Let’s celebrate the return of Bengal Slices

The Celebrated Bengal Slices © GL Pease

The Celebrated Bengal Slices © GL Pease

Sometimes I think I was a pipe-smoker in a former life. You know, that sometimes you look at an old tobacco tin and you could swear you have seen it before, that it just speaks to you. That happened to me in my early pipe-smoking days when I browsed through the site of GL Pease and stumbled upon an article about The Celebrated Bengal Slices. I saw a dreamy picture of a classy, black rectangular tin with red letters and flags and even without looking at the text I thought: Woww.. That tobacco must be amazing! Of course, after reading the article I was disappointed because the blend was no longer made. Luckily, after some searching on e-bay I found a still sealed tin for a good price. I immediately bought it and when the postman delivered the package it did not take long for me to crack open the tin, fill up a pipe and smoke it. To be honest I was slightly disappointed, it tasted a bit flat and dull. Maybe my expectations were too high. Besides I saw that the tin was not made by the House of Sobranie but by Danish company A&C Petersen. Bummer.. I stashed away the tin (had never heard of mason jars back then) until some weeks ago when I was able to buy the latest incarnation of The Celebrated Bengal Slices. Of course I had to compare the both. But first some history.

Sobranie made Bengal Slices © Neill Archer Roan

Sobranie made Bengal Slices © Neill Archer Roan

It all started in the early 1950’s when the founder of Smokers’ Haven, Joseph Zieve, came up with an idea for a new, revolutionary tobacco. He was thinking of a full English blend that was cut, pressed and then cut into slices. That way, you could easily rub it out with only one hand and fill your pipe. It also had to be so compressed that you could carry a weeks supply on you without a big bulge in your pocket. Smokers’ Haven Krumble Kake was born as a blend and as a style (cut) of tobacco with the help of the legendary house of Sobranie which produced it. A couple decades later, in 1977 to be precise, when Krumble Kake was a huge success in the USA the Sobranie house decided to bring their own version on the market. They replicated Krumble Kake but made it unique by the addition of a special topping. It even was whispered that the new blend, called The Celebrated Bengal Slices, was the pressed and sliced version of the fabled Balkan Sobranie Smoking Mixture. But despite that the blend became only moderately popular. It was always eclipsed by the real stars of the Sobranie house: the better known and more widely available Balkan Sobranie mixtures.

A&C Petersen made Bengal Slices

A&C Petersen made Bengal Slices

In 1980 Gallaher took over the Sobranie trademarks. The Krumble Kake recipe and all of the equipment to make it was transferred over to J. F. Germain & Son who produced it for Smokers’ Haven. The production of Bengal Slices was transferred to the Manchester Tobacco Company (MTC) but was almost directly discontinued. However, the blend made a first comeback! Apparently Bengal Slices actually was a house blend prepared by the House of Sobranie for its jointly owned subsidiary James B. Russell Inc. (a well known tobacco importer / distributor). As such it was not a part of the 1980 transaction with Gallaher. James B. Russell Inc. owned the Bengal Slices trademark and retained control of the brand (I thank Jon Guss for this information). So in 1991 Danish company A&C Petersen began producing the blend for James B. Russell Inc. It maintained something of a cult following but it was too different from the original to really make an impact on sales. In 1999, possibly due to the impending acquisition of A&C Petersen by Orlik/Scandinavian Tobacco Group in 2000, The Celebrated Bengal Slices was discontinued, never to be seen again…

