Pipe smokers will soon have the rare opportunity to try a new varietal included in some special and limited blends from the Sutliff Tobacco Company— Perique-Processed Katerini.
A high grade of the rare Oriental leaf has been anaerobically pressure fermented in barrels—the same process that Perique undergoes—resulting in an extraordinary, new (and unfortunately, finite) blending ingredient.
These blends will be included in the Birds of a Feather series—six mixtures developed by Mac Baren master blender Per Jensen. Although only two of these blends will feature Perique-Processed Katerini, each will include at least one special, scarcely utilized ingredient.
Details on the series are forthcoming, but in the meantime, we wanted to focus in on this novel varietal—what it is, how it came to be, what makes it unique. Of course, the best way to do that was to get in touch with the person responsible for the innovation. It will come as no surprise, it’s the man whose name is synonymous with Perique, Mark Ryan.
As many are familiar, Mark Ryan runs L. A. Poche—the largest operation processing Perique today.
A quick background on the Perique process
Perique is not so much a type of tobacco, but the result of specific tobacco undergoing a unique process of pressure fermentation. It’s that pressure fermentation that's referred to when we talk about another tobacco that has been “Perique-Processed.”
Pressure fermenting Perique involves packing the tobacco leaf tightly into used whiskey barrels where it stays under up to 30 tons of pressure for at least a year while going through anaerobic fermentation in its own juices. Every few months, the barrel will be emptied, and the tobacco will be turned and repacked.
The lore proposes that the practice of pressure fermenting tobacco was being done by the Choctaw and Chickasaw natives for centuries by packing tobacco into a hollowed-out tree trunk and weighing it down with stones (1).
It’s also been suggested that, given the similarities in tobacco and processing to the Dominican Andullo, early Spanish or French settlers may have brought Perique to Louisiana from the Caribbean. If this is the case, the innovation would likely trace back to the native inhabitants of the Dominican Republic prior to Spanish settlements on the island (1, 2).
Whatever the true origin, it was around the early 19th century that Pierre Chenet, an Acadian who settled in St James Parish, Louisiana, began the practice of pressure fermentation on the local Burley-like leaf. Through the years, many farmers and processors have kept this niche yet beloved varietal alive, but at the time that Ryan took the reins from Mr. Poche in 2005, L. A. Poche was one of the last two remaining processors. There were still farmers growing the tobacco, but Perique has long been a collaboration between the farmer and processor.
Not only did Ryan preserve Perique, but he was the first to experiment with putting other types of tobacco through the Perique process. These innovations include:
- Acadian Black - Ryan put Dark-Fired Kentucky tobacco through the barrel fermentation process resulting in a unique condiment many may remember from two bygone blends, McClelland’s Royal Cajun Ebony and Ryan’s own mixture, Daughters & Ryan’s (D & R) Rimboché A.B. The tobacco continues to be featured in Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve cigars from Drew Estate.
- Acadian Gold - Ryan put Bright Virginias through the Perique process, resulting in Acadian Gold. It would be used in Russ Ouellette's RO Series, including one option that was 100% Acadian Gold. Unfortunately, only a few barrels were fermented and it was curtains for the malty, unique Virginia.
And now, Perique-Processed Katerini. But like Acadian Gold, this one won't be around too long.
Perique-Processed Katerini - From idea to reality
When Ryan bought L. A. Poche in 2005, he was already running D & R. Launched in 1992, many of us recognize the brand for their popular pipe tobacco mixtures, but before their focus was on pipe blends, it was on roll-your-own. Ryan sold a majority stake of D & R to Inter-Continental Trading USA in 2020, but over the years he accumulated some very special varietals.
“We were premium, high-end, roll-your-own back in the hay day,” Ryan tells me. “I used to do exotic blends and sometimes when I would acquire some exotic inventory, I’d keep a bale or two back to do other things with other than mass blending, or I’d hold it for future blends, and I happened to have some of that super high-grade Katerini that was A B.”
