lot has been written in this column during the past few months about Drum rolling tobacco.
Since curtailment of its U.S. distribution a couple of years ago there has been, at times,
a near frantic effort to find a replacement. And while you can still find original Drum in
this country, it mostly consists of back (legacy) stocks perhaps two years old or more.
There are places where original
Drum is available that appear to have freshly arrived product from Europe but it is
unclear to us as to how this is accomplished. The bottom line is that U.S. distribution of
original Drum is not sanctioned by Douwe-Egberts (the European manufacturer) or the
Imperial Tobacco Company (the official Distributor of Drum in Europe). This apparent
dichotomy/mystery we will cover in a later issue as we investigate further. For now, we offer you a detailed
evaluation of what is routinely available in the U.S. and aimed at the sizeable market
void left by Drum's disappearance. This includes the U.S. version of Drum produced by
Republic Tobacco LP of Glenville, Illinois who is exclusively licensed to use the Drum
name in this country.
It is only fair to remind our readers that I personally was never a huge fan of Drum-style tobaccos. I found its distinctive flavor and the significant buzz that is indicative of most Dutch, Scandinavian, and German blends simply too profound, at least by itself, to be smoked regularly. I do however use these styles in all of my favorite personal blends, typically using roughly 25 to 30% by volume. The richness of these tobaccos is a wonderful addition to other flavorful, but less potent blends. Nonetheless, people who liked Drum straight, absolutely love(d) it! Further, I will concede that Drum tobacco has always been the finest "Grocery" Store tobacco. It was widely available at nearly every market and drug store for as long as I can remember (up until a couple of years ago, that is). And this is primarily why the Drum issue became so important to so many folks out there. It was not just the seductive taste of Drum that the faithful bemoaned the loss of. It was the availability. You see, not everyone has the opportunity to shop at a good tobacco store (although with the maturation of the commercial Internet this should absolutely no longer be the case). The convenience of finding this quality of tobacco at Safeway, et al, made roll your own smoking a very simple, easily repeatable, pleasure for many. Though extremely popular in the general retail chain, Bugler and Top have always been a bit harsh and one-dimensional for my tastes and Prince Albert and Bull Durham, literally gave me flashbacks! I would generally prefer to smoke manufactured cigarettes were these less civilized brands my only choice.
Drum, in contrast, even when hand-rolled, provided a far milder smoking experience with far more flavor than even the best of the pre-manufactured cigarettes. Admittedly, it was a pain in the ass to roll cigarettes when you needed one in a hurry or didn't have both hands free and, to be sure, mine looked more like joints than cigarettes but they were nonetheless delicious, especially if you loved that Dutch style flavor. When I was headed for the woods for a multi-week backpacking trip, I always carried Drum and papers (the papers served other useful purposes - like lighting campfires - uh huh).
By the time Drum ceased importing, I had been injecting my own blend of fine tobaccos into filtered cigarette tubes (or rolling it when necessary) for some time. My tobacco usually came in bulk from tobacco shops so I didn't really internalize the suffering of the Drum faithful until we began this magazine. For months now, our e-mail has swelled with queries as to what happened to Drum and where one can find it or, at least, something similar. The intent of this article is to provide enlightenment as to the present options.
The table below (for those that have now read enough and want to cut to the chase) gives a fairly detailed overview of the five Halfzware (halfzware - very long, very fine cut - almost hair like - combinations of dark Kentucky burley, Virginia tobaccos and very specific flavorings) chosen for this review, including, the Original Drum straight from Europe, U.S. Drum, Chill's Americana, Zigzag's Halfzware Gold, and Bali Shag. In the table, you will find pictures of each tobacco including close-ups so that you can compare the appearance of all with the original Drum. For the patient (or curious) amongst you, we feel a little more background information would be useful in order to more fully articulate the criteria used to determine (in our opinion only) how these four blends stack up against the original.
The Original Drum
Below is a picture of a pouch of Drum fresh from Europe. You will find the red Douwe Egberts emblem at package top and, on the reverse side of the pouch, you will see the key information (shown at right). If this is what you have in your hand or see on the store shelves, it is the original. As mentioned above, it is still possible to find the original but it is unlikely that this will be continue as legacy stocks disappear.
Three main criteria were used to compare the four blends below and their similarity to the original Drum. Obviously TASTE was the most important, followed by APPEARANCE, and finally, potential AVAILABILITY. There are other Drum-like halfzwares on the market (Arbo, Samson, Lookout, to name a few) but they are not as readily available as the ones we have chosen for testing and the fact is, the wide availability of the original Drum contributed greatly to its success. Backed by name companies like Republic (US Drum, already in a wide variety of stores), Zig-Zag (already in markets), Peter Stokkebye (Bali Shag), and Chills (Americana) which, though not as well known as the others, is among the top 500 fastest growing companies in the US, and already a marketing powerhouse, it is logical to assume that you will soon find all of these fine tobaccos in the convenience/grocery/drug store environment. With the expanding interest in RYO smoking, shelf space will certainly become available for a wider range of these popular high quality brands.
