Cyprian or Syrian? (Part II)

9th February, 2010: Posted by glpease in Tobacco, Editorial

Since The Fire, there have been more than a few samples of “Syrian Latakia” arriving in my postbox from various suppliers. Some have been no more Syrian than I am. Others have been of such low quality I wouldn’t use the stuff to smoke fish. “We found this ‘vintage’ leaf in an old warehouse. Do you want some?” No, thanks. “Why not?” Um. It’s awful, m’kay?

Though there are blends being produced that do actually contain Syrian leaf, there are some that profess to, but I find some of these claims suspect. Yes, I know what the labels, importers, sellers and other pipe smokers say, but I remain convinced that some of these blend have Syrian Latakia in them in the same way that Churchill’s martinis contained vermouth: “I would like to observe the vermouth from across the room while I drink my martini.”

I’m not an expert on all the labeling laws, but they seem to be pretty loose in some respects. In food labeling, ingredients must be listed in order, from highest percentage to lowest. Not so with tobaccos. If there’s a single strand of Syrian Latakia in a batch, that blend can claim it in its contents, irrespective of the fact that the majority of the Latakia used is Cyrpian. Don’t believe everything you read.

Why all the hubbub?

When I began this, I took a moment to see if there was anything I’d already said, publicly, that could be used. Apparently, a lot of my prior grumblings have been private, or thankfully eradicated from the public record by kind-hearted forum moderators who wanted so spare me the potential embarrassment of seeing my ravings on the subject appear where they shouldn’t. But, I did stumble upon a post I’d written in 2006 in response to the question, “Which do you prefer, Syrian or Cyprian Latakia?” Here’s what I wrote then:

I won’t say I prefer one over the other, as they’re really quite different things. I love the wine-like, brilliant character of Syrian when it’s used well in a blend, but it’s a fussier tobacco. If the other components of the blend don’t have the necessary structure to hold everything together, the result can be sharp and “nasal,” with an intensity that is not altogether pleasant. Syrian can be overdone in a blend more easily than can Cyprian.

I like the deeper, sweet leather & campfire qualities of Cyprian. It’s a little more forgiving. That’s not to say that it can’t overwhelm the more subtle components of a blend if not used carefully, but the result, while out of balance, is less unpleasant.

Despite my love affair with Bohemian Scandal, if I had to choose one, and only one Latakia (which, at present, I do), it would be Cyprian, which is certainly fortunate. A lot of the blends I really enjoy most couldn’t be produced with Syrian leaf.

Since a great many of us weren’t smoking Latakia blends before the early 1960s, when Syrian Latakia first disappeared from the world market, we “grew up,” in a sense, with Cyprian, so it’s what we’re most familiar with. That could well be one of the primary motivations behind my tobacco preferences, and those who came well before me may have their balances tilted toward the Syrian end of things.

Still, I have learned to live, again, without Bohemian Scandal, and it’s dependence on Syrian leaf, but if I were forced to live without the other Latakia blends that I love, I’d probably put down the pipe.

Fortunately, those words still hold true for me. I really like the smooth, smoky sweetness of Cyprian. Of course, I’d love to have access to both, and in cases where both were used, like in Renaissance, Raven’s Wing, and Mephisto, the results were a wonderfully magical synergy. But, if I had to choose one, and only one, to keep on my palette, it would be Cyprian. Which is a good thing.

And, if I could bring just one of my lost blends back, it would probably not be Bohemian Scandal. This morning, I smoked some ten year old Renaissance, and found that it deeply engaged me in a way that few tobaccos can. The Syrian’s presence was there, certainly, offering a beautiful, almost sandalwood undertone that added wonderful dimensions to the blend, but it was the more dominant Cyprian that gave its leathery depth to the smoke and made a more profound statement. It would not be the same without the Syrian, certainly, but it would be even less of what it is without the Cyprian. The experience was wonderful, and made me wish I had 100 tins cellared. As good as it is, the Scandal, to my tastes, it comes off as just a tiny bit flat in comparison. (Though, I absolutely adored the stuff when it was a little younger. Interesting, that.)

I wonder how much demand there would be for the “lost blends of yore,” whether or not they contained the mysterious Syrian leaf, if they were still in ready supply. Certainly, many of them were good, some even great, and people who loved them seem to have really loved them. But, unobtainable things often take on a new level of importance in the minds of those who, if they cannot get something, want it even more, and therefore exert greater influence on the market. It’s human nature to want what we can’t have. Old Dunhill blends, Balkan Sobranie and Bohemian Scandal, for instance, sell for astronomical prices on ebay, not necessarily because they’re worth the money, not necessarily because they’re the best things since the discovery of beer, but simply because, in one case  there were only a couple thousand tins produced, and in all cases, because there ain’t no mo’ being made.

Nostalgia has value. People smoke old blends and are reminded of the past. This isn’t a bad thing. And, for some, conjuring up those old memories may be worth ten times the price. I’m certainly not going to remove myself from that pack. I have lots of vintage tins that I enjoy immensely, but I’m not sure that, even if I could afford to, I’d chase after them with my wallet flapping open if I didn’t have them on hand. There are  many really fine blends still being produced that can be enjoyed for much less than a new set of tires.

Steering this slightly back on track to discussion of Syrian Latakia, and the crux of this particular biscuit that began with Part I

For all practical purposes, at least from my perspective as a blender, Syrian Latakia, c’est finis. I continue to work with what I can get, and really like the blends I’ve been able to build without it. I’m not going to cry too much over the shortage, though I did for a time right after the fire. Instead, I will just keep blending and smoking the fine tobaccos I have access to, always with the hope that one or more of my creations will find favor in the pipes of others.

And, I will continue to not pretend the presence of rare ingredients that are not actually present in my blends in measurable proportion. It would be nice if everyone in the industry did the same.


Postscript: Here it is 2017 already. One manufacturer has recently announced running out of their supply of Syrian leaf, though they still have sufficient inventory of blended tobacco to sell them for a while to come. After that, these blends will be gone. They will not be reformulated, or have Cyprian snuck into the mix. They’ll simply disappear.

Some manufacturers continue to claim its presence, though after sticking my nose in a few tins last year, I’d say that if they are using it, it’s by adding a few strands to what is quite distinctly Cyprian. Another has admitted to having run out many years ago, but that they are just “using up” their old labels so as not to be wasteful. The problem is that most newer smokers, and even a lot of veterans, have never had the opportunity to taste or smell these two tobaccos in isolation, so the manufacturers can tell them anything, and they have no real way of knowing otherwise. Caveat emptor.

So it goes. Syrian hasn’t been produced in close to, if not over twenty years at this point, and then, it was in scant amounts. And, that’s just the way it is.