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Latakia tobacco is a specially prepared tobacco originally produced in Syria and named after the port city of Latakia. Now the tobacco is mainly produced in Cyprus. It is initially sun-cured like other Turkish tobaccos and then further cured over a pine or oak wood fire, which gives it an intense smokey-peppery taste and smell. Too strong for most people’s tastes to smoke straight, it is used as a “condiment” or “blender” (a basic tobacco mixed with other tobaccos to create a blend), especially in English, Balkan, and some American Classic blends.
Latakia is the result of a process whereby the leaves are cured over controlled fires of aromatic woods and fragrant herbs. Latakia is mainly grown in Cyprus and northern Syria. After the leaves are harvested and dried, they are hung in tightly closed barns and smoke-cured. Small smoldering fires of oak and pine fill the barn with smoke, and covering the leaves with smoke particles.
Latakia was “discovered” when a bumper crop resulted in surplus, and the excess tobacco was stored in the rafters. The peasant farmers traditionally used wood for cooking and heating in the winter. The smoke-cured tobacco’s unique flavoring and taste was discovered the following spring. Latakia produces a very rich, heavy taste, with an aroma that has a “smoky” characteristic. Latakia is an ingredient of traditional English mixtures. The content can vary from a few percent to about 40-50%, or even more. A few smokers like it at 100%.
A modern perfume called Fumerie Turque (Turkish Smoke) was created by French company Serge Lutens, reproducing a fragrance in emulation of Latakia tobacco.
Latakia is one of the most famous pipe tobacco components, but it’s definitely a love-it or hate-it thing. For some people, it’s the elixir of the gods and for others it’s foul, rank and acrid. No matter how you feel about it, Latakia is a staple and a lot of people are curious about it but are reticent to give it a try.
Firstly, Latakia is not a tobacco; it’s a process. Latakia also comes from two areas- the island of Cyprus and Syria. The leaf that comes from Cyprus starts out as a Oriental varietal called Smyrna. It’s harvested and cured in a structure in which a fire burns using aromatic woods indigenous to the area, mostly of the evergreen type. When it turns black, the tobacco is ready for cutting. Virtually all the Latakia on the market currently comes from Cyprus.
The other Latakia, Syrian, is not currently in production. All of the Syrian Latakia being used is from older crops. The problem in Syrian Latakia production is not just the civil unrest, but also the governmental restrictions. In Syria, a tobacco called Shek-el-Bint is used and is smoked over a fire made with herbs and Syrian Oak. Here’s where the problem lies. For years, Syrian Oak was overharvested to the point where it was threatened with extinction. A number of years ago, the government stopped Latakia manufacture, but let it start up again in the last decade, but have pulled the plug again. How much of a supply is out there? It would be conjecture on my part. All we can hope is that they can begin again before the stockpiles are gone.
The difference between the two types is a matter of flavor profiles- Cyprian is bolder and more aromatic, whereas Syrian is smokier and more delicate. But one thing in particular is similar between them and, next to the flavor is the greatest draw- very cool smoking qualities. Personally, I’ve never smoked a Latakia-based blend that I would consider hot-smoking.
What’s the appeal of a tobacco that has a wood-smoke flavor and aroma? It mainly comes from the combination of other tobaccos and the percentages used. Mixing Latakia with a blend consisting of, primarily, Virginias will produce a sweet, smokiness that approaches a barbeque flavor. As an example, you’ll get a hint of this in our Hearth & Home Victorian Stroll. If the blend contains a bit of unflavored black Cavendish, the similarity is even more pronounced.
When Turkish-type varietals become involved (like Smyrna), notes of leather and anise or licorice may come out along with a backbone of mustiness reminiscent of mushrooms. Our Larry’s Blend is representative of this type of mixture.
The brighter and more floral types of Orientals (Yenidje, Xanthi, Basma and the like) have, in my opinion, the most dramatic effect upon Latakia, bringing out a vibrant, incense-like aroma with a commanding, but very clean flavor. For varying types of blends of this sort, our Hearth & Home Marquee Series has three entries that showcase these properties- Magnum Opus, Black House and Fusilier’s Ration (coming in October 2012).
