Perique: The Champagne of Tobaccos

St. James Parish, just upriver from New Orleans, is the only place in the world true perique tobacco is cultivated.

A Brief History of Louisiana’s Native Smoke

“Only in Louisiana” is a phrase that’s applied to lots of local traditions — king cake, second lines, drive-through daiquiri shops. But as tobacco enthusiasts and the world at large are gradually rediscovering, there’s another delicious, indulgent — OK, just plain not good for you — pleasure to be found in the alluvial soil of southern Louisiana. It’s called perique, and it’s a spicy, rich tobacco that can only be grown in a tiny, 30-square-mile triangle of land just upriver from New Orleans. Perique is hand-harvested and pressure-fermented in oak barrels, a practice as labor-intensive as it is rich in tradition. (In other words, perique is some real artisanal shit.)

Perique’s Choctaw Roots

Way before Cajuns got their hands on it, Choctaws were producing perique. After harvesting the tobacco leaves and hand-stripping the stems, they’d roll the tobacco up and put it in a hollowed-out oak stump topped with a heavy cypress weight and put under pressure using a birch lever. The chocolate-brown leaves were left to marinate in their own juices for more than a year, removed only occasionally to be rotated. According to folklore, an Acadian farmer named Pierre “Perique” Chenet observed this process in 1824 and tasted the “weed” (as it was later referred to in the Daily Picayune in 1875). He slapped his name on the crop and perique was born.

Perique’s Turn-of-the-Century Boom

Perique was never as big of a crop as, say, sugarcane (25,000 square miles of sugarcane were in cultivation compared to perique’s 1,000 during the leaf’s heydey from 1920 to 1950). But you better believe it was going gangbusters back in the day. It won flavor awards in Paris and Vienna. Orders rolled in from New York, Boston, Germany, Sweden, and more. A 1915 book hailed it “the Champagne of tobaccos.”

What Makes Perique Different?

The praise was well deserved. Connoisseurs note perique’s uniquely rich, dark, and earthy flavor — so potent it’s rarely smoked straight. It’s used instead to season other tobaccos for a complex and refined blend, like the one in Picayune cigarettes, a strong but mild-tasting smoke popular in the first half of the 20th century. Purists say true perique can’t be grown anywhere other than St. James Parish — and whether that’s due to the mineral makeup of the soil or a certain je ne sais quoi, nobody really knows.

Perique’s Near-Demise … and Rebirth

For more than 100 years, perique was riding high. In the mid-20th century, though, its popularity took a nosedive. That’s partly because its availability was limited and its hand-harvesting process laborious; partly because the young whippersnappers of the 1960s preferred lucrative gigs in chemical plants to cutting tobacco leaves in the July sun; and partly (probably mostly) due to changing attitudes around tobacco use. After the surgeon general issued a warning about the health risks of smoking in 1964, perique production plummeted. By the 1990s, only one farmer, Percy Martin, cultivated perique, more out of a sense of obligation than anything else.

Perique was on the edge of extinction when Martin’s son, Jay Martin, sent samples to major tobacco companies, including Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Co., producer of Natural American Spirit cigarettes. In 2000, American Spirit issued its own perique blend. While the farming process has some 21st century updates (hydroponic greenhouses and field irrigation, for example), the whiskey barrels, cypress sheds and wooden “copcops” (mallets used to nail up stalks for drying) look very much the same. And the taste? Well, you should decide for yourself.

Has perique piqued your interest? Stop by Mushroom New Orleans and try American Spirit’s Perique Rich and Perique Rich Robust cigarettes – one part perique tobacco to five parts lighter tobacco. We also have an American Spirit loose perique blend for rolling your own.

Want to try a smokeless perique alternative? We’ve got NOLA Vape’s perique tobacco e-juice for a rich and delicious vaping experience.