A few years back, Ryan decided to see what would happen if he tried to pressure ferment this Katerini.
The challenges of Perique Processing
Fermenting a different leaf in a process like this isn’t a simple substitution. The traditional process has long been efficaciously refined, finetuned distinctly for Perique. However, physical differences between the Perique source-leaf and Katerini introduces obstacles, the chemical differences from one leaf to another will impact how each ferment. This was an experiment, by no means a guarantee.
One such disparity, Orientals such as Katerini are significantly smaller crops, producing smaller leaves than fellow strains in the nicotiana tabacum family.
“With the tobacco that makes Perique, you frog-stem it,” Ryan explains. “You cut down about three or four inches from the tip and you remove the main rib…well with those little, tiny leaves, obviously you can’t do that.”
Usually, the larger leaves allow Ryan and his team at L. A. Poche to tie and bundle them—a great convenience as the barrel, packed with 500 lb of tobacco, is opened two or three times throughout the fermentation process to “turn” it, or reverse the order of the leaves. The petite Katerini isn’t so obliging.
“Well, we did the same thing with the Katerini except we didn’t have big leaves so we didn’t tie them to strings,” says Ryan. “We just packed it in, you know, tightly in the corners in the used-up whiskey barrels and put ‘em under pressure and they fermented.”
Being unstrung and so tightly packed, the Katerini was especially difficult to remove from the barrels to aerate and repack the leaf. “Well, the big leaves, you can grab it but with the little stuff, it’s not so easy,” Ryan says.
Processing any tobacco in this manner is always an arduous task—even the frog-stemmed and bundled Perique is labor intensive. The Katerini only proved more difficult.
When doing the final turn for the first barrels of the Perique-Processed Katerini, Ryan took about 100 lb home with him to North Carolina and sealed them in airtight bags. They were left to mature for more than a year.
“I opened one of the bags and…it did not smell right. It had the exaggeration on the dirty sock element more than anything else.”
So, after all this time and labor, it seemed the whole effort could be a bust. It’s a risk you take when trying to push the envelope, but still a tough pill to swallow. The remaining bags were left sealed. It would be more than a year before Ryan would try to open another. But when he finally did...
“It smelled awesome, man,” he exclaims, leaning into each word as if reliving that elated relief. “It was one of the best smelling tobaccos I ever smelled, just gorgeous.”
A sweet victory but perhaps a small one…which was the fluke? With a few more bags and two barrels full, which way would they go?
Sharing at the CORPS Pipe Show
This all occurring right before the Sutliff hosted 2021 CORPS Pipe Show, Ryan headed to Richmond, Virginia with two bags—the great smelling one, and another that was still sealed. “I brought it just to show off, right?” Ryan explains, recalling the excitement of sharing his creation. “I said, ‘I don’t know if the other eight bags that I have are like this or if the two barrels [are] but man, I opened this, I just gotta show you guys, you’re gonna freak.’”
And the new Perique-Processed Katerini certainly did cause a stir. “People were dying for—ya know, to smell it, to get a little sample of it.”
I get the sense that this is what it’s about for Ryan. Not the praise, but the moment that the work becomes real. It’s not very often pipe smokers get to indulge in a truly new blending component, and it was there at the CORPS Pipe Show that the source of a quiet, inward excitement—a private anticipation—could be turned outward, provoking the shared elation between those who can genuinely appreciate this novelty for what it is.
That said, climbing any higher would make the fall all that more brutal if the ambrosial bag was the anomaly—if the others leaned into that “dirty sock element” like the first bag. Ryan opened the sealed bag. Another success.
Among those rejoicing were some of the folks from Sutliff. “They said, ‘well, see if the others are good and, ya know, we’ll take ‘em and do a blend,’ and sure enough I opened those bags and they were perfect, man.”
What makes Perique-Processed Katerini special
Katerini, originating from seed from Samsun and introduced by growers who were compelled to leave Samsun, Turkey, centers around Katerini. It is an exceptionally light, readily combustible, light-golden tobacco of delicate aroma.
