Saturday, February 11, 2012

Shameful Aromatics

(Photo by Valentinian)

I've talked before about my friend, Jeff, a bartender at the pub where I work. I recently made a gift to him of a pipe-starter set, complete with pipe, tobacco, and all the necessary accompaniments (see the whole story here).

A week or so after I gave this to him, we ran into each other on the patio of the pub. We were both dressed for work, in our kilts, and enjoying the fire-pits that were roaring outside. I asked him how he was enjoying his new pipe and he seemed to light up when asked about it, indicating that he was liking it a lot.

“I'm really liking the Altadis Night Cap. It just smells and tastes great!”

“Oh, absolutely,” I said. “Aromatics are always a crowd-pleaser.”

“I do have a question about aromatics, though.”


“Is there anything wrong with liking aromatics?”

“No,” I responded instantly. I did feel obligated to discuss the issue of aromatics further with Jeff, as I feel the need to do now.

First of all, to say that a particular pipe tobacco is aromatic is a sort of an absurd statement. Of course it is aromatic. It has an aroma, usually quite distinct, and is thus aromatic.

The term “aromatic” when being used to describe a subsection of tobacco means something slightly different, however. It refers to sweeter blends, frequently featuring artificial flavoring, such as cherry, chocolate, and vanilla through the addition of syrups.

(Photo by wmliu)

Other tobacco blends that feature Black Cavendish as a primary component are also often referred to as “aromatics”.

Let me blunt, much blunter than I often am about issues concerning taste: there is absolutely nothing wrong with liking aromatics.

As I have said many times before and I am sure I will say many times again: we smoke pipes for our enjoyment, to do what makes us happy. If aromatics make you happy, then smoke them! If they're not your bag, don't bother with them.

Here is one thing that you should not do if you don't like aromatics: do not make fun or insult those who enjoy them.

I lament that I even have to say this, but it happens far too frequently. In fact, there seems to be something inherent within aromatics that causes people to think they are shameful, as indicated by Jeff's spontaneous concern.

There are several reasons that we should not scold those lovers of the rum and berry tobaccos. First of all, our hobby has a very small following and it is often difficult to find a group of pipesters with whom we can converse and share our enjoyment. Thus, it does us and our hobby no assistance to upbraid one of our members for his preferences.

(Photo by dogfaceboy)

Imagine the newly inducted pipester who attends his first pipe-related gathering (I only use the example of someone new to the hobby to prove a point, not to imply that only novices smoke aromatics). He brings along with him his pipe, which he nervously and lovingly choose from the meager selection at his local tobacconist -- and by local, I mean the one still remaining in his entire city. Additionally, he brings a bag of his favorite tobacco, flavored like a blueberry pie.

Once he finds an inconspicuous location in the room where the meeting is taking place, he struggles to load his bowl and finally manages to light up.

"Who is smoking that?" he hears from one of the grizzled veterans.

The novice doesn't respond, as he doesn't know what the man is talking about that.

"Who is smoking that aromatic tripe?"

Naturally, the young man is crushed and finds an exit from the meeting as quickly as possible, never to return again.

What good has been done through this interaction? Our hobby has lost another member due to nothing but cruelty and self-righteousness.

This is obviously an extreme example that I would expect never to witness from my fellow pipe-lovers, but this is how it could feel to someone towards whom the ire is directed.

Another reason to avoid mocking the sweet-tasting tobaccos is that there is simply no justification for such an opinion concerning aromatics. Yes, they are delicious; yes, they are flavors that we often grew to love as children (with the exception of rum, I would hope). This, however, gives no real reason for such opinions. It would be like insulting someone for liking ice-cream that had a sweet flavor instead of ones that did not.

Or perhaps a better example is condemning someone for putting ketchup on a hamburger instead of leaving it plain. Honestly, does it do you or anyone else any harm at all?

I am a big fan of aromatics at certain times, specifically during the extremely hot and extremely cold weather. It is also a go-to style when I am smoking indoors with other people, as it pleases those around me and thus makes them encourage me to do it again. Always a good thing!

One of the first intense aromatics I ever had was "Devil's Holiday", by Dan Tobacco.

