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Remembering Brother Cleve
The Modern Cocktail Community Loses One of Its Founders.
Brother Cleve, The Godfather of the Boston cocktail revival and an all-around mentor figure in the cocktail community, died suddenly on Friday while working in Los Angeles. His unexpected passing left his many friends and colleagues in the bar world shocked and saddened, and I am no exception. I certainly didn’t know him as well as some of the bartenders he helped school and support over the years, but I knew him enough to know I liked him enormously and relished every opportunity to chat with him. We shared a surprising number of interests, from cocktails to music to hats to regional foodways. I had planned to write something else today on The Mix, but as Cleve is much on my mind right now—as I’m sure he is with many others—I thought I’d share a few memories of the man.
I learned early on that, when you talked to Brother Cleve, you always ended up learning something. And if you asked him a question, he answered that one plus nine others, free of charge. He was generous with his knowledge, just as he was in all things.
I had the pleasure of writing often about Cleve, . Our first meeting was in 2013, when I was in Boston doing research for A Proper Drink, my 2016 history of the modern cocktail renaissance. I knew there was no way I could properly tell the story of the Boston cocktail revival without talking to Cleve. In the 1990s, as an everywhere-at-once, cocktail-loving, cocktail-making, Manhattan-ordering, itinerant keyboardist and DJ, he all but willed Boston’s cocktail scene into being.
I met him for lunch at Eastern Standard, the wonderful cocktail bar and restaurant on Commonwealth Avenue. It was then run by Jackson Cannon, one of Cleve’s many young bartender proteges. He was wearing a colorful shirt, glasses and a porkpie hat, as he always did. I had expected someone more imposing, someone fitting the vaunted description of “cocktail guru,” someone who, as a member of Combustible Edison and The Del Fuegos, could honestly cop to the title of rock star. But Cleve was humble, friendly and down-to-earth from the start. As his protege and friend Misty Kalkofen told me years later, “Cleve on stage is Cleve off stage.”
We ordered a couple Jack Roses, a cocktail he and Jackson had obsessed over and perfected as members of the Jack Rose Society, a loose affiliation of questing Boston mixologists.
Now, I’ve been doing this journalism thing for a while and I’m a pretty efficient interviewer. I usually can get what I need from a subject in an hour or less, sometimes much less. I also expected that Cleve was a busy man and had places to go and things to do. So, I thought our talk would last an hour at the most and we’d adjourn.
It lasted three hours. And during those three hours, I think I asked five questions. Each of Cleve’s answers lasted a half hour at least, his supply of happy-to-be-here chit-chat seemingly inexhaustible.
We ordered another round of drinks. As I realized I was going to be there a while, I began ordering food. Cleve didn’t. Cleve talked. About cocktails; about music; about Boston; about his cocktail-loving parents and grandparents; about friends; about food; about travel; about the B-Side, the Somerville cocktail bar he helped open in 1998, thus kicking off the Boston cocktail boom; about the punk sports radio talk show he once hosted; about the Church of the SubGenius, the satirical religion than gave him his tounge-in-cheek handle (his real name is Robert Toomey); about tracking down and meeting composer Juan Garcia Esquivel in Mexico; about making friends with Devo; how he taught himself accordion in the 1970s after he heard record by Clifton Chenier; about his love of Bollywood music; about the Saturn Bar in New Orleans, a dive he frequented so often that the owner took phone messages for him.
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All the stories were drawn from Cleve’s incredible and absolutely unique life as a bartender, musician, vinyl collector, historian, mixologist, