In my blog-posts Latakia Lover and Syrian Latakia I described the dark leaf that comes from Syria and why it is so rare these days. In fact, there are only two companies of which I am 100% certain that they still have it: Danish based Mac Baren and American based McClelland. Important to know is that they both use Syrian latakia that originates from the same stock! Which is the reason for this post. I was curious what was the better, tastier blend that contains the fire-cured shekk-el-bint: Mac Baren HH Vintage Syrian or McClelland 3 Oaks Syrian. I choose these blends because there is no other type of latakia in them. For example, McClelland Wilderness also contains Cyprian latakia.
HH Vintage Syrian: The inspiration for the recipe of HH Vintage Syrian originates back to the start of Mac Baren Tobacco more than 120 years ago. This blend is typical for that time and it is easy to describe as a “back to nature” tobacco. The reason for calling this tobacco HH is quite simple. HH are the initials of the founder of Mac Baren Tobacco: Mr. Harald Halberg. If you look closely you will find the same initials in the small Mac Baren logo at the top-centre of the tin. It is incorporated into the shield held by the lions.
3 Oaks Syrian: The original 3 Oaks Syrian was composed by Ted Gage for the Bufflehead Smoke Shop in the Kansas City area. In 2005 or 2006 there were changes in the laws for mail orders which went outside the state. These ruined the thriving store and it had to close down. In 2009 McClelland started manufacturing the blend according to the original recipe.
HH Vintage Syrian: Syrian latakia, oriental, Virginia, Kentucky. Coarse cut, so that means it can contain some chunky pieces. Surprisingly enough this blend contains (or should contain) more Syrian latakia than 3 Oaks Syrian but the looks do not show it. 3 Oaks is darker in appearance.
3 Oaks Syrian: Syrian latakia, oriental, Virginia. Ribbon cut which I also found to be a bit chunky.
HH Vintage Syrian: A flat stylish 100 gr. tin with a black lid containing a stylized illustration of a lion’s head. “The base of the blend, a little under half of the volume, is a smooth and yet powerful Latakia from Syria. This tobacco gives the blend the overall smoky taste, a powerful taste and yet without any tongue bite. To add a spicy note to the blend, Turkish Oriental has been added. A mix of different Virginia tobaccos from 3 continents adds a sweet natural taste. To complete the taste with depth and body, we added a little Dark Fired Kentucky from the US. The HH-Vintage Syrian Latakia is a loose cut tobacco, which guarantees a smooth and steady burn. It does not get hot which means you will find extremely little bite on your tongue. When you empty your pipe after smoking, you will find only fine grey ashes, the sign of a slow and dry smoke.”
3 Oaks Syrian: A typical 50 gr. American “pop” tin with a yellow label. On it is an illustration of a weapon shield with the name of the blend and oak-leaves around it. “Rare Syrian Latakia, with its renowned mellow smokiness, is balanced with naturally sweet Orientals and aged Virginia leaf to create a satisfying blend reminiscent of classic Syrian Latakia blends of old. Formulated by Tad Gage to reflect the character of original Three Oaks Pipe Tobacco, it tantalizes with intriguing differences.”
Smell from the tin:
HH Vintage Syrian: When I opened the tin it did not smell like an average Cyprian latakia blend. Yes you can smell the smoky dark leaf but nothing overpowering. It reminds me of the current time of the year, autumn, with its fallen leaves. Imagine smelling a campfire in an October-time forest from 100 meters away that mainly consists of dry and half-dry autumn leaves. I also detect a certain sweetness that (I think) comes from the Virginias.
3 Oaks Syrian: Even more muted than the smell of HH Vintage Syrian is the tin-odour of 3 Oaks Syrian. It just whispers “subtle”. Fortunately there is almost no hint of the typical McClelland “ketchup” smell. Maybe when you have freshly opened the tin, but after some time that odour vanishes. Overall there is a certain kind of mustiness with none of the contents overpowering each other.
