There are so many good Virginias and Virginia blends that I am going to break it down into two groups. This sticky focuses on straight Virginias. Virginia leaf with no other variety of tobacco added.
The following are what I would consider the benchmark straight Virginia blends. The blends in red are discontinued, in which case I will recommend available replacements where possible.
Samuel Gawith Best Brown Flake - BBF
As far as I know, Samuel Gawith Golden Glow, Best Brown Flake and Full Virginia Flake (FVF) are all the same Empire Virginia with different amounts of processing. I have substantial amounts of all three, and have at various times thought this was simply the best tobacco I've ever smoked. I think BBF and FVF are best after they've been rubbed out and left sitting for two or three hours before loading a bowl. They're dense, and I can smoke a group 3 billiard of this tobacco for over two hours.
I've described the flavor as sun filled hayloft. It's yeast-y, honey on wheat toast sweet, not terribly complex, and definitely works better during the warm months when your palate is more sensitive. The sweetness can swell at times, taking on an almost toffee-like note. The presses used to make these flakes are over a hundred years old if I recall, and this tobacco has likely remained unchanged for many, many years. I like the sense of history I feel smoking a tobacco like this. If you put me on the spot this wouldn't be my desert island tobacco, but I don't have any problem saying that I think it's the best straight Virginia made in this or any other decade.
Alternatives to Samuel Gawith Best Brown Flake include:
- Samuel Gawith Full Virginia Flake (FVF) - take BBF, apply steam and end with a darker, fuller flake. My winter version of BBF
- Germain Brown Flake - see Germain Brown Flake below
- Wessex Brigade Campaign Dark Flake - the Germans tried to make something that is sort of like this style, but oddly so and topped
I was tempted to list this one in red, because you can't buy it even though it's still in production. This is the tobacco we don't refer to by name, because we don't want anyone else to know how good it is. It sells out immediately every time it turns up. I only have a pound of this and feel lucky to have that much, so I ration it and it is indeed a special occasion tobacco. According to Germain this is straight Virginia fermented in its own juices. It's fuller and more savory than the Gawith flakes, and there is an impression of subtle smokiness that has made people think this included a whisper of semois. The honey toast sweetness of BBF is there, just differently presented. This is one of those tobaccos that will kind of wreck whatever you thought you'd do while smoking it, because it demands attention. It's just so good and so unlike anything else you can buy, you'll find yourself stopping to think to yourself how good it is throughout the bowl. Not complex, not nuanced per se, but a flavor profile that is so excellent it trumps Gawith at their own game. This is my desert island tobacco, if only you could get your hands on it. So it remains a special occasion tobacco instead.
Alternatives to Germain Brown Flake include:
- Samuel Gawith Full Virginia Flake (FVF) - see above
The longer I've smoked Virginias, the less esteem I've had for K&K Virginia flakes. The German VA flakes are all so cookie cutter. There seems to be an infinite variation on a theme, all with exactly the same base. meh.
For me one German flake that really stands out is Astleys No. 44. This tobacco is kind of like a darker version of Orlik Golden Sliced. It's a little darker than the rest of the K&K flakes, has a little bit more meaty flavor profile, and has a nice oat-y honey sweetness throughout. There is nothing spectacular about this tobacco, it's just a nicely done Virginia flake with a good quality of flavor and lacking in obvious added flavorings. For me this falls between the English flakes above and all the rest of the continental flakes, and I'm not going to recommend any alternatives because to my mind No. 44 is a singular tobacco. You'd have to go to blends to find something similar, and then I'd look to Rattray's Marlin Flake.
Butera Golden Cake
I remember being shocked when I smoked my first bowl of this. There is no correlation between this tobacco and anything else in the, sadly, now defunct McClelland catalog. This is a straight golden Virginia. It is the fullest flavored straight golden I've ever smoked, which is surprising because McClelland Virginias generally tended to have more delicate profiles. It is surprisingly satisfying and tobacco-y, with a delightful honey sweetness throughout. Sometimes I detect the honey as a topping, and others I perceive it as a natural flavor. In any event, you simply can not find a more delicious example of golden Virginia pipe tobacco.
