Virginias are the king of tobaccos and the very crop our country was built on. As you may have already deduced from the name, it was originally grown in well-known VA Plantations. Today, Virginia tobaccos are grown not only in VA but also eastern NC, northeastern SC, and, indeed, around the world. The term "Old Belt" is an appellation and refers to Virginias grown in VA and NC. While many blending houses will employ Virginias from countries such as Brazil and Malawi on a regular basis, Cornell and Diehl overwhelmingly favors Old Belt, above any other appellation, for their blends.
Virginias are primarily classified by their color, and while the exact nuance of hue lends itself to a vast array of categorizations, think "red" and "bright". The relative location of a given leaf on its stalk is what ultimately determines its color; the brights come from the middle of the stalk, and the reds originate from higher up to the tips. While all Virginias are sweet, the further a leaf moves toward the lighter side of the color spectrum, the sweeter it becomes, but along with that sweetness comes additional acidity and hints of citrus-like tartness. As we move towards progressively darkening colors, along with an increasing depth of flavor comes a taste that shifts to something akin to baking bread.
Closing on a note of interest, tobacco, much like a fine wine or a single-barrel bourbon in cask, can benefit from aging to some extent. The higher the presence of sugar in a given blend's components, the better it will age (from both a taste and longevity point of view). Since Virginias possess the highest sugar content of all tobacco varietals, these mixtures will benefit most from aging.
Burley tobaccos were very popular in early American blends and saw their peak usage occur between the 1930s to the mid 1960s. While this mainstay of mixtures is grown in such far-flung locations as Brazil, Thailand and Malawi, and as close as the states of KY, TN, PA, MD, WI, IN, OH, SC and NC, the Burleys of choice for Cornell and Diehl are grown mainly in Kentucky and Tennessee.
As a general rule, Burleys have the lowest natural sugar content of all tobaccos but also tend to have higher nicotine content than, say, Virginias or Orientals. Burleys lend themselves particularly well for mixing, and, due to their low sugar content, are remarkably absorbent when flavors are added. It is precisely for the preceding reasons that black Cavendish is made from Burley and most Cavendish bases for aromatics contain a high percentage of Burley. In addition to the above attributes, a well-made Burley can make for a dandy smoke on its own: cool, easy on the palate, and delivering a remarkably pleasant room note.
What makes an English blend "English", and the primary source of its singular fragrance, is the presence of Latakia. There can be sub-categories of English blends, such as Scottish, Balkan or even aromatic blends, but if it has Latakia, it's an English blend.
Latakia was originally produced in Syria, and was named in honor of one of their more famous ports. Initially Latakia tobacco is air cured, and then further processed by weeks of exposure to the controlled fires of aromatic woods and fragrant herbs. The end result is a condiment tobacco which possess a pouch/tin note that many find quite similar to a cozy campfire.
Due to lack of availability of Syrian leaf, 99% of the Latakia used in today's blends is Cyprian in origin. Cyprian Latakia is actually a bit more assertive, leathery, and markedly sweeter than its extinct Syrian counterpart, as well as the obvious choice for Cornell & Diehl blends.
Smoky Cyprian Latakia can be detected at levels starting between 3%-5%, with a palpable sweetness coming alive in the 10% range. If you stopped right there you would have the base of a bona fide English blend, and still have 90% room left over for possibilities. Having said, many an aficionado of the English blend prefers his mixture with higher levels of Latakia, with the component beginning to dominate at roughly the 30%-35% mark. Generally, you will see the presence of the Cyprian limited to 50%, but a highly skilled blender can "amp" up Latakia to 60%. Our own "Pirate Kake," for example, contains a whopping 75% Latakia (and also happens to be one of our perennial best sellers).
Aromatic mixtures are loosely defined as any blend that has a flavoring agent added to it, and are (far and away) the most popular type of pipe tobacco in the world. Aromatics are usually quite mild, and, in addition, their pleasant fragrance usually draws many a positive comment from those around you. Most aromatics start with a Cavendish base, specifically a black Cavendish base. The preferred tobacco for creating Black Cavendish base is usually Burley (hence the above mentioned mildness). After the air curing process, leaves are pressed into a cake, and then heat (via either fire or steam) is applied and a fermentation process begins. Once fermentation has progressed to the manufacturer's satisfaction, depending on the type of blend the Cavendish will wind up in, it will either be utilized as is or a flavoring will be added. In the case of most aromatics, it will be the latter.
Though less frequently utilized, Virginias do appear in aromatic blends; Virginias and Burleys work quite well together, and small amounts of the former can add either a bit of brightness or warmer, toastier character to the mix. Can you add Latakia? Of course. Just remember that the definition of an "English blend" is the presence of Latakia, and thus it would be classified as an "English-aromatic".