The Standard Tobacco Company made Bengal Slices

The Standard Tobacco Company made Bengal Slices

…Until 10 July 2015 when a message appeared on several pipe forums: “We are pleased to announce that the Board of Directors of The Standard Tobacco Company of Pennsylvania, today at 9:30 am executed the instrument conveying to Meier & Dutch the right to manufacture and distribute, under Standard Tobacco’s trademarks, War Horse, John Cotton’s blends, and Bengal Slices.” 3 friends with a passion for pipe-smoking, Dan, Simon, and Roger started the Standard Tobacco Company after a long evening of too much sake and sushi in the autumn of 2014. They talked about resurrecting long-dead trademarks of revered British blends. At first with a laugh and not really serious but later they began to ponder. What if… So with help of other friends they acquired the abandoned trademarks, unearthed lost recipes, investigated and chemically analysed vintage tins and interviewed people whose memories held the secrets of the old tobaccos. At a pipe-club meeting Dan asked master-blender Russ Ouellette if he was willing to help make the blends, and he was. Before Russ had created a tribute to Bengal Slices, Fusilier’s Ration, released in 2012. The Standard Tobacco project provided such a wealth of new research that it confirmed that his tribute blend was surprisingly accurate. With only some subtle refinements and improvements the new Celebrated Bengal Slices was ready to hit the shelves.

Bengal Slices TinPackage/tin:
A&C Petersen Bengal Slices:
Here the same rectangular tin is used as the old Sobranie made Bengal Slices. Only difference is that the tin itself is not black and on the label is says “Made in Denmark exclusively for James B Russell Inc.” instead of “Made in England exclusively for James B Russell Inc.”. I just love the artwork, being a Desktop Publisher I can really appreciate it. Because of the simple use of black, gold and red in the letters and flags the tin has a downright classy look. There is no further description on the tin.
Standard tobacco Bengal Slices: A round European style tin is used. A bit of a let down for me because for me the rectangular tin just has a more nostalgic feel. But they made up for that with the exquisite faithfully reproduced label. Amazing job well done! Because of the relief printing the images and texts pop out of the black background even more. On the backside is a sticker with amongst other things this description: Bengal Slices is a crumble cake made of Cyprian Latakia, outstanding Orientals, Bright Virginia and a touch of Black Cavendish, finished with a subtle top note.

IMG_4053Contents/Ingredients/cut:
A&C Petersen Bengal Slices: Upon opening the tin you see a gold paper in which the neatly stacked slices are wrapped. It looks organized, a feast for the eye, feels like you are unwrapping a box of delicious bonbons. The slices themselves are almost black with few colours protruding. I am not sure about the ingredients but I believe they are dark Virginias, black cavendish and quite a lot of Cyprian latakia. If there are orientals in the blend (which I doubt) it surely is not much. The cut is a classic crumble cake like Krumble Kake and Penzance.
Standard tobacco Bengal Slices: I was a bit disappointed when I opened the tin. A standard white wrapping paper with a round black insert upon loose random sized slices of presses tobacco. It just looked a bit messy compared to the neatly stacked contents of the A&C Petersen tin. The slices are more colourful and thicker than the old version. A joy to look at if only they were a bit more uniform. The ingredients are bright toasted Virginias, orientals, a bit of black cavendish and Cyprian latakia. The cut is a crumble cake like Seattle Pipe Club’s Mississippi River.

noseSmell from the tin:
A&C Petersen Bengal Slices: A dark, earthy, musty, leathery smell rises from the tin and that is pretty much it. I had to rehydrate the slices with the moist-towel-over-a-bowl technique so perhaps a part of the original topping was lost.
Standard tobacco Bengal Slices: This tobacco surely has a unique trademark smell. Aside from the leathery, woodsy latakia I detect a topping which, according to my nose, contains liquorice, chocolate, anise and a hint of vanilla. I can’t really compare it to any other blend I sniffed at. Only perhaps HU tobacco’s (excellent) RaiKo ChocoLat comes a bit close.

011Taste:
A&C Petersen Bengal Slices: When I lit the first pipe after the rehydration I almost thought the towel I used contained traces of soap. I got a faint floral / Lakeland note! Yuck! Yeahyeah, I am not a fan of Lakeland tobaccos ok? Later, when I re-read the GL pease article, I saw that the old Sobranie made Bengal Slices had such a floral taste so I guess that in that retrospect the Danish version was spot on. Once I overcame the soapy note I started to enjoy the tobacco a bit. A well balanced, dark, creamy and smooth blend wit not much going on. But in the second half of the bowl I began to lose interest. The basis taste stayed the same and I found the tobacco becoming monotonous. Damn, I really missed some oriental firework. With some effort I forced myself to fully smoke the pipe. Purely to determine if my first impression was right I smoked several bowls more, each time I came to the same conclusion: not my cup of tea.
Standard tobacco Bengal Slices: I first smoked this Bengal Slices version in the car while driving back home late in the evening. It was almost magical. The roads were quiet, the moon was high and bright, the music in the car slow and moody and I had one of my best first impressions of a tobacco ever. Upon lighting the bowl there immediately was thick, fat and creamy smoke coming off the pipe. The soft latakia in combination with the topping had an incense like quality, it tasted superb. Going further through the bowl I noticed that this was not a roller-coaster blend with different tastes at each puff, the flavour profile did not change much. You just got some leather and wood from the latakia, some sweet from the Virginias and black cavendish and some sour and spice from the orientals. All working in perfect harmony. After smoking more bowls I also detected a BBQ flavour sometimes weaving through the smoke (especially in the last part) and hints of white chocolate. In my opinion the strong point of the new Bengal Slices is the exquisite balance and great basic trademark flavour.

Miscellaneous:
A&C Petersen Bengal Slices: When I finally had dehydrated the slices they were fine to handle. Crumbling was easy, smoking also. Oh, this also goes for the Standard Tobacco slices, do not tamp the tobacco too hard when smoking. Otherwise you get a big chunk of ash on the bottom which clogs up the pipe. Nicotine level medium and no tongue bite.
Standard tobacco Bengal Slices: The tobacco was at first a bit on the dry side for me. Or I am just used to smoking wet.. Anyway, I could not help rehydrating the slices a little bit. Crumbling the blend is easy and that also goes for smoking it. In my opinion this one smokes a bit better than the old version. Nicotine level medium and only in a few pipes I had a tiny bit of tongue bite.

thumbsRoom-note:
A&C Petersen Bengal Slices: Ellen was mostly already at sleep when I smoked this one, but my nose said mwoah… Not too bad for a latakia blend.
Standard tobacco Bengal Slices: Here the Ellen-meter says: mwoah. She does not really like it (it contains latakia, duh!) but the smell is bearable.

moneyPrice:
A&C Petersen Bengal Slices: I bought the tin on e-bay 2 June 2011 and paid $26 (± €23) for it. Pretty good huh?
Standard tobacco Bengal Slices: At 4noggins you pay $12.79 (± €11,70) for a 1.75 oz. tin.

IMG_4057Conclusion:
A&C Petersen Bengal Slices: To be honest I am glad I don’t have to smoke this one any more. I don’t like the floral note, I don’t like the monotonous taste. like I said before, not my thing.
Standard tobacco Bengal Slices: I love this new incarnation of The Celebrated Bengal Slices. I smoked a lot of bowls of it and each time I was looking forward to the experience. My only comment is the shape of the tin, I rather see the beautifully elegant rectangular tin and the rough uneven slices. People at Lane Ltd. (manufacturer of the blend), can you please make neat slices of similar size and put them in a rectangular tin? The eye also wants something, let’s say it adds to the smoking experience. And that experience is already superb considering the young age of my tin. I can see the blend age very well so I definitely will stock up on this one. Standard Tobacco Company of Pennsylvania, thank you!

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Cut, cut, cut!