I cracked my first tin on International Pipe Smoking Day of 2010 and then reviewed it online. Here is a sample of my review:

Upon opening the tin, I was hit by the powerful aroma of berries, sweet and ripe. I really enjoyed the nose, though it did smell a little overly synthetic.

The leaves came out of the tin after a little over a month of having the blend at basically a perfect smoking quality: still slightly moist, but dry enough to be lit well, with limited relights.

The sweetness of the tin aroma transferred to the smoke, though not nearly as overpowering, to my taste. Don't get me wrong, it was sweet, very sweet, but not enough to stop me in my tracks.

I can certainly understand those people who devote their entire pipe-smoking existence to aromatics. I can also understand those who perceive them as overpowering and not very enjoyable. 

We all have our personal preferences, and if we choose to share them it is not to be ridiculed or to ridicule others; it is to share and to start conversations, so that we can enhance our enjoyment through shared experience.

I am sure that I am preaching to the choir for many of you, but it is something that I feel is worth discussing. This is a specific way of reemphasizing a general motif: do what you enjoy and let others do what they enjoy. After all, variety is the spice of life. The pipe world would be very boring if we all liked exactly the same thing, wouldn't it?


  1. I can understand your friend's concern. At first glance there is quite a "snob" factor among tobacco hobbyists.

    But every hobby has its "elite" class. The audiophiles who only listen to Kiplisch systems. The photographers who only use Leica. And anyone who disagrees is subject to the elite's scorn.

    Luckily for me I am a man of simple tastes and have long ago ceased to really care what anyone thinks of me and my life choices. Which is great since my smoke of choice is Carter Hall which belongs to the category of classic American tobacco blends known as "over the counter" or "drugstore" tobacco: a category which earns its own share of derision from the elite.

    But as you say, at this stage of the game this particular hobby can ill afford such silly snobbery if we are to present a united front to the public.

  2. Too true, too true.

    Over the counter (OTC) tobaccos have even more ire directed at them than aromatics as a whole, though OTCs are almost all aromatics. Do you think the two are connected?

    1. I think it's a couple things.

      First the "elite's" chosen brand — or whatever — is usually a superior product in some way. I never argue that Leica's aren't top of the line cameras, I just argue that I enjoy my much less expensive Pentax or Canon or whatnot just as much.

      Secondly I think is the air of exclusiveness. Not everyone can afford Leicas. Not everyone can smoke the top of the line tobaccos. Personally I'm just not much a fan of the "English" baccys. And I tried smoking a blend with Perique in it for the first time a couple weeks ago and thought I was being strangled while being simultaneously kicked in the head.

      Some folks really enjoy the top of the line, some folks really enjoy being in a "class above."

  3. Very well put, Ethan. I smoke whatever I feel like at the time, ranging from aromatics to old-style English. I really don't care what anyone else thinks with the exception of my wife who likes many of my flavours and lets me smoke what I want, where I want! :-)

  4. Hear, Hear! Very well spoken, my friend. I have been subject to just this sort of discrimination. As TheFoolish well knows (having gifted me several pouches over the years), Captain Black (and similar other Cavendish blends) has been my go-to tobacco since I was given my first pipe at 18. I started smoking Captain Black when a friend shared a bowl with me, and loved the mild taste, and the extraordinarily unoffensive room note. Don't get me wrong, I love Virginians and Englishes and just about everything tobacco has to offer in one way or another, but Captain is my old stand-by; what I smoke on a regular basis. And there is nothing like Boswell's Christmas Cookie in winter.

    Several years ago, I paid a visit to a pipe shop (no, he did NOT sell tobacco) in my then home town of Columbia. While browsing his wares, I struck up a conversation with the proprietor, a gruff elderly gentleman with a batter briar clenched in his teeth. As a new pipester, I eventually asked his opinion on materials, to which he somewhat loftily replied that the material depended on the tobacco you were smoking, and asked what I smoked. I responded that I generally smoke Captain Black. He immediately rolled his eyes and said "Oh, you smoke those aromatics," before promptly dismissing me from his world.

    You are absolutely right. That sort of thing is extremely off-putting to someone new to pipes. Also, that was the last time I ever visited this shop. I somewhat doubt it is still open.