In the U.S. you most likely will find Republic Tobacco's U.S. version of Drum that is mentioned above. This tobacco has been around for a while and early reports from many readers and tobacco shops alike were not favorable although, until recently, we had not tried it ourselves. We relayed these "opinions" in previous articles. So the nice folks at Republic sent us some of their "new batch" (more on that later) and we were more than pleasantly surprised - to say the least - (more on that also later). The "New" U.S. Drum package is at left and we have found it already at several major outlets (like Rite-Aid Drug Stores, Wal-Mart, etc.) and therefore expect it will be widely available. No surprise here as Republic is the manufacturer of Top tobacco, arguably the market leader in the "supermarket" tobacco world. The rear panel of the pouch (at right) confirms the identity of this product. Now lets get to the "more on that later" stuff regarding the "new" Drum.
When we first heard that Drum was being discontinued I was disappointed but not devastated. As a mixing tobacco, I appreciated its robust flavor but had found other "Dutch" styles that had a similar flavor and that were of a somewhat shorter cut, hence easier to mix with the more traditional cuts I favored. When RYO Magazine made its debut in January of this year, none of us were prepared for the onslaught of missives directed at the Drum issue. We began immediately looking into the matter and while we have yet to hear a reasonable explanation of why Drum was discontinued, we found that there was already a "new" Drum manufactured in the U.S becoming available. We were unable early-on to get any of this tobacco but the overwhelming majority of those that wrote to us regarding the "new Drum stressed the opinion that the "new stuff" was not as good as the "old stuff." We reported these reader-based opinions in subsequent articles. And then, as mentioned above, Republic Tobacco, the manufacturer and distributor of the "new" U.S. Drum sent us a couple of pouches to examine. I must admit at this point that, even after all of the negative stuff I had heard about this tobacco, I was eager to try it. Our information up until then was completely anecdotal (second hand) and though we reported only that which was shared with us from readers, as the "opinion" of our readers, it is still unusual for us to say anything about a product without first hand knowledge. Now I am not sure what was wrong with the first "batch" of this tobacco that turned off the many, but I suspect Republic, like most dynamic companies, be they software or automobile makers, perhaps rushed the introduction of the new Drum to address the void left by the exit of the original, BEFORE some other brand had a chance to take hold as a viable replacement. Makes good business sense but is a risky endeavor to be sure. First impressions can be lasting so we were anxious to try it. We proceeded to test the new samples.
For the test, I injected this tobacco from the "new" batch into an Escort light filter tube and suffice it to say, this is very good tobacco. In fact, I found it superior (to my taste) to the original in every way. It has less of the power (dizzy) of the original and the taste, while sophisticated, is a bit more subtle than European Drum and VERY smooth. If you look at the pictures of this tobacco below and compare it to the original, you will see fewer "birdseye" pieces and more dark character tobacco in the blend. Now right here let me explain something that applies to all of the blends we will review this time and all tobacco in general. The "birdseye" and other "stem-like" components found in tobacco are not necessarily a bad thing, nor are they always unintended debris left over from poor quality control screening. These stem-like components add important characteristics to some tobacco and when used properly actually serve to mellow the strength (nicotine content) of tobacco while decreasing its harshness (burn).
In the case of the new U.S. Drum, although we observed fewer birdseye pieces and the like than in the original Drum, the resulting flavor was excellent - uncompromised - indeed both mild and rich. They sure got it right this time! We are confident that Drum seekers will give this blend the chance it richly deserves. (It is important to also note here that most of what the smoker experiences as to tobacco taste is provided by flavorings introduced into the tobacco after curing. The constituent parts and varieties of tobacco that make up any blend have more to do with strength (physical reaction) and the harshness or mellowness of the smoke. You simply cannot smoke unprepared/untreated tobacco, it would be much too harsh. So the "taste" that people go crazy for with certain blends whether it be Drum or Marlboro's is the result of added flavorings. And you can bet that the master blenders of tobacco keep it very close to the vest as to the constituents of their flavorings). Republic has done a remarkable job in imitating the much loved Drum taste, while establishing a character of its own, one that may even be more conducive to the American market than the venerable original. The slightly shorter cut of this halfzware is perfect for injection machines and filtered tubes. And thankfully, they have achieved the flavor without over-chemicalizing the tobacco. This is one of the nicest smokes we have experienced at any price. It seems to have as much going for it as any tobacco can nowadays, taste, looks/packaging, and availability and there is little doubt that Republic will continue to grow an already great start at market presence on mainstream tobacco counters. It is important to note that the U.S. Drum we recently found and purchased at Rite-Aid and Wal-Mart is the good stuff, identical to the samples Republic sent to us. So if the first attempt at U.S. Drum was less than optimal, it should be clear to all that Republic has corrected the problem.
