At the back of the hill

Warning: If you stay here long enough you will gain weight! Grazing here strongly suggests that you are either omnivorous, or a glutton. And you might like cheese-doodles. BTW: I'm presently searching for another person who likes cheese-doodles. All cheese-doodling ended in 2010, and there hasn't been any in far too long. Please form a caseophilic line to the right. Thank you.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

DRUCQUER & SONS LTD - A BERKELEY INSTITUTION

One of the first places in Berkeley that became a home away from home away from home for me was the tobacconist at 2059 University Avenue, just below Shattuck.
Drucquer & Sons Ltd. had been founded in London in 1841, then re-established in California in 1928 when John Drucquer III settled in Berkeley. My father had shopped there before the war, my uncles bought their blends from the store when they were at school, old family friends and classmates of my parents.......
Sometime in 1978, in August or September, I walked into the store puffing a pipe and dripping from a deep gash on my hand.
A few months later I was working there.
Must have been that excellent first impression.


BLEND 805

The other employees persuasively introduced me to the most popular blend at the store - made with Latakia, Djubec, and three types of Virginia - before I had even started working there, as well as the strongest Latakia mixture on the shelves (Royal Ransom), Arcadia (similar to Craven A Mixture), Levant (in the same category as Balkan Sobranie 759), and Red Lion (a very traditional English-style mixture of Virginias and Latakia, no Turkish leaf at all).
But Blend 805 was the absolute standard, the hallmark blend - in the same range as Dunhill 965 and Dunhill Standard Mixture, various Rattrays blends, and a multitude of now long gone blends and compounds from legendary English and Scottish houses.

Over several months I obsessively, neurotically even, absorbed more data about pipes, tobacco, and cigars than I had ever imagined possible. More, in any case, than most smokers will ever need.
For a couple of years I also spent time in the back room polishing pipes, steaming out dings, cleaning away caked-up crud, refinishing, restaining, restoring - mostly on collectable pipes left in the care of the shop by the coterie of aficionados that had made Drucquer's their home-base.

[The other employees at Drucquers also introduced me to single-malt Scotch, pure grain alcohol, various Chinese and Philippino restaurants, Vanessi's on Broadway in San Francisco (long gone), Chez Panisse, and sinsemilla. That last substance convinced me that I should never become a pot head - I buffed the trademark off a Barling pipe after Don insisted I have a toke. He used the effect the stuff had on me as the benchmark - one evening I spent several hours on the bus after two puffs, not being able to find my way to the back exit. Haven't touched the stuff in thirty years.]


Robert Rex sold the store in 1982.

Greg Pease started working there a few years later.

Though it was long after I had ceased to frequent the place due to some rather interesting ups and downs in my life, many other regulars still hung around - one does not gladly forsake a provider of good products - and Greg describes both the atmosphere and their company every Saturday at the second location (4024 Piedmont Avenue, Oakland, CA 94611), in an article on his site.



The Back Room

Quote: "...where I first began to learn the subtleties of the pipe, and the profound pleasures it could bring. It was where I was introduced to vintage tobaccos, and the advantages a few years of age would offer those patient enough to lay some tins aside. Very few people consciously aged tobaccos then."

The idea of aging tinned tobacco was, more or less, a happy discovery. Several famous brands had either changed hands or were disappearing during the seventies and eighties, and desperate addicts had stockpiled their favourite smoke before it permanently vanished. Not only the now legendary Balkan Sobranie, about which I have perhaps waffled more obsessively on the internet than almost anybody else, but also State Express (a medium English style mixture with bright Virginia and Syrian Latakia), John Cottons No. 1 & 2, John Cottons Smyrna (like burning ambrosia!), Dobie's Four Square......

Even Dunhills changed enormously, as the old factory in London was closed and BAT moved production to Northern Ireland. What came out of Belfast in the first years was well-nigh unsmokeable, being nasty, twiggy, and rough. Putrid, when compared to the fine old blends we were familiar with.
So it was with considerable amazement that I heard other people complaining about what the Danes were doing to the blends when Murrays was finally shuttered and production moved to the continent.

Given that crusty old farts had insisted that Dunhills and other brands just weren't the same after some seminal event or disaster for at least twenty years already, it was inevitable that old tins were opened up during the seventies and discovered to have changed considerably - a metamorphosis that considerably improved the leaf, while yielding a smoke that bore little resemblance to the smoker's nose-memory of the blend.
Aged tobacco - better than a fresh tin.

[It was while working at Piedmont Avenue that I developed an addiction to fine dark chocolate, by the way. Cocolat had one of their locations diagonally across the street, and daily I would go in for a three or four truffle fix. Cocolat (started by Alice Medrich in Berkeley in 1976), also, is a gilded memory, having closed its doors in the early nineties.]


