The early navigators discovered that the tobacco plant was wide-spread (though concentrated most heavily about the Caribbean basin). In the last five centuries, the two major species of the plant(Nicotiana rustica, and !Nicotiana tabacum) have been cropped throughout the world - rustica, with its yellow flowers and large leaves, in Brazil, Asia Minor, Hungary and certain parts of France; tabacum, with its red or pink flowers, in Cuba, the United States, Malaya, Turkey, Central Africa, and certain parts of France and Algeria.
Two centuries ago, tobacco manufacturers had a lot to learn about quality, curing and blending. There were no 'brands' Each town had its tobacconist who prepared his own tobacco from bulk leaf, which arrived in barrels loaded on carts. From these local tobaccos and snuff shops sprang the great tobacco firms like Gallaher, Players and Rothmans. Gradually the qualities were graded, blends were suited to tastes, and the art of pipesmoking developed.
By the end of the l9th century tobacco started to be known by its brand. We know that Thackeray smoked 'Three Castles' because he mentions it with affection in The Virginians. James Barrie, in My Lady Nicotine, praises 'Craven Mixture' Compton Mackenzie, author of Sublime Tobacco (whose resolution every year was not to give up smoking) smoked 'John Cotton's No. 2 Medium' which demands careful blending. first bought from Cooke's in the High at Oxford. (At Cooke's generations of undergraduates bought their first pipes and chose their first blends, encouraged by "Try an ounce of this, sir - the Prince of Wales always preferred it when he was up".)
Today, seven types of leaf are in general use for tobacco blending:
VIRGINIA: a sweet-tasting and light tobacco which forms a large part of the content of pipe tobacco in the UK.
BURLEY: an air-cured tobacco, mild yet distinctive in flavour, which provides the base for many mixtures.
SUN CURED: a stronger tobacco with a very full flavour
FIRE CURED: the strongest of all full-strength tobaccos, though it provides an exceptionally cool smoking quality.
ORIENTAL: grown largely in the Balkans and eastern Mediterranean: and providing a distinctively aromatic smoke.
LATAKIA: again, a product of the eastern Mediterranean, and used in certain mixtures to give a distinctive flavour.
PERIQUE: grown largely around New Orleans, and subject to a curing process known to only one family, perique is used as a seasoner for other pipe tobaccos, providing a distinctive taste and aroma.
Ultimately the pleasure of a good tobacco lies in the blending process: individual manufacturers jealously guard the secrets of their own brands, which are as numerous and distinctive as individual pipe designs - from the richness of Latakia-based mixture, to the mellowness of certain of the Virginia flakes. The beginner is faced with a surfeit of choice, and it is only by trial and error that he will find the exact blend to meet his taste.
Initially, however, a couple of points are well worth bearing in mind: that the lighter and more fine-cut the tobacco, the hotter and quicker it is to burn. The more moist, heavy and coarse the mix, the slower it is to burn and the more it relies on expertise to keep alight. Between these extremes there is a wide range of choice and it is possibly better for the new Pipeman to select one of the blander varieties before experimenting with any of the more exotic, or rarefied brands. He should ideally start with a medium strength, ready-rubbed tobacco of a medium cut. Alternatively, imported tobaccos from Holland and Scandinavia offer many advantages to the new Pipesmoker. They are relatively mild, aromatic and pleasantly flavoured, with the additional advantage of staying alight easily. The golden rule is to keep trying and experiment with other brands. Sometimes the beginner may give up too soon just because he has got hold of the wrong tobacco for his palate.