TRIAL BY FIRE
by Tad Gage and Joe Harb
Samuel Gawith Twist Tobaccos
Reviewed this issue are eight rope tobaccos from Samuel Gawith, a company with a long, historic tobacco tradition. The comments for this issue are in narrative form rather than our typical format of considering each tobacco separately, so that our reviewers can each provide an overview of the tobacco type and focus on their individual experiences with the group.
To sample Samuel Gawith twist tobaccos is to take a journey back in time. Back to an era when you can almost imagine yourself on the deck of a three-masted ship, thinking about your last port of call and looking forward to the next, listening to the wind making the taut ropes all around you sing while the tips of the canvas sails create a rhythmic thrumming as your ship knifes through slightly choppy ocean waters.
You reach into one pocket of your trousers and extract a black, tightly bound roll of tobacco. In the other pocket, you know your trusty knife stands at the ready to turn this fat twist of tobacco into one of the simplest yet highest pleasures you can experience in your rather spartan, waterlogged existence.
OK, before I start shouting �Ahoy mateys!� or doing a really bad pirate imitation, let me return to the business of reviewing tobaccos. This session, �Trial By Fire� goes really retro with Samuel Gawith twist tobacco, a form of tobacco that is as old as the 215-year-old company that manufactures it.
Twist, also called rope, was the perfect form of tobacco for portability and flexibility. Sweet Virginia tobaccos, heated, steamed, pressed and twisted into ropes, served as their own humidified tobacco pouch. Easily transported in pocket or valise, these tightly rolled leaves stayed moist and flexible. They resisted the elements, or the sweat or seawater that sometimes soaked your pockets. Disks could be sliced off, crumbled and smoked, or the moist tobacco could be chewed. Left to dry, it could be crushed to powder and snuffed. It was easy enough to slice off a chunk to share with a friend, or to barter with for a particularly ripe mango. Did you know that ropes of tobacco were used as currency in colonial America and other places?
It�s amazing to me that a form of tobacco so fundamentally archaic has been preserved into the 21st century. Yet Gawith keeps spinning out this unique product, giving us a real blast from the past.
The final product is dense and intense. The heating, curing and pressing process leaves this form of tobacco high in sugars, without tongue burn, and very high in nicotine. Most of the Gawith ropes are very spicy due to the intensity of nicotine. To inhale this tobacco requires an iron lung. It should be sipped and savored and is best after a meal. Smoking something this heavy on an empty stomach is a bit risky.
Gawith produces its rope with a wide variety of natural flavoring options, but the basic product is Brown Irish Twist. All of these tobaccos, rolled in cylinders, are extremely moist. The moisture content makes them ready to chew but they must be dried out to smoke. They will not stay lit unless they are sliced and dried.
Before I discuss the characteristics of twist tobacco and offer a few suggestions for preparing the tobacco for smoking, I�ll share a taster�s secret. One way that the really savvy tobacco blenders and manufacturers analyze tobaccos, and one that I picked up to enhance my ability to review and analyze pipe tobaccos, is to nibble on bits of tobacco. Pipe tobacco isn�t tasty, but this form of testing does enable me to pinpoint specific flavor components.
Gawith rope was and is, however, manufactured to be chewed as well as smoked. In the spirit of experiencing this tobacco as it was made to be consumed, I sampled lumps of Gawith twist as a chewing tobacco. Chewing isn�t a way I enjoy tobacco, but I will say that if I did chew tobacco, these ropes would be a favorite. They�re sweet, spicy and flavorful.
What I call chewing doesn�t involve breaking off a lump of chaw and chomping as if it was food. It�s more the pinch between cheek or lip and gum philosophy. Chomping tobacco like food has certainly been done by many, many tobacco users, but the process really makes the saliva flow, hence all the spitting. Letting the tobacco rest in the mouth causes virtually no excess saliva production. Anyway, just pointing that out for posterity�s sake.
As a chewed tobacco, these ropes are naturally sugary and full of tobacco flavor. The Gawith line comes in a variety of flavors�coconut, apple, rum, whiskey, black cherry and maple. These are all natural infusions, as far as I can tell. I could really taste the various flavors, which stood out from the flavor of the tobacco itself. One reason I felt compelled to chew the tobaccos was to determine how noticeable the flavorings were when the tobacco is chewed.
I was looking forward to experiencing these interesting flavors when I smoked the various blends, and I was quite disappointed that the flavorings were almost undetectable. More on that in a moment.
In any case, this is primarily a pipe smoking publication and I�m not encouraging you to take up chewing tobacco so you can fully enjoy these blends! But I thought I owed it to you to describe the experience for you in the name of science and adventure. And really, this is certainly one of the ways�if not the primary way�this type of twist tobacco has been used for the past two centuries.
Samuel Gawith Brown Irish and Black XX Twist
Now, on to smoking. This is a fine, aged tobacco�perhaps among the best and most extensively processed tobaccos you�re likely to ever encounter. It�s obvious that great care is taken to create this blend. Let�s start with Irish Brown, which is essentially the base of all the Gawith twists.
The Virginia tobaccos in this black, juicy blend are heated, pressed and rolled. Is there any Burley in these twists? The company says virtually nothing about the tobaccos in its twists. There could be Burley, but if so, it surely plays second fiddle to the sweet, aged Virginias.
The pressing and heating process used produces a rich, intense tobacco similar to naturally processed steamed Cavendish, or the Perique process, or dark-stoved Burley. There is a dark, prunelike quality about the tobacco�something akin to dried fruit in both flavor and density. This comes through in chewing or smoking.
There is also a strong, pure black pepper resonance. This peppery spice is notable when chewed but even more obvious when smoked. This is not the pepper of tongue bite but the pepper of fine Perique or a heavy-bodied cigar. It�s definitely the nicotine talking, but it is most pleasant when savored softly and slowly.
I found it extremely interesting that although no cigar leaf is used in these ropes, there is a decidedly cigarlike flavor element. I speculate that the intensive fermenting, heating and pressing process mimics the process used to cure cigar leaf�fermentation and curing by piling the leaf in sweats, which generates both heat and pressure. The leaves used are decidedly different, so I deduce the flavor similarity must result from the process.
Black Irish XX is, I suppose, exactly what it sounds like! Skull and crossbones would also be an appropriate name. More extensively processed than Brown Irish, it is a nearly pitch-black rope of tobacco. It has the same sweet prune taste as Brown Irish, with a higher nicotine content and more pepper. Still, there�s no bite you�d associate with many Virginia tobaccos. It is absolutely smooth and without tongue bite.
Both Brown Irish and Black Irish XX are very fine, mellow tobaccos that must be smoked with great care. The nicotine content can make you quite ill, quite unexpectedly. I couldn�t even imagine inhaling this stuff. All I can say is sometimes it works well, and sometimes it doesn�t, depending on what and when you�ve eaten and how you feel on a particular occasion. If you start to have an uncomfortably squeamish feeling in the pit of your stomach, my best advice is to dump the bowl and try again some other day.
Brown Irish and Black Irish XX are very rich and work well in small bowls, as a quick �smoke break� from work. They�re a bit like little �powerhouse� cigars that deliver a lot of flavor in a short span of time. P&T