Greg continues: "It was where I had my first bowls of so many classic tobaccos, including my first brush with the now legendary Craven Mixture, stronger than I’d been led to believe, and which sent me spinning on the dreaded E-ticket ride on the Whirl-n-Hurl, my first experience of high-octane, pipe-induced nausea."

That's quite understandable. Craven Mixture had a strong dark aged Virginia as one of its primary components, and everything else was tailored to fit around that. So it smoked like an English or a Balkan, but kicked like a Navy Flake or a mule.


Greg's article is worth reading in its entirety.
Please visit him HERE.

Many of the people he describes are familiar to me. But the person named Mark whom he mentions is NOT the Mark whom I remember.

Mark Kaufman, alav hashalom, was a brilliant attorney, married to a violinist, who took his own life sometime in the early eighties.
Zichrono livracha.
I still have one of his pipes.
Can't smoke it. Keep thinking of the man.


G. L. PEASE
The Briar & Leaf Chronicles
On the Pleasures and Gentle Art of Pipes and Tobaccos

http://glpease.com/BriarAndLeaf/


ROBERT REX
Deerfield Ranch Winery

http://www.deerfieldranch.com/


I still have a seven-ounce tin of Trafalgar on the shelf, along with a few other Drucquer tobaccos from that time.
One of these days I'll just have to open it up and see how its changed in all these years.






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Other blogposts about tobacco:

BIG HEAP OF TOBACCO
http://atthebackofthehill.blogspot.com/2010/01/big-heap-of-tobacco.html
BALKAN SOBRANIE
http://atthebackofthehill.blogspot.com/search/label/Balkan%20Sobranie/
DRUCQUER & SONS LTD
http://atthebackofthehill.blogspot.com/search/label/Drucquers


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NOTE: Readers may contact me directly:

LETTER BOX.
All correspondence will be kept in confidence.
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8 Comments:

  • At 11:32 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I recall the place fondly as a source of lovely cigars. One day, I took my broken pipe lighter in for repair. It was my father's and it was missing a precise bit of hardware. The guy at the counter was mystified and so called a pale, rather odd, young guy with an un-identifiable accent and short hair ( a crime in Berkeley, at the time). He seemed to have been in some glue soaked, back room workshop. He couldn't fix it either but its amazing whom one meets later in life. Eh?

    R

     
  • At 5:14 PM, Blogger The back of the hill said…

    FYI: Drucquers closed permanently on Sunday, October 31st., 1999.

     
  • At 11:40 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    At some, I'll pass by and report back as to what that storefront is at present.

     
  • At 6:49 PM, Blogger The back of the hill said…

    For the curious, please note: the articles which most prominently mention Drucquer & Sons in Berkeley are these:

    DRUCQUER & SONS LTD - PIPE TOBACCO BLENDS REMEMBERED, AND A DISCUSSION OF TOBACCOS AND TIPS
    http://atthebackofthehill.blogspot.com/2006/10/drucquer-sons-ltd-pipe-tobacco-blends.html

    ASTLEYS NO. 99 - FULL LATAKIA MIXTURE
    http://atthebackofthehill.blogspot.com/2008/11/astleys-no-99-full-latakia-mixture.html

    TOBACCO COMPANIES, TOBACCO BLENDS
    http://atthebackofthehill.blogspot.com/2010/02/tobacco-companies-tobacco-blends.html

    DRUCQUER & SONS LTD - A BERKELEY INSTITUTION
    http://atthebackofthehill.blogspot.com/2011/06/drucquer-sons-ltd-berkeley-institution.html

    Feel free to leave a comment under any one of them, or questions.
    I'll respond after the system notifies me that you have written something (if you require a response, of course).

     
  • At 8:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Wow. Thirty year old Trafalgar.
    I fondly remember it from when I bought a pouch every week.
    It was very good then, must be divine now.

     
  • At 9:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I fondly remember both the walk-in humidor, and the stellar blends.

    In particular, Blend 805. Some batches were so terrific you could just weep, but it was always good. Back then you could smoke a pipe in public and no one would call you names.

    Berkeley has changed.
    So has the world.
    Dammitall.

     
  • At 1:56 AM, Blogger The back of the hill said…

    805 was a classic of its type. Often better than anything similar: 965, Balkan Sobranie, or Black Mallory.

    Somewhere I have a fourteen ounce can of that stuff.

    It was dynamite.
    That can is and will be.

    Berkeley now is a self-satisfied priggish anti-everything hell-hole.

     
  • At 5:46 PM, Blogger Atrium said…

    Excellent, excellent memory jogger. In the early seventies, I would come in through the back entrance through the parking lot off of Berkeley Way. Often used the laundry nearby and found my way to heavenly aromas at Drucquers. Yes, Cocolat, but did anyone go to Cruchon's a block away? Fabulous deserts. At least Berkeley still has the Cheese Board and Nabolom. Thanks again.

     

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