Though we have reviewed this tobacco at length in previous columns, it is important to note that of all tested, Americana most closely resembles the original Drum in appearance (see photos in table below). And while as previously noted that appearance isn't everything, in this case it does show a concerted effort to duplicate many of the favorable qualities of the original drum. Like Republics U.S. Drum, we find this one more to our liking than the original. It, however is not a Drum clone. It, to be sure, has the distinctive "Dutch" flavor but it is its own version. Very satisfying and smokeable without the almost perfumed taste of original Drum. In fact, that may be the best way to describe my particular problem with the original Drum. At times, it seems too flavored and artificially fragrant. At any rate, with the marketing energy Chills is known to have, we would expect that this tobacco will eventually find a wide, yet unique, audience aside from its similarity to the original Drum
ZIG-ZAG'S GOLD STANDARD HALFZWARE
We were certainly pleased to hear that Zig-Zag, whose fine papers we have used for decades, was entering the tobacco side of the RYO market. With all of the negatives of tobacco usage and consequently of tobacco sales, we found it heartening that this major market brand would be supplying much needed variety to the mainstream shelves. And their standard offering, available in mild, regular and menthol, is pretty good for the price and market niche they are most likely addressing, namely Bugler, Top, Goldmark and the like. BUT, their Gold Standard Halfzware, also available in markets and other mainstream environments is a BIG step up. All the way to the big leagues as far as we are concerned. This is very good tobacco with a distinctive yet mild Dutch hint. On the package the word mild appears and they mean it. The smoke displays no harshness or overt buzz effect. It is the least Drum tasting of the those reviewed here but as you might have noticed, to our tastes, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Frankly, this blend reminds me of some of the blends I have created for personal use from Dutch and flu-cured Virginia style tobaccos. Perhaps I would have used just a tad less Virginia (the Virginia, as you can see in the photos below, is the wider more standard looking square cut) but overall, this is great stuff to find in a market. This very smokeable blend is created in Denmark for Zig-Zag and is reminiscent of Peter Stokkebye's Norwegian Shag. Zig-Zag makes some nice RYO kits but at this time we are unsure if this tobacco is available in kit form. To us the tobacco is what is most important anyway. Next time, we will look further into Zig-Zag's expansion into the RYO Market.
BALI SHAG HALFZWARE
Bali Shag, an offering from Peter Stokkebye (we chose three Peter Stokkebye offerings as our favorite non-bulk tobacco in our inaugural issue back in January of this year) has generated a great deal of reader mail recommending we check it out and we are grateful for the tip. We had heard a lot about this tobacco but had no idea it was a Stokkebye product. It is similar to his Amsterdam Shag but somewhat less heady and quite a pleasurable smoke. As you can see in the photos below it is not quite as long of a cut as original Drum and the photos also confirm the promotional material on this product which states that this blend is free of "birdseye" stems. Surprisingly, even though the appearance and constituent makeup of this blend differs significantly from the original Drum, we find the flavor to be among the closest to the original. Bali also makes a great lighter shag that is very similar to Stokkebye's Danish Export, and less expensive. We will look at it next time also. But for now that just about covers the particulars of our comparison, so take a look at the photos and descriptions in the table below followed by our final conclusions on these five great tobaccos.
It is necessary from the outset to emphasize that while these five blends vary to some degree in appearance and flavor, they are all outstanding examples of Dutch-style halfzware tobacco. Further, since their manufacturers/distributors are all intent on penetrating the considerable barriers to find shelf space in the convenience/grocery/drug store retail environment and all have the marketing muscle and reputation to pull it off, these brands should be good news to the smoker who is looking for a good tobacco that is as near as a local market. The table below attempts to quantify each brand's respective similarities to the original Drum tobacco. The higher the number the more closely the brand resembles the Original Drum in the specific category. **Note - A low or high score means little as to the smoking pleasure one might expect from any particular brand. These rankings are meant as a measure of similarity to Drum Original only. Availability will vary with time, and it will be interesting to see who eventually wins the placement wars. Without a doubt, the smoker will be the ultimate beneficiary if all of these brands achieve maximum placement!