- Aromatic or Oriental Tobaccos by Frederick A. Wolf (3)
As sweet an origin story it may be, you’d probably like to know a little about this varietal’s characteristics. Let’s see if we can’t start painting a picture.
First, consider the source leaf—an Oriental. Katerini has a higher nicotine content for an Oriental, but that’s still relatively low for the overall range of nicotiana tabacum. In regard to strength, it’s more mellow than Perique. But it’s full of flavor.
Orientals are notorious for their distinct flavor. This is what made Orientals and Latakia (itself a fire-cured Oriental) especially popular is English mixtures during the era of Purity Laws when tobacconists were heavily restricted in using flavor additives, thus resorting to tobacco with naturally bold flavor (or more naturally imparted flavor, i.e., fire curing). Ryan talks about the “continuum” of Oriental profiles, “they used to be called aromatics without implying chemical flavor because they have prominent notes. And it’s a different continuum, but it’s got a sweet smell, a hay smell...”
Burleys are notorious for the body they can bring to a blend but feature a more subtle flavor profile—part of what makes them such great base components. But when a tobacco is pressed and fermented in its own juices, even a more subtle profile takes on a powerful flavor that must be used sparingly on the pain of dominating the blend, as we can see from Perique. So how has this process affected the naturally aromatic Katerini?
“It’s just stunning,” says Ryan. “It’s got this fermented fruit [flavor], it’s just so remarkable.”
Here’s how Jensen describes it in his description for one of the blends in his collaboration with Sutliff:
“Katerini tobacco is an oriental tobacco growing on the mainland in Greece. For the first time in history the Katerini is fermented after the original perique recipe, the result is sublime. Katerini perique has a lighter taste than normal perique, and as an extra gain, it develops a deep raisin/fruity taste.”
It really isn’t like any tobacco I’ve ever smelled or tasted. It does have that dark fruitiness, I think even a berry taste to it, but nothing like you would find in the candy aisle. It’s natural and deep.
“It’s just a real special, exotic product,” Ryan explains. “I mean, you’re starting with stuff that you can’t get very much anymore—Orientals are hard to get.”
And that brings us to the sad reality. The blends we will soon see from Sutliff that include Perique-Processed Katerini will grace us so long as Sutliff’s stock of the tobacco lasts. But when the cask is dry, that’s it for those blends and the varietal.
Enjoy it while it lasts - Difficulties sourcing Orientals
Well, can’t more of this high-grade Katerini be obtained? Not likely.
The term Oriental covers a continuum of different strains that grow in or around the Balkan Peninsula. Each strain is named for its native region: Xanthi, Izmir, Samsun. Katerini is a Greek municipality and native region of the eponymous strain.
Being subcategories of what we broadly call Orientals, these strains share similar attributes—compared to Virginia or Burley, one plant has far more leaves, but they are much smaller. Orientals have a lower nicotine content and dynamic flavor profiles. They’re noted for their spice, but sun-curing retains the leaves’ natural sugars imparting a slight sweet note. However, subtle biological differences as well as environmental differences between where the subcategories are grown, such as climate and soil, results in shades of nuance from one Oriental to another.
When a blend description lists Orientals among its ingredients, that’s probably because it’s a mix of these strains. It has become increasingly difficult to source specific Oriental varietals over the years. They are mostly sold mixed together to reflect the preferences of the majority of the market, i.e., cigarette manufacturers. It may seem counter intuitive, but the mixing is actually an effective way for cigarette manufacturers to maintain consistency.
If a blend’s “Oriental component” comes from a mix of different Orientals, the impact of losing one of the mixture’s ingredients will be far less perceptible than if one strain must be switched for another altogether.
