The electronic cigarette has been on the scene for only a couple of years, but its proponents are already creating a vibrant culture of their own. The web is rife with thousands of forums, meet-ups, and virtual marketplaces dedicated to the theoretical and practical aspects of smoke-free "vaping." Shops and tasting lounges that allow customers to peruse an extensive menu of devices and flavors have swept Southern California like wildfire, and much of the world is following suit. Several months ago the city of Anaheim hosted America's first three-day electronic cigarette convention. The event attracted over 7000 attendees.
Electronic cigarette mania has also sparked an explosion in 'top shelf' e-juices -- the nicotine-laced chemical solutions that are vaporized in the device. As the market swells with new brands slinging increasingly complex flavors, seasoned "vapers" are starting to give wine snobs a run for their money. For example, the brand P.O.E.T.'s new release, "Dolce Miele Crema," ($14 per 30 ml) purportedly exhibits cascading flavors of "rich honey" and "vanilla custard," finishing with notes of "graham crackers and cream." J and M Vapor's "Turkish Select" ($30 per 30 ml) beguiles the palate with "smooth, rich tobacco... with a subtle hint of dark caramel and an oak barrel finish." Profiling the internationally acclaimed "Grant's Vanilla Custard" (currently out of stock) left one YouTube reviewer nearly lost for words. "This juice," he solemnly tells us, "is very, very complex."
Perhaps no one has carried the e-juice to higher pretensions than the California-based brand Five Pawns. Named for the five elemental tastes known to mankind -- sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami -- a signature Five Pawns liquid incorporates up to eleven different flavors in each recipe. Small wonder that it's currently the most expensive e-juice on the market. Its sold-out "Castle Long Reserve," which has been aged in oak for three weeks, retails at a whopping $37.50 per 30 ml bottle. "You'll taste toasted coconut, roasted almond, brown sugar, two different vanillas (Madagascar vanilla bean and French vanilla), Kentucky bourbon, and charred oak," its website claims. But, as is de rigueur with any artisanal product, no two batches, the producer advises, are completely alike.
Aging e-juices in oak barrels has allowed Five Pawns to justify high price tags
The electronic cigarette world may have yet to discover its own version of the wine critic Robert Parker. But given the droves of self-appointed 'experts' saturating YouTube with exhaustive reviews, this may not be for much longer. Some sites are even trying to carve out reliable and unbiased "standards of taste" by evaluating products according to designated categories. (Ratemyejuice.com uses three categories scaled out of five: throat hit, flavor, and vapor production. A rival site, juicedb.com, employs four categories scaled from one to ten.) However, any experienced vaper will tell you that an e-juice is only as good as the device used to inhale it. Some of the high-end models, such as the ProVape ProVari -- described by one reviewer as "bordering on the sublime" -- can command up to $200. True connoisseurs swear by the flexibility they get with more advanced "mechanical mods" like the Ba Gua 22 Ti ($280) or the hand-engraved Otto Carter GGTB 2 ($1,000).
This electronic cigarette, the Otto Carter GGTB 2, retails at $1,000
As our concept of quality tends to revolve around some sort of nostalgia for a pre-industrial world, it should come as no surprise that e-juices bottled in more expensive, recyclable glass preserve taste more effectively than their cheaper, less environmentally friendly plastic counterparts. To succeed in the top-shelf e-juice market, it is wise to ensure that all the ingredients are domestically sourced and responsibly manufactured. In fact, company President Rodney Jerebek has stated that the Five Pawns concept was a conscious reaction to the ceaseless flood of unregulated ingredients coming from China: "I didn't like not knowing what I was bringing into my lungs." There is now a brand -- Organliq -- that caters to the kosher, the vegan, and the gluten-sensitive.
If you think that the concept of old-world style e-juice sounds a little oxymoronic, you're right. It is. E-juice vapor is basically made out of two things: a synthetic chemical called propylene glycol (PG), an odorless, tasteless vaporizable base, and vegetable glycerin (VG), which increases the quantity of vapor produced. Next, basic water-soluble flavors, usually ordered from a third-party supplier -- are added and blended to a desired profile. After that, each batch of juice is aged or "steeped" for anything from a few days to a few weeks, allowing the flavors to develop complexity. This isn't always an easy task. Perfecting the best-selling "Earl Gray," recently released by San Francisco-based Frisco Vapor, was a product of blood, sweat and tears. "It took us five months to get the balance right," the owner recalled. The last ingredient to be added is the pharmaceutical grade liquid nicotine, which is sold to consumers in several different quantities ranging from nothing at all to 24 milligrams.
When it comes to the merits of electronic cigarette inhalation, the jury is still out. We are still debating whether they should be allowed in restaurants and bars, and whether they should be taxed and how much. Nicotine's status as a public health risk remains a subject of heated controversy. But add a burgeoning market to a deepening culture of expertise, and we can safely assume that electronic cigarettes aren't going away anytime soon. In fact, by grabbing the public's attention, these very high-profile regulatory wars are probably helping rather than hindering business. Oftentimes, curiosity alone is sufficient motivation to wander into a vape shop.
But what gets customers coming back? While many people start using electronic cigarettes to help them quit smoking (and thus avoid bringing tar and carbon monoxide into their lungs), nicotine addiction alone is too simplistic an explanation. Equally if not more important is the fact that electronic cigarettes offer consumers a space to experiment with perception in a new way. After all, how often do we get to entertain the senses of taste, smell, and touch ... without ingesting any calories? In contrast to many of our favorite indulgences, the pleasures of vaping not only can be enjoyed around the clock, but they also come virtually guilt-free. Most tasting bars don't even sell coffee and alcohol -- our society's most beloved psychoactive beverages -- to accompany the simulated smoking experience. One employee I spoke with at Frisco Vapor, a new San Francisco shop, observed that a growing proportion of the clientele is eschewing the buzz altogether by choosing the nicotine-free liquids. "It's just a really interesting way to play with flavors," she said.
For a new generation of e-cig connoisseurs, that's often stimulation enough.