Tobacco cutting machine at DTM

Tobacco cutting machine at DTM

The cut of any tobacco is determined by the product that is going to be manufactured: pipe tobacco, cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco or snuff. Here I only will go into pipe tobacco cuts (and a bit of cigarette cuts). The ultimate goal of any tobacco manufacturer (or home blender) is to get a well mixed tobacco with a consistent uniformity in taste and “rate of burn”. That means it may not burn too fast (in which case it would probably burn hot) or too slow (which will require the smoker to relight often).

close-up-of-tobacco-pipe-smokingThe burning qualities of any blend are determined by the following factors:
1. The type of tobacco used. Thin leaved tobacco will burn better than tobacco with heavier leaves.
2. The moisture content of the tobacco. The degree of dryness affects the speed with which it burns.
3. The type of cut or cuts used. The air circulating around the shredded leaf determinates the rate of combustion. The denser the tobacco, such as plugs, the slower it will burn.
4. The amount of casing or flavouring used. The less casing applied to tobacco, the longer it will burn.

Below I described a lot of tobacco cuts. I am sure I missed some and sorting them out was pretty damn difficult.. Several tobacco cut descriptions are in essence the same. If you think I am wrong somewhere or you know cuts I have not described, please contact me so we all can benefit from that information. Anyway, here they are in alphabetical order:

broad cutBroad Cut: Wide ribbon-cuts which burn at an average pace and pack well are often called broad cut. The thickest cut, about twice as wide as a loose cut. Commonly used with air-cured Virginia which is then used to blend with other cuts.

broken flakeBroken Flake: Flake-form tobacco that has been partially broken up.

cake_plugCake: Cakes (also called “plugs”) are dense, hold their moisture well and therefore are handy to carry with you. But they require a little preparation before smoking. The smoker slices off a bit to the thickness he desires and rubs it between his hands to create a fine or coarse tobacco.  Whatever his preference is. It can also be cut into thicker slices and then cross-cut twice to make a rough cube-cut. Very versatile this one. Also see “Plug”.

cavendish cutCavendish Cut: In older blends, Cavendish was generally referred to as tobaccos which had been treated with flavourings or even sugar water. Sometimes they were steamed and then pressed, cut and rubbed-out. These were the original aromatics. Through the years the term has become broadly used and refers to many flavoured tobacco blends. Most of the times the Cavendish Cut was a long cut, between a fine cut and a ribbon cut, depending on the manufacturer.

4Coarse Cut: Ribbon cut containing some chunkier pieces.

coinsCoin: Thin tobacco circles which look like coins. You get those when you cut a navy plug, twist, rope or roll cake. The terms “Coin”, “Medallion”, “Roll Cut”, “Navy Cut” and “Spun Cut” are all pretty much interchangeable as they are all sliced off round-shaped, pressed (or spun) tobacco.

crimp cutCrimp Cut: This is a slightly smaller cut than the granulated one.

cross cutCross Cut: A broad cut that is cut twice, creating small squares.

krumble kakeCrumble Cake: Cakes that are made from ribbon-cut tobaccos. The smoker can easily break off a chunk, crumble it between the fingers and prepare it for smoking. This form shares the moisture-holding capacity of plugs. With the added convenience of being somewhat easier to make ready. The downside is that this form tends to break into small fragments. Which can clog the airway or burn too quick. So if you load a pipe with a crumble cake, put some bigger chunks in the bottom of the bowl and the small fragments on top.

crushed plugCrushed Plug: This tobacco is cut at right angles to a plug. It may be classified as a coarser and larger granulated tobacco cut.

cube cutCube Cut: Pressed tobacco which has been cut into fine or coarse cube-shaped pieces. The most common type is cube-cut Burley. The thick, chunky pieces burn slowly, so cube-cut tobaccos normally smoke quite cool.

curly cutCurly: Thin tobacco circles you get when you cut a navy plug, twist or roll cake. In my experience a curly cut tobacco is much rougher in appearance as for instance neatly stacked medallions in a tin.

fine cutFine Cut: Usually used for (roll-your-own) cigarette tobacco. This is a variation of a long cut and shag cut. Fine cut tobacco is cut between 30 and 40 times to the inch when it is to be used in pipe tobacco. In cigarette tobacco that is 50 to 90 times to the inch.