Today, we have an immense number of Latakia-based tobaccos on the market, many of which are among the most popular blends. They include such favorites as most of the Frog Mortons, many of the G.L. Pease line, such as Westminster, Star of the East, English Oriental Supreme, Balkan Sasieni, Balkan Sobranie, Commonwealth Mixture, and these are barely the tip of the iceberg.
Latakia is referred to as a condimental leaf, as a relatively small amount (less than 10% of a blend) can have an immense impact on the flavor and aroma. That said, a percentage of more than 60% can be found (such as Cornell and Diehl’s Pirate Kake and our Hearth & Home Marquee Series Cerberus), and yet the flavor of the other tobaccos can still be noticed.
Although I can’t prove it, I would conjecture that the cool smoking properties of this black leaf has something to do with the smoke particles that coat the outside of the tobacco acting as a type of insulation. Whether that’s true of not, there’s no question that of all the varietals used in pipe tobacco, nothing is easier on the tongue.
As for me, I’ve been a fan of Latakia since day one. After trying a Cavendish for my first blend, my father had me try his tobacco, which was a mild Latakia mixture. Right from the beginning, I was enraptured by the smokiness, how easy it was to puff all day. I’m just glad that I found the pleasure of it early on. If you haven’t tried a Latakia blend yet, don’t be afraid of the pouch aroma; give it a shot.
By Russ Ouellette
In the last go-round, I blathered on about one of my favorite tobaccos-Perique. This time, I’m going to address my first pipe related love, Latakia. When I was small enough that I could just reach the top of the end table in the living room, I fell in love with Latakia because Dad would leave the knife-lid can on it, and when he wasn’t around I would open the can and smell it for what seemed like hours. He smoked a Burley-based mixture with Virginia, Latakia and Deertongue. It smelled great in the can, and even better when he lit up. The campfire smokiness of the Latakia made me wish we were at the lake. That rustic, comforting aroma captivated me then, and still does today.
Latakia is considered a condimental tobacco, and it adds a rich smoky note, sometimes accompanied by hints of leather and even a touch of anise. Due to the powerful flavor and aroma, a little can go a long way. But unlike some condiments for food, it’s hard to overdo the Latakia content. If you add too much hot sauce to a dish, it’s almost impossible to tame it down. Add too much salt and the meal is ruined. But if you add too much Latakia, you’ll just wind up with a deep, heavy “beef jerky” flavor that is easy on the tongue, but will become a little too monochromatic.
Latakia is not, strictly, a tobacco, but a process. There is no strain of tobacco called Latakia; it doesn’t get that name until it has gone through an involved curing procedure. There are two primary varieties of Latakia- Syrian and Cyprian. The Syrian version is made using an Oriental varietal called Shek-al-Bint (var.), whereas the Cyprian type is made from another Oriental called Smyrna. Although most Latakiaphiles seem to prefer Syrian Latakia, there are many who like Cyprian. Syrian has a more pronounced smokiness with a wine-like character, I find that Cyprian is more aromatic, which makes for interesting blends when using tobaccos like Yenidje, Basma and Xanthia, as they tend to amplify the aroma and flavor of the Cyprian to the point where it begins to smell like incense, which I always loved about tobaccos like Bengal Slices.
Both strains are made in the same way, in that the leaves are hung in a structure with an open fire. The smoke eventually saturates the leaf and turns it black. The base leaf of Syrian is a bit lighter in flavor and is more delicate than the Smyrna used in Cyprus, but it works well as the Syrian Oak delivers a more subtle taste in flavoring the leaf. The Oak smoke would get a bit lost with the muskiness of Smyrna. However, when combined with the pine/balsam character of the Cyprian process, the Smyrna just makes it richer and warmer.
