rarer.) In the UK, this tobacco form is also sometimes referred to as "Bar". Example: Warrior Plug, Gawith's Kendal Plug, and Gallaher's War Horse Bar & Condor XX Bar.
  10. Cut Plug: Another way to say "Flake". Example: G. Hoggarth Coniston Cut Plug and Fribourg & Treyer Cut Blended Plug.
  11. Bar: A "bar" is usually used to refer to a whole block of pressed tobacco before being cut into "plugs"; a retailer who stocks a bar would cut it into pieces according to the amount desired by the customer. The word "bar" is sometimes maintained (and used) by manufacturers for the final product (i.e., "plug").
  12. Hatband: This is an old, and now little known and used, term. It was used in yesteryears to refer to chewing tobaccos that miners never left home without. As miners couldn't smoke underground, they would keep the tobacco under their hat bands; when the shift was over, they would come up to the surface, slice the tobacco, fill their pipes and puff away. Such a great way to relax and get ready to resume such physically demand work!
    (This information has been kindly provided by my friend Alan from Wales, who used to work in mines and that is what he and his pipe smoking friends used to do.)
    Now, the word "Hatband" would be taken to mean "Twist".

As you might be thinking, there are some confusing exceptions. The following are just a few examples:
  • Condor Long Cut: To me it's a flake, the only difference being that it is a bit longer than traditional flakes.
  • Marlin Flake: This is by all means unique. It's cut width-wise to be almost double the conventional flake width, while it is tinned as one whole LONG piece that is folded. You pull it out of the tin and then cut, length-wise, a piece to smoke. It's one of the most beautiful pressed tobacco forms I have seen to date.
  • Larsen Brown Twist #7: It's a Navy Cut, similar to Escudo in size, but more square than round.

Now, you might be wondering why I use "form", while there is a more common word: "cut". I object to describing a flake, for example, as a tobacco "cut". This is simply because the word "cut" should be reserved to describe the length and width of the ingredient tobaccos BEFORE they are turned into flakes and other "forms" (that is, when they are still in the blending process). To illustrate this further, one can easily see, upon rubbing out Gawith's Full Virginia Full and Capstan Medium, that the blending tobaccos used in the former are of a larger cut (maybe medium instead of fine).

III. Summary:

In the above I tried to suggest the following:
  1. The word "flavored" is the one that best describes tobaccos that have been rendered sweet(er) with a flavor (natural or chemical). The word "scented", to me, only refers to the aroma, which is not the case, while the word "aromatic" is totally inaccurate both in linguistic as well as practical terms.
  2. I prefer to reserve the word "blend" to the to several tobaccos, put together to create one whole, regardless of the final form they will take before being sold (flake, plugs, etc.). On the other hand, I use the word "Mixture" to refer to a tobacco "form", as opposed to flakes, curlies, etc. So, if a manufacturer produce a blend of tobacco and decides to sell it as it is, then once it is packaged, it is a mixture.
  3. The word tobacco "form" should be used to refer to the way the tobacco blend was manufactured and later sold. Tobacco form, therefore, is used to distinguish, mixtures, flakes, slices, curly cut, navy cut, plugs, twists, etc.