flakeFlake: Tobacco is placed under very high pressure with varying degrees of heat. It is then pressed into bricks and sliced into broad, flat flakes. These are typically about 1-2 inches wide and 0.1 inches thick. You fold or lightly rub the flake to put it in your pipe.  There can be many different tobaccos in a flake. These tobaccos benefit from the pressing because it allows their flavours, densities and moisture levels to marry. It will also help them to have a better synergy as they age. The most common flakes are based upon Virginia and Virginia-perique tobaccos. This because of the density of the flake the Virginia will burn more slowly so you get a cooler smoke.

granulatedGranulated Cut: tobacco is cut from stemmed leaf in irregularly shaped, medium sized flakes. Because this cut of tobacco packs quite well with air spaces between particles, it burns slow and cool.

Lanyard: See “Rope”.

Long Cut: See “Shag cut”.

loose cutLoose Cut: A long, thin ribbon cut. Commonly found in many Captain Black and Lane Bulk blends.

Navy PlugNavy Plug: This name was given because sailors would fill a long canvas tube with tobacco (or tightly wrap rope around tobacco) and sometimes add flavourings like rum, fruits and spices. Then the tube was twisted tight, mimicking the pressing process. This technique created a dense roll of tobacco about an inch thick which could be cut into smaller pieces or coins. In essence the navy plug is the same as a roll-cake.

navy cutNavy Cut: The slices you get when you cut a navy plug. Originally these had a round shape. Later tobacco manufacturers used the term more broadly and a Navy Cut could also be a rectangular flake or slice (for example Capstan). Good examples of round Navy Cut tobaccos are Escudo and Peter Stokkebye Luxury Bullseye Flake.

medaillionMedallion: See “Coin” and “Navy Cut”.

mixtureMixture: A term often seen on pipe tobacco packages. It simply is a mix of different tobacco types, cuts and flavours.

Plug: See “Cake”.

ready rubbedReady-rubbed: Flake tobacco that has been mechanically rubbed out so it can be readily smoked or combined with other cuts. Sometimes you see a regular ribbon cut with pieces of ready-rubbed Virginia flake. This way the Virginia can’t burn too fast and hot and the smoke is kept cool.

ribbon cutRibbon Cut: More narrow than a broad cut, this has a steady burn and it packs well. It is a good cut for tobaccos that don’t burn easily. Often you see latakia as a ribbon cut because of its poor burning qualities.

roll cakeRoll Cake: Similar to a Navy Plug, round in appearance.

roll cutRoll Cut: A sliced version of roll cake. See “Medallion” and “Coin”.

rope tobaccoRope: The tobacco is spun by machine into long ropes which can be as much as 60 feet long which are then cut in larger pieces for sale. There are a few of these ropes which are cut into coins before they are finally packed.

rough cutRough Cut: Tobaccos which are cut into larger flat pieces, a heavier version of the granulated cut. This cut burns slowly and can be used to keep hotter tobaccos from burning too fast.

shag cutShag Cut: Tobacco which is finely cut/shredded into long threads. It is thinner and longer than a ribbon cut. It may range from a 19th of an inch to a 16th in width and in length from a half inch to an inch.  Virginia tobaccos lend themselves to this cut because of their large leaf size. A shag cut can easily pack too tightly and burns very well. Just like a fine cut this cut is common for roll-your-own cigarette tobaccos as well.

slicesSlices: In essence the same as flakes. The only noticeable difference is the thickness; slices are thicker than flakes. One of the most well-knows tobaccos of this type is (of course) Troost Slices.

Spun Cut: See “Curly” “Coin” and “Medallion”.

square cutSquare Cut: Flakes which are cut in squares, the picture is not so good but the only one I could find. A good example of a square cut is Mick McQuaid Square Cut.

twistTwist: Similar to rope. Leaves are layered and then twisted tightly to mature the tobacco. That is why many ropes and twists tend to be rather strong in flavour and nicotine content. It can be sliced into coins for pipe smoking or cut in thicker chunks for chewing.

If I have forgotten any tobacco cuts or if you have any comments, please let me know!