A recent run of bad luck with valuable vintage tobacco has nearly put me off buying it. But, thankfully, in both cases I will discuss here, I was able to rehydrate the tobacco for jar storage. In both cases, the tobacco is extraordinarily delicious, and I am looking forward to a series of very special bowls.
Imagine paying $300 to $400 for a tin of very special tobacco and discovering, upon opening the tin, that the tobacco had completely dried out or, worse, had become rife with mold. At the time - having had this happen twice within the span of a couple of weeks – these events feel catastrophic. However, unless mold has attacked the tobacco, chances are that most, if not all, of the tobacco can be saved through rehydration.
As much as we might wish it were otherwise, chance favors an old tin’s compromise, especially with larger tins. And square tins are also especially vulnerable to compromise. These tins were not manufactured with long-term storage in mind. When this tobacco was sold, most people opened the tins to smoke the contents. The notion of cellaring tobacco was alien to the times. While one occasionally lucks out, buying these old tins is risky.
As many long-time pipe smokers know, Sullivan Powell was a legendary English tobacco blender. Not long ago, I had the chance to purchase a seven-ounce tin of No. OX Special Mixture. Though the tin had visible rust, I took a chance and acquired the tin – hoping against hope that rust had not compromised the tin’s integrity.
Sadly, I was wrong. When I opened the tin, the tobacco had completely dried out. The inside of the tin had rusted through to the outside.
Feeling paranoid, a week later I decided to open an 8 ounce tin of John Cotton No. 1, an absolute favorite blend of mine. This tin had no visible rust so my plan was to open the tin and jar the contents in order to ensure the contents’ integrity into the future.
Again, I was disappointed. A small, but concentrated amount of rust had compromised the tin’s side seam. The contents had completely lost their moisture.
As disappointing as both instances were, things could have been much worse. The tobacco could have become moldy. Smoking moldy tobacco is not only a horrid taste experience, but it is potentially lethal. Never smoke moldy tobacco.
Dried out tobacco, however, can be rehydrated. The rehydration process, if done correctly, can return the tobacco to a delicious, smokable state. Whether re-hydrated tobacco is as good as tobacco that never dried out is debatable. Some say there is no difference whereas some say the tobacco suffers. Having compared rehydrated Balkan Sobranie and Bengal Slices with non-dried out versions of the same blends, I can discern no meaningful difference. Your experience may be different.
With both the Sullivan and Cotton tobaccos, I used the same rehydration strategy. I placed the contents in a large stainless steel bowl. I then dampened then wrung out a hand towel with distilled water. I folded the towel in half and then stretched the towel out over the top of the bowl taking care not to cause water to drop onto the tobacco contents. I took a large, thick rubber band and stretched it around the bowl top, just below the lip, to ensure that the towel did not move.
To help ensure that mold did not start, I placed the tobacco in a space that is around 60 degrees Fahrenheit. Needless to say, a warm and humid environment is ideal for mold so one must take precautions to rehydrate without introducing mold.
Because rust can - and often does - adhere to tobacco contents, another key strategy is to remove the tobacco from the tin starting from the center. Pinch or fork it out gently. If strands are adhering to the tin walls, do not scrape the tobacco from the walls as rust will almost certainly contaminate your tobacco, creating a sour, acrid taste when you smoke it. Let the old rusty tin keep its “angel’s share.”
In both cases, rehydrating the tobacco took four days. After a day and a half, the towel required re-dampening. Twice daily I removed the towel and gently stirred the contents, bringing the tobacco at the bottom of the bowl to the top so that the moisture would be evenly distributed.
I also took paper towels and carefully patted up the accumulated condensation on the top portion of the bowl sides. A key to returning tobacco to desired moisture levels is to rehydrate slowly, letting the tobacco absorb moisture through the air. This method increases the humidity levels of the air above the tobacco significantly, but it does not directly dampen the tobacco.
Once I return the tobacco to the desired moisture level, I store it in Ball jars. I put as much tobacco in the jar as possible, tamping it down so that the air doesn’t begin to dry it out again. I also place a small hydration element, e.g. a Paradigm which is made of surgical sponge material, into the jar. I dampen that element with a solution that contains propylene glycol which acts as an anti-fungal agent. I feel that this is especially important with older, more valuable vintage tobaccos which may be more vulnerable to mold. I have no evidence that they are; I just worry a little so take precautions.
Most of my pipe-smoking friends occasionally find themselves with too many tins open or with too much tobacco in their roll-ups. If one doesn’t constantly pay attention, tobacco can dry out. You’ll find that this method will rehydrate smaller quantities much quicker, in most cases it will be back to perfect overnight.
Upon visiting the Smokingpipes site this morning, I discovered a post, “Check Your Cellar,” by Adam Davidson that is material to storing vintage tobaccos. Give it a read by clicking here.