I get this question a lot; “What is the best way to cellar your tobacco?” Despite the fact that I’ve been “cellaring” pipe tobacco since the early 1980’s, I am no expert on the subject. I am full of opinions though. I personally think that the answer varies, depending on how you plan to cellar your precious leaf. Are you talking about storing your tobacco in a monstrous 20 X 40 foot climate controlled building? Or, maybe a much smaller “man cave” (room or basement in your home?) Or, your hall closet? The answer depends upon you and your needs. And hey, the world’s best tobacco blenders don’t agree on the best way to age leaf either. Some believe that sealing tins with some air, like Pease & McClelland’s, is the best method. Others, such as Dunhill and Orlik, believe that leaf with no air, is the best way to go.
A couple of things that I do think are VERY IMPORTANT. First, find that man cave that fits your needs. If you are planning to cellar a lot of tinned tobacco; you need an environment that is cool, dark, dry and low on humidity. High humidity will cause tins to rust and you don’t want that! If you have a lot of mason jars, then dark and cool is most important because you won’t have to worry about rust developing on glass, but you will have to worry about moisture buildup in jars with too much air in it. You will have to worry about sunlight too, because the more sunlight that hits your mason jars, the more “sweating” occurs inside the jars due to heat build-up. This can sap the tobacco of important oils – particularly with Virginia leaf that has a high sugar content. You don’t want the sugars (sucrose) to heat up and harden and humidity will do that. In fact, that combination will strip your tobacco of the flavor enhancing fermentation process which is what you are seeking in the first place, especially if you are opening and closing the jars frequently which allows fresh oxyginated air in each time.
Tobacco in tins with air captured within, such as McClelland’s and Pease tins, are fermenting properly as the leaf slowly emits gasses that causes the tins to swell up a bit over a period of years. This is a wonderful thing! It tells you that the components of the tobacco are fermenting properly. It is an anaerobic reaction, which means it requires no oxygen to be present other than the oxygen atoms contained in the tins and sugars in the tobacco. It is sort of like bathing your tobacco over and over again in its natural juices. The concept is similar to basting a turkey at Thanksgiving. Yummy! So, when a sealed tin of pipe tobacco looks a little gassy, it’s one of those “thank you,” things rather than one of those “excuse me,” things.
There are other confounding things about aging tobacco that only your own experimentations can help you figure out, such as which blends become silky smooth with age and which ones don’t. I’ve personally found that some blends age fast (particularly Virginias), while others, such as Burley and Orientels (and yes, Latakia is an Oriental) will age much more slowly. And don’t forget that all tobacco offers a different taste sensation with aging. Let’s use the old, original House of Sobranie Balkan Sobranie White as an example. When I bought it fresh in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, I wasn’t that fond of it because it had a stronger Latakia taste. But, whenever I was fortunate enough to crack open a 40-year old tin (I wasn’t fortunate very often), I loved it! The Latakia element had softened considerably, allowing the Virginia and Oriental leaf within to really come to the front. Unlike some people, I don’t think Latakia starts going south after 20 or so years. I think it simply softens and still offers a desirable taste sensation. And in the case of my own taste preferences, often times the taste sensation of Latakia is better after many years of smoothing out.
Since I make a living by selling aged tobacco, it isn’t going to surprise any of you when I say that if you have favorite blends that taste better to you with 3-5 years of age, you are spot on. And if you manage to grab a favorite with 20-years of age, then I can guarantee you that popping that tin and smoking a bowl will shock and amaze you. I can’t go scientific on you regards what is happening to make the leaf so much better, but I can say this, whatever happens in that tin over a two decade period is a wonderful thing. When I get the chance to sit out on my back patio with a 20-year old favorite pipe weed in one of my well enjoyed pipes, I feel like I’m walking on a soft cloud stairway to heaven!