Similarities To the Original Drum
For the Purists Out There
Are these brand name blends BETTER than tobacco shop bulk blends? Yes and No. Yes, they are every bit as high in quality as any tobacco we have tasted and though ultimately each smoker will have to translate the rather subjective character of their own particular tastes into qualitative terms, the term "better" is a tough one to adjudicate. One would certainly be justified in answering NO to such a question as, obviously, these brands are of a single (though variable to some degree) style. Most tobacco shops offer great advantages over supermarkets in variety of styles and bulk pricing. But keep in mind that tobacco shops also sell these particular brands and often in quantity packaging that will save you money over the retail grocery store price. The bottom line is that with all the paranoia these days about tobacco supply, internet commerce regulation, and general legislative intrusion, it is comforting to know that, if necessary, we can still get a high quality smoke where we buy food, drink, clothing, sundries, gas, and Slim Jim's (the latter two not being mutually exclusive terms). Are the four brands tested better than the original Drum? Same problem, same response! We have tried to look at these tobaccos in as many ways as possible so YOU could decide if any warranted YOUR personal inspection. Suffice it to say that we do not write reviews on products that, for one reason or another, we are not impressed with. We try to keep the feedback positive by choosing to write reviews on products that are among, in our opinion, the very best we see. We save our vitriol for the lawyers, politicians, risk assessment foundations, and fictitious/pseudo-research entities who are the boorishly cavalier enemies of accuracy. Yes we do.
One last reminder . . . Message Incoming!
I rarely smoke more than ten cigarettes a day - which can become a
problem when part of my work is to try a lot of different tobacco's. Never fear, I have
help and thanks to a great business partner, editor, and a number of associates and
friends who, to some degree or other, smoke things. I can get a lot of immediate feedback
on various blends submitted to the magazine. But . . . even with all of the tobacco being
tried around here, it is difficult to conceive realistically enjoying
tobacco at the rate of a pack or two per day. There was a time when I did USE that many
cigarettes, but I rarely smoked them all. They mostly burned up in ashtrays. High quality
stuff/roll your own smokes stay lit just fine when you are smoking them. They do tend to
go out if you leave them for very long, (unless you let your tobacco get too dry). Quality
cigarette tobacco hasn't the chemicals that the tobacco in manufactured cigarettes contain
to keep it burning. Indeed, it has far fewer added chemicals in general. Consider trying a
little variety and smoke when you really want a treat. Make an effort to smoke the stuff
you really like. There are some amazing cigarette tobaccos out there and even the most
expensive among them, when stuffed into a tube or rolled by you and you alone, is far less
costly than the lowest priced generic brands at the market. This is not a health warning.
That is your business and NOBODY else's. I simply wouldn't smoke more cigarettes than I
could truly enjoy anymore than I would drink a good wine to quench my thirst on a hot day.
Take it outside if possible, or put an exhaust fan (cheap box fan will do nicely) in a
window near where you smoke. You will be amazed at how much better the smoke tastes
especially when your smoke is the only smoke your are tasting and when the only smoke you
are tasting comes directly from your cigarette not the ambient air around you.
As referred to in this article and others, I blend tobaccos to my taste. I think you will find that, once you try blending, you can achieve some amazing variations that just may provide you with that flavor and level of satisfaction you've always been looking for. Pipe smokers have for centuries been blending various tobaccos to suit a particular mood or simply to vary a flavor that has suddenly grown tedious. The blend below is one of my favorites but, of course, you can and should create your own. Simply pick among several tobaccos that you like and combine them in small amounts at first. For instance, consider tobaccos you really like the flavor of but that are too strong to smoke by themselves in combinations with those that are too mild and need more punch. Let us know if you come up with something interesting.
And then . . .
Next time we will take a look at some kits and other interesting tobacco entrees. If you have such a product and would like it included, please refer to the paragraph below. All samples must be received by August 20, 2000 to make it into the next review.
We review tobaccos and other RYO items sent to us in small quantities from sources around the country. We look for new and interesting blends and welcome your submissions for review. Contact us here if you have a new or unique blend you would like us to review. Please, no perique, as we have a neighborhood dog problem already. - The Ed.
EDITOR'S NOTE: These reviews are solely for the convenience of people of legal age who already smoke, are trying to cut down on smoking, wish to spend less money on their smoking, want to roll their own cigarettes from high quality tobacco, and, in general, wish to have a far more satisfying, and economical smoking experience when compared with smoking pre-manufactured cigarettes. We, in no way, encourage people to smoke. Further, we prescribe to a sane, more logical approach to smoking that involves common sense as to quantity coupled with a strong desire to manage the habit until it becomes an occasional, freely chosen, diversion, that can be fully enjoyed with minimal health risks. Finally, we strongly encourage those who do smoke to take it outdoors, or to appropriate environments where tobacco can be enjoyed away from those who do not smoke, most especially children. We do not sell tobacco or related products from this site; We distribute information about our perceptions of the quality of what is available and where it can be obtained. If you are under 18, it is illegal to buy tobacco and you should immediately exit this site. If you do not smoke, it would seem illogical to start.
© 1999 RYO Magazine
A Publication of
The Andromedan Design Company
is a trademark of The Andromedan Design Company,
and its contents are protected under all applicable copyright laws.