Alternatives to Butera Golden Cake include:
- Samuel Gawith Golden Glow - this is basically the across the pond version of the same ideal. Not quite as full or sweet
- Dan Patriot Flake - straight golden Virginia from India. Has a twang to it similar to some Orientals. More savory. A unique and great flake
There is a genre of light Virginia flake with an added citrus topping. There are several famous tobaccos that are represented in the citrus flake genre. This one is slightly different. I believe this flake to be a blend of golden and red Virginias, and there is a darker fruit topping present. It's a little fuller flavored than the citrus-y light flakes, with a pie cherry sweet and sour note that is really compelling.
Capstan Original Navy Cut
The winner of the citrus Va flakes has no added citrus!?! I wish the Mac Baren recreation of Capstan had arrived earlier in my cellaring. It is perhaps the single greatest warm weather Va flake in production. It's lighter than BBF, and like BBF it presents as unadulterated. Instead of citrus-y notes I get hints of raisin and baking spices. Sunny, toasty, grassy, it does all of those things better than any other flake in my opinion. Mac Baren really hit this one out of the park.
(citrus-y) Alternatives to Capstan include:
- Fribourg & Treyer Cut Virginia Plug (CVP) - the finest of the citrus-y light Va flakes. Very good, not artificial presenting, quality of flavor
- Dunhill Flake - the standard citrus light Va flake, just under CVP in flavor quality
- Dan Hamborger Veermaster - the same as above, but the citrus notes are the most artificial of the group. A little unpolished
- Capstan Gold Navy Cut - haven't tried it, but I gather it's the citrus-y version of Capstan
- John Aylesbury Luxury Flake - in between Capstan, Astleys No. 44 and Orlik Golden Sliced. Word got out on this and now it's hard to get
This is my representative McClelland Virginia. Red and orange Virginias, aged in cakes and tumbled into a ribbon. It's unlike most of the other McClelland reds in that this one doesn't need to have the flavors teased out of it. It is pretty full bodied for a McClelland Virginia. The flavors range from tart and tangy, to candy sweet, to robust tobacco fullness. It's complex, yet it doesn't fall apart under duress. You don't have to be extra gentle with this to get a good smoke out of it. It's like eating a doughnut while drinking a Bloody Mary. Umami and sweetness together in a magnificent way. My single biggest regret as a pipe smoker is only having one pound of this in my cellar, and now it's gone forever. There simply won't ever be a replacement for these McClelland Virginias.
Alternatives to McClelland Rich Virginia Ribbon include:
- Butera Matured Ribbon - lighter and sweeter, add both stoved and golden. Great without comparison
- McClelland Blackwoods Flake - lighter and sweeter with added stoved, and nearly as good
- McClelland Boston 1776 - as close as any of their flakes get to the same flavor profile
I really love this tobacco. Blackjack is a ready rubbed red Virginia that comes pretty dry in the tin for a German tobacco. It is much more like a Dan or Cornell and Diehl product than a K&K in presentation. It's a little less sweet and more tobacco-y than the similar McClelland products. It feels like a component of many other K&K tobaccos, and it's interesting to smoke it straight. It's tangy, occasionally tart and fruit sweet, and there is nothing delicate or wispy about it. Has some golden Virginia notes at times as well, with a little grassiness and bread. A really excellent and under appreciated tobacco.
Alternatives to Fribourg & Treyer Blackjack include:
- McClelland 5100 - lighter, sweeter, needs gentle coaxing. Not as satisfying IMO
Virginias are arguably the most rewarding genre in pipe smoking. The above will give you the unadulterated presentation, and proof that good Virginias need no addition to be compelling smokes. I'll be doing a separate post on Virginia blends: VaPers, Virginias with added Kentucky, and my favorite, Virginias with added Oriental!