Cocktail Club

‘Something cheeky and darkly humorous’: A recipe to remember a craft cocktail legend

Cocktail Club's Jackson Cannon pays tribute to local musician and cocktail evangelist Brother Cleve.

Brother Cleve pouring drinks at the Think Tank in 2011. Bill Brett

Friends, family, musicians and the craft cocktail community were stunned in early September by the sudden passing of a true legend, the ever influential DJ, musician and cocktail evangelist, Brother Cleve.

I’m deeply saddened by his death while truly grateful to have known and been influenced by him. It’s a struggle to articulate Cleve’s magic. Last winter, Robert Simonson offered a poignant and personal account in The New York Times of what it was like to go down a rabbit hole with Cleve while Devra First recently chronicled his effect on the craft cocktails scene in Boston. From some of those closest to him the real and raw posting of a party photo with a brief testimony to his love and influence poured in on social media. The two that hit me the closest were Misty Kalkofen describing the year Cleve couldn’t attend Tales of the Cocktail and how she took a poster of him everywhere in New Orleans as she stood in for him at his gigs. The other was from Lauren Clark, reminding us all of the powerful manifesto of Cocktail Nation and of Cleve’s early presence before the cocktail scene, the way we now think of it, was catching fire. 

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Striving for quality when the world seems to celebrate its own mediocrity can be an act of nonconformity, even if the aim is to salvage generational cultural experiences. That’s a through line in Cleve’s approach to music and the bar. Discover what’s special about the old ways, add something new that’s also good, and have a great time doing it! Hard to imagine it now, but when cocktails were punk rock, Brother Cleve was a radical preservationist, ordained in the Church of the SubGenius.

It’s rare when a person operates at a high level in related but still distinct realms. Craft cocktail tenders, tiki devotees, lounge music aficionados, and rock musicians all connected to Cleve in various spheres and many sought his guidance and expertise over the years. He championed regionally distinct, casual American cuisine and shared his fountain of knowledge on the subject readily if he knew where you were headed. The last time I saw him he was sitting across from a dedicated young bartender encouraging their journey, rapping about vermouths and daiquiris with his infectious good humor and vast lexicon of drinks knowledge.

As a DJ, there were many times that Cleve played to the room. More often, Cleve, pied piper of the exotic, would pull the room, everyone in it, on a relaxed and sometimes giggly trip towards parts unknown. Bollywood, boogalou, space age jazz, tiki exoctica, loungecore and straight-up novelty were some of the many moods in his arsenal. 

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In the early 2000s when most of Gen X and almost all of the first millennials were tattooing their bodies with hip representations of what their current fetishes were, I had occasion to ask Cleve why he never got any tattoos. Ever quick witted, he made three short jokes in rapid succession: “What I’m really into is impermanence” he said, followed by “The ink wouldn’t be dry before I was into something else” and then impishly shrugging with his palms up, “I mean look at me, I’d run out of room!” Hilarious and true.

By chance when I was in Wildwood, New Jersey for a night with my 12- and 14-year-old children this summer, Cleve was there with his wife Diane. He’d been before with Tiki by the Sea, a professionals only conference centered at the Barcelona Hotel that has proved a nexus for devotees of this festive subculture. This trip he and Di were there just to relax and enjoy the beach and the town’s unique Americana. He directed us to the best crabs, coolest outdoor bar, to an utterly unique arcade at which we could play original games from the 1950s through the present. He explained Wildwood’s special relationship with the birth of doo-wop and let us in on the best streets to view the area’s uncommon amount of large-scale vintage neon. 

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Time travel is possible if you know where to look. Cleve knew where to look. 

When the team at Boston.com asked me to commemorate Brother Cleve with a Cocktail Club note and recipe, I had to admit it would be hard to pick one. There are so many cocktails that I think of, when I think of Cleve. Manhattans, that blend of rye, vermouth and bitters which both his grandmother and my mother drank. The Combustible Edison, a mix of flaming brandy with lemon and Campari that was printed on the back of the band’s record, “I Swinger.” Certainly it could be the Boulevardier, Diane’s favorite and a drink he endlessly loved to tinker with at home. A Stardust, which Cleve turned me onto at the Bside Lounge is a rum drink with fresh lemon that turns on an ingredient called parfait d’amour, a floral, orange flavor-tinged and purple French liqueur. It makes that drink a royal blue but around 2005 the formula for the liqueur we used changed. The drink lost texture, the color was off and the flavor slipped. I was trying to place that drink on the opening Eastern Standard menu but had to abandon it. Cleve never gave up and at Paris Creperie in the Seaport, you can get a modern update that he authored with enhanced parfait d’amour and rum dyed purple with butterfly tea. 

The more I thought of it, I knew what it had to be. Another drink that Cleve turned me onto, the Corpse Reviver #1. It’s a drink that on the surface looks like an equal measure of cognac, calvados and sweet vermouth, but then when you regard it further, there emerges a two to one Manhattan variation where the rye or bourbon is replaced with a mix of two French brandies. I know he loved this drink and he often quoted from Harry Craddock, the warning associated with drinking too many in quick succession. I think he’d also like the duality of the choice of it for this space. Something cheeky and darkly humorous for a solemn occasion even as the author truly wishes the drink’s properties were literally true.

Corpse Reviver #1

Ingredients

  • 1 oz. cognac
  • 1 oz. calvados
  • 1 oz. sweet vermouth

Instructions

  • Stir over ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a cherry.

The New England Tiki Society is hosting a gathering to remember Brother Cleve at Wusong Road in Cambridge on Monday October 11. Tickets are available here.


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