The Pleasures and Perils of Perique

18th December, 2003: Posted by glpease in Tobacco

Alliteration aside, perique is one of the most fascinating and temperamental of the tobaccos. No other leaf in the blender’s spicerack has the ability to destroy a blend quite like perique. Bold words, yes, but even the smoky pungency of Latakia must walk in the murky shadow of the piquancy of perique. I said it. I’m prepared to back it up. Think of Latakia like garlic, or like hot chiles. There are those who like a little, those who like none at all, and those for whom there is no such word as enough. Increasing the percentage of Latakia in a blend produces greater and greater intensity of its characteristic taste and aroma, even to the point of dominating the other tobaccos in the blend, but the experience, to those who crave Latakia, never really overwhelms. (This is only partly true, but this is about perique. I’ll write about Latakia another time.)

Perique, on the other hand, is like salt. A pinch can enhance the flavours of a blend, without really making its presence know. A little more, and it becomes an influence to the overall taste. Too much, though, and your food becomes unbearably salty. Depending on the other tobaccos in a blend, the perique’s presence can be detected when the quantity reaches somewhere between 2% and 4% (by weight) of the overall mix. It may or may not be detectable in this range, but if it were removed from the blend, its absence would certainly be noted; the flavor of the blend would be more subdued, like someone turned down the volume.

Between about 4% and 8% or so, it begins to really make itself known. Somewhere in this range, perique’s voice begins to rise beyond the subliminal level, and the smoker begins to hear it, albeit softly. In this range, depending on the smoker, the detection of perique can be anywhere from, “I think there’s perique in this,” to, “This is a great blend, and the perique really adds something.”

In the 8% to 12% range, all doubt is removed. No matter what other tobaccos are vying for the smoker’s attention, perique will definitely wave its arms to be noticed. It’s not quite at the jumping up and down stage here, but the arm waving is certainly persistent throughout the bowl. It is when the percentage of the leaf is in this range that its lovers are happiest, and those who do not care for it would just as soon throw the pipe in the fire.

The jumping up and down begins at higher percentages, where the perique becomes an assertive, dominant component of the smoking experience. These are the waters on which only lovers of the stuff will sail. Some blends contain as much as 18-20% perique, and this is, indeed, a good working maximum, unless you want hair to grow on parts of your body you’d never expect it.

Smoking straight perique is not an experience for the meek. Years ago, I had read that Aleister Crowley smoked it soaked with rum. “An interesting idea,” thought I. “I should give it a try.” When I recovered from the experience, a not altogether pleasant one, either in taste or in the lingering effects (perique is sturdy stuff), I realized there was something to be said for the idea, though taming The Beast’s beast would be a challenge. After a lot of experimenting and manipulation, I produced one of the first tobaccos under my previous brand, Aleister, named after the man who inspired the experiment. The secrets were in the stoving of the blend, which tranqulized the perique a bit, and the blending of other bold ingredients to provide structure. Haddo’s Delight, heir apparent to Aleister, follows in the same tradition, though other influences certainly play a definite role in the newer blend.

Play with perique. It’s fun. It’s interesting. It can spice up a dull blend, or bring new dimensions to one you already enjoy, but, use it with a gentle hand. Your palate will thank your restraint.