Opinion: Remembering a brother in cocktail communion

Opinion: Remembering a brother in cocktail communion

Paying tribute to US cocktail pioneer Brother Cleve, and his legacy among today's bartenders

Thoughts from... | 09 Dec 2022 | Issue 188 | By Liza Weisstuch

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This is not a column about whisky. It’s a column about friendship. Though I suppose in an existential way, it is a column about whisky, because isn’t friendship the essence of whisky? Sure, any of us can sit at a table and evaluate and contemplate a dram. But is that really “fun”? Rewarding, perhaps, but fun?

This is a dedication to a friend named Brother Cleve, who passed away suddenly in September 2022 at the age of 67. Brother Cleve, whose name comes from his involvement with the satirical Church of the SubGenius, is to the cocktail renaissance what Julia Child was to at-home cooking or James Brown was to soul: a pioneer, an involuntary trend-setter, a beacon.

He grew up Robert Toomey in Medford, a suburb of Boston, and was a familiar face among the crowds that hung out in the clubs that defined the Boston punk scene in the 1970s. He played around on the keys himself and later became known around the world for his work in something approaching a dozen bands, including the Del Fuegos and Combustible Edison. The latter can be largely credited for the lounge music revival, which the 1996 movie Swingers, starring Vince Vaughn, punted into the mainstream. The style has been described as “space-age bachelor pad music” and a news show in the 1990s dubbed its revival “Henry Mancini meets Generation X”. If that doesn’t spark an urge for a Manhattan, then you’ve probably never had a Manhattan before. Fans throughout the US were known as “Cocktail Nation” but his fanbase extended far beyond. In the 1990s, he appeared on the cover of the Russian Rolling Stone. But Boston remained his home, body and soul.

Different drinks, of course, are simpatico with music, so it makes perfect sense that Cleve developed an obsession with classic cocktails, particularly tiki, alongside his vintage-music obsession. He was a man of many obsessions, like James Bond soundtracks, vintage diners of New Jersey, Polynesian shirts (as evidenced by his abundant wardrobe), and American dive bars. Whenever I listened to him recount the origins or variations on tiki drinks in specific or classic cocktails in general, it brought to mind Polonius telling Hamlet of “the best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poet unlimited”.

“I remember around 1999, he went to Mexico to find Esquivel, and told him, ‘I came here to find you,’” said Jackson Cannon, one of his protégés, referring to the Mexican composer and so-called king of space-age pop. “They recorded together. Then he came back with the best Tequila I ever drank.”

That knowledge of classic cocktails took root one day in Cleveland. During a tour with the Del Fuegos, he was in a diner and in the back of a menu was a catalogue of cocktails. This was the 1980s, mind you: pre-internet, pre-speakeasy renaissance. But his interest piqued. In his appearances DJing throughout Boston and Cambridge in the 1990s, his fondness for Negronis and Manhattans, and Daiquiris (his mother’s choice drink) was still a novelty among bartenders. Flavoured vodkas were flooding the market at dizzying speed. But young, intellectual bartenders noticed and got inspired. The generation includes Jackson and Misty Kalkofen, both of who went on to helm nationally celebrated Boston bars. Both will tell you that if you’ve ever had a classic cocktail in Boston, you owe a debt of gratitude to Brother Cleve.

“Everybody you know in the Boston bartending world is a few degrees of separation away from Cleve,” Misty told me. “Even the generation after, because they all came up under someone who was under his tutelage.”

I started going to Tales of the Cocktail, the annual spirits convention in New Orleans, in 2010. I met Brother Cleve there around then. I lived in Boston at the time and I was one of the fans he influenced and inspired. Even if I’d gone two years without seeing him, he’d greet me with a warm smile and ask what I’ve been working on, where I’ve travelled, much like the bartender at my local who saw me last week. Then he’d buy me a drink without missing a beat on the turntables.
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