HH Vintage Syrian: What surprised me when I first lit this blend was the overall sweetness. Hmm, I think the Virginias are cased.. However, this sweetness combines nicely with the herbal flavours of the orientals. But undeniably the star of this mixture is the Syrian latakia which unlike its Cyprian cousin has a warm, broad, smooth and subtle taste of smoky incense, sandalwood and red wine. It just says, ey, don’t worry, I am here, I will not overpower the rest of the contents, just sit back and enjoy. If you smoke very slow you can sometimes taste hints of apricot and apple-cider which I found fascinating. Halfway the bowl the sweetness goes away and the nutty Kentucky comes a bit more to the front. This stays until the end of the bowl when there is only fine grey ash left.
3 Oaks Syrian: The first time I tried this blend I only smoked pipe for half a year. I found it to be too mild and flavourless. I reluctantly finished the tin and gave away some. Some months ago I decided to pop open another tin. I let it air for several days and loaded some in my beloved Dunhill patent era Shell Briar prince. After all my taste buds had improved in the 2,5 years after I first tried the blend. With the charring light I got a symphony of flavours. 3 Oaks does not contain as much Syrian latakia as Vintage Syrian so the orientals get to shine more. Which they do halfway the bowl. I think the Virginias used are mainly the red variant because of the breadlike, yeast taste I experience throughout the smoke. At the end of the bowl the flavours get a bit more dark, like in dark chocolate. Here also a fine grey ash is left. What struck me about this blend is the subtleness and complexity. I now smoke for a bit over 3 years but I still feel my taste buds are not up to par with what this mixture has to offer. It reminded me a bit of the John Cotton’s No. 1 Mild I smoked before. There is magic happening but you have to carefully, with your full attention, search for it.
HH Vintage Syrian: No problems here, even if you are not paying full attention during the smoke you do not have to re-lit often.
3 Oaks Syrian: This one is more difficult to keep lit is my experience. Like if saying, if I do not have your attention I might as well go out..
HH Vintage Syrian & 3 Oaks Syrian: My girlfriend Ellen seems to handle Syrian latakia better then the Cyprian dark leaf. She still does not like it but at least she does not force me to sit at the other end of the room in my smoking chair. When I smoke one of the blends in the late evening I notice a nice, faint incense smell the next morning. My benchmark that the used latakia was of high-quality.
HH Vintage Syrian: In my first months as a pipe smoker I tried a couple of generally available Mac Baren blends and they bit me HARD. Later I learned that I was not the only one who experienced the phenomenon. So when I first lit up this blend I was fearful of the dreaded “Mac Bite”. And.. It did not happen to my relief! Ok, if you provoke it by puffing way to hard it will bite you, but that goes for a lot of blends. In the nicotine department I would rate this one light-medium to medium.
3 Oaks Syrian: This blend benefits from a bit of airing time when you have opened it. The flavours will improve then. If you like a nicotine shot while smoking, don’t go for this blend. It is just way too mild. A disadvantage of 3 Oaks was that it did not shine in many of my pipes. Only in a couple I had the impression that I got a lot out of the blend. HH Vintage Syrian on the contrary tasted good in all pipes I smoked it in.
HH Vintage Syrian: At 4noggins you pay $13,43 (± €9,88) for a 100 gr. tin. In Germany such a tin will set you back at €19,75 (± $26,84).
3 Oaks Syrian: At 4noggins you pay $10,49 (± €7,72) for a 50 gr. tin.
And my winner is…… *drumroll* HH Vintage Syrian! I admit I am not a Mac Baren fan. Often I called the brand Mac Blahren, masters of mediocrity, never a satisfying smoke only a burned tongue. Well… I had to swallow those words bigtime for their magnificent HH Vintage Syrian blend. Mac Baren did an amazingly good job with the creation of this almost divine mixture. A classic. That also goes for McClelland’s 3 Oaks Syrian despite it being second. Maybe in a couple of years when my taste buds have (hopefully) developed even more it can push off HH Vintage Syrian of the Syrian latakia throne. Only too bad the supply of Syrian latakia is not infinite. Until when can we enjoy these blends? No one precisely knows but I hope long enough for me to squirrel away a vast amount of tins in my tobacco closet.