This isn’t anything especially new, it’s been something pipe tobacco blenders have reckoned with for quite some time now. One notorious example is the legendary Balkan Sobranie, which once famously included Yenidje. Dunhill also had to contend with the dilemma, as laid out in Dunhill historian John C Loring’s article Dunhill Pipe Tobacco 1907 - 1990—
|Beginning in the 1960s there were major, adverse, developments in the supply of Oriental tobaccos. The complexities of some of Dunhill’s blends depended upon being able to source individual Oriental sub-varieties, but beginning in the 1960’s there was an increasing tendency for leaf from various localities to be bulked and sold together.|
These trends have snowballed in the decades passed, especially in the twenty-first century. Shifts in attention to other crops; development of the tourism industry; young, potential laborers migrating to Western European nations; and the cessation of subsidies for tobacco from the EU constitute some of the reasons that many varietals under the Oriental banner have become increasingly difficult to source (4).
That’s not to say no strains are discretely accessible. Cornell & Diehl, for instance, use a mixture of Izmir and Basma as their standard Oriental component. This isn’t a case of buying premixed Orientals, but of creating their own Oriental component out of varietals that could be individually sourced. They also have a stock of Katerini that’s used for blends such as Bijou and Innsmouth, but this is from one large (unfortunately dwindling) stock.
“Katerini [is a] pretty rare tobacco to be able to find, particularly these days,” explains Cornell & Diehl head blender Jeremy Reeves. “But we have a decent stash of it and it’s all from the 2006 crop and we’ve not seen any available since that time.”
In some cases, the issue isn’t so much the availability of an individual Oriental, but the feasibility of access for smaller operations. When we’re talking in the context of the whole tobacco market, even the largest manufacturers in the pipe tobacco market are but little fish.
“Volumes are so low you can’t really put an order together because you’d be ordering enough for 10 years,” explains Ryan. “If you gotta bring in a container of Katerini, or a container of Izmir, a container of Samsun…you’re hurting man, because the volumes for sale just don’t justify that anymore. It was really unusual that I had this [Katerini], particularly at that high grade.”
Putting Perique-Processed Katerini to use
Pipe and cigar smokers are no strangers to finite pleasures. From companies closing their doors, to the loss of varietals, to the recipe tweaks ushered in by the changing of hands—it’s a reality of the hobby. Frost was surely talking about Acadian Gold when he wrote that “nothing gold can stay,” right?
It’s all the more reason to enjoy what we have while we have it, and that we make the best of it. Knowing that this wonderful, limited varietal could only end up in a couple blends, I was curious what Ryan thought about Jensen being the blender behind those mixtures. Did he feel the task of showcasing Perique-Processed Katerini was in the right hands?
“Oh my god, yes. He’s got a remarkable palate and if anyone can make something special it’d certainly be him. And having good ingredients does not hurt…He knows how to blend things which naturally go together, and he’s got so many years of experience.”
Here under the Sutliff roof, that’s certainly our feeling as well. More information on the series will be coming soon, but for now, we will tell you that the first blend to be released will be your first opportunity to taste Perique-Processed Katerini. Keep on the lookout for Uno.
- Rense, W. C. (1970). The Perique Tobacco Industry of St. James Parish, Louisiana: A world monopoly. Economic Botany, 24(2), 123–130. https://www.jstor.org/stable/4253131
- Allard, H. A., & Allard, H. F. (1947). Andullo and Perique—Dominican and Louisiana Tobacco. Agriculture in the Americas, VII, 123–126. https://play.google.com/books/reader?id=mTRHAQAAIAAJ&pg=GBS.PA122&hl=en
- Wolf, F. A. (1962). Turkish or Oriental Tobaccos: Vol. c. 1 (Duke University Press, Ed.) [E-book]. Durham, N. C., Duke University Press. Retrieved April 2, 2022, from https://archive.org/details/aromaticororient01wol...
- Filiposki, K., Pesevski, M., Ralevic, N., & Kabranova, R. (2010). Production of Oriental Tobaccos in the Balkan Countries. Tytyh/Tobacco, 60, 94–102. http://www.tobaccobulletin.mk/pdfs/vol%2060%207-12%204..pdf