Unfortunately, there has been a lot of inconsistency with Syrian Latakia. It started around 20 years ago when the Syrian government forbade the harvesting of Syrian Oak due to severe deforestation. Without the needed wood, the Latakia industry faded away. After around a dozen years, enough new growth cropped up to the point where Syria began to allow a limited amount of Latakia to be made. One problem, however, is that a number of the experienced processors had found other work. The tobacco produced by the people with a history has tended to be good to excellent quality, whereas some of the Latakia turned out by other makers has been inconsistent at best. I was sent a sample about a year and a half ago by someone who told me that I could get a few hundred pounds at a fair price. When I received the sample, I was horribly disappointed. Even from ounce-to-ounce there were inconsistencies. I’m sure things will improve in this regard, but I doubt that the supply will anytime soon, as they’ll have to be careful not to over harvest the Oak.
A Tale of Two Latakias
This article was originally written for the now out of print Pipe Friendly Magazine, where it was published sometime in 1998, in Vol. 5 No. 2 of that magazine. A lot has happened since it appeared, including the loss, again, of Syrian Latakia, the subsequent “discovery” of some wonderful, vintage leaf, and that tobaccos early demise in a tragic warehouse blaze. Blends have come and gone, but the world continues to turn. -glp]
For many years, Syrian Latakia has been virtually unobtainable. We’ve heard many lament the passing of this noble leaf, often accompanied by a feeling that if Syrian Latakia were still available, everything would suddenly be right in the world of tobacco. But, this delusion is certainly not limited to our Lady Nicotine. In our quest for the Arcadia Mixture of olde, we often seem to lose sight of the fact that things of the past often become more precious once they are no longer available to us. (This is one of the tragedies of art; an artist is rarely fully recognized, financially, for his or her talent until their death assures us that no more work will be produced, thus rendering priceless what was once merely acclaimed – or in some cases, just odd.)
In our collective mourning over the absence of the sacred Syrian, it becomes easy to take for granted what we do have. What about the fine leaf from Cyprus? With Syrian Latakia once again finding its way into our pipes, perhaps it is a good time to examine briefly the world of Latakia in general. Taking a little closer look at each type will offer us the opportunity to gain a new perspective on both varieties of this wonderfully smoky, noble weed.
Characteristics of Latakia
Though the original Latakia of Syria, a necessary ingredient of many classic mixtures of yesteryear, and the now more common Cyprian leaf, share a name and a curing technique, these two tobaccos are quite distinct from one another, each having unique qualities, and very different personalities.
Syrian Latakia is produced from the long, narrow leaves of the plant known as “shekk-el-bint.” After harvesting, the leaf is sun-dried, then hung in barns to be smoked over smoldering fires of local herbs and woods, imparting the characteristic smoky aroma and distinctive flavor. Shekk-el-bint is a strong tobacco, possessing a hefty dose of nicotine which is partially responsible for the robust “body” of the smoke. After the long curing process, the leaf is a deep mahogany/brown color, with a pungent, earthy, slightly sharp, smoky aroma reminiscent of driftwood campfires on the beach. Its very assertive flavor is spicy and somewhat tangy; perhaps one could even consider it tart, and it can easily dominate a blend if used in large measure, prevailing over all but the most robust Virginias. In small amounts, it mingles delicately with its cohorts; in large quantities, it tends to elect itself to high office. Smoked straight, it becomes downright dictatorial – sensory overload occurs quickly, and the tangy aftertaste lingers on the tongue. It can also create spinning rooms for those not accustomed to or tolerant of large doses of nicotine.
Syrian Latakia’s island cousin from across the Mediterranean begins life as as a plant of the the small leafed Smyrna, or Izmir variety. This is a Turkish type tobacco, containing little nicotine, and known for its delicately sweet flavor and excellent burning characteristics. The harvested leaf is air-cured in sheds, and then fumigated in a manner similar that used for Syrian Latakia. The finished product is nearly black, with a deeper, darker aroma than the Syrian counterpart. Its flavor, in comparison, presents less piquancy, and a rounder, less focused smokiness. Its notable sweetness is unlike that of a matured Virginia, or a flavored aromatic, but somewhat more sneaky, coming in to camp under cover of darkness. Though more gentle than Syrian in its nature, Cyprian Latakia can nevertheless be opaque, overwhelming more delicate tobaccos if used in very large measure. A similar sensory overload to that of the Syrian variety occurs if Cyprian is smoked straight, sans Hollywood special effects, though the aftertaste is somewhat more ephemeral.
Each of these tobaccos provides a distinct and unique color on the blender’s palette, and with Syrian Latakia’s long absence, many hues in the spectrum of English style mixtures have been all but missing. That the supply line is once again open is truly exciting news for the lover of these sophisticated tobaccos, as it expands and extends the range of possibilities for creating new blends, while simultaneously affording the opportunity to perhaps revive some of the classic blends of the past.
Blending with Latakia
Blending is a balancing act; though guidelines can be invented, there are no hard rules. The strength and depth of each individual tobacco in a blend must be considered, along with the result the blender is seeking. The percentages indicated in the following paragraphs merely serve as a practical point of reference. Every smoker will have an individual reaction to the various components of a recipe, but, in a well executed blend, each ingredient should combine harmoniously, resulting in a blend which is truly more than the sum of the parts.
If Cyprian Latakia can be compared to a fine Vintage Port, Syrian could be likened to a dry Fino Sherry. For this reason, these two tobaccos must be handled very differently when creating a blend. Latakia of either type can be detected in a mixture in quantities as small as 3%, and by 5%, their presence is unmistakable. Beyond these small portions, they really begin to puff out their feathers.
When the amount of Cyprian leaf in a blend approaches 10%, its deep, uniquely sweet flavors come alive, and its character develops continually up to a level of about 40-50%, at which point the Latakia will overshadow just about any other tobacco in a blend, resulting in a loss of nuance and complexity, and a rather mono dimensional smoking experience. Certainly, there are blends which contain even more Cyprian Latakia than 50%, and these are enjoyed by many smokers, though more for the “Latakia Experience” than for any allusion at subtlety.
Because of its sweetness, Cyprian Latakia blends seamlessly, in moderate measures, with Virginias, enhancing the complexity of the mixture, while adding some body and its distinctive, smoky flavor. The combination of Cyprian leaf with oriental tobaccos is perhaps where the greatest care must be employed. Because of their delicacy, these “Turkish” tobaccos are easily overpowered by the more intense flavors of the Latakia. While a delicate hand is rewarded by a blend of sublime subtlety, a heavy touch is akin putting too many habaneros in the salsa; one doesn’t soon forget the experience.
Syrian Latakia’s wine-like character begins to fully emerge at about 10% to 12%, increasing the strength of its “voice” until it becomes quite dominant as the quantity approaches 30-35%, where its tanginess can become unpleasant if not mitigated with the careful choice of other leaf. Care must especially be taken when blending with more delicate tobaccos to avoid sensory saturation, where the spice and tart flavors of the Latakia consume much of the smoker’s attention, leaving little room for subtlety. An additional consideration is nicotine content; Syrian Latakia is a stronger tobacco, and too much in a blend can create a real “sit-down” smoke.
The flavor of Syrian Latakia, while intense, is somehow more transparent than that of Cyprian. Used sparingly, It can add new dimensions to an oriental mixture with its sharp, direct smokiness. Care must especially be taken when blending it with Virginias, however. In small amounts, it can add a pleasant brilliance to a darker, matured Virginia, but if too much is used, the result can be discordant. As with any spice, erring on the side of caution is generally the wise approach.
Latakia is known in Syria as Abourihm, the King of Flavor, and it’s easy to see how this sobriquet came about. It’s also easy to see that, out of balance, Latakia can become an overbearing despot, imprisoning any flavor who dares to challenge his rule. The blender, acting as advisor to the throne, can bring out the best this reigning monarch has to offer, suggesting that his rule be gentle, fair and just, and that he not place himself too high above his loyal subjects, each of whom contributes something essential to the Kingdom.
It has been rare, in recent times, that the pipe smoking community has gotten any truly great news, especially concerning tobacco. The arrival of Syrian Latakia to our shores should be met with Champagne toasts and a ribbon cutting ceremony, though we must not forget to honor the reigning sovereign from Cyprus. Whether we prefer one to the other, or, better still, enjoy them both, each for its unique qualities, let us raise our pipes to both thrones with a hearty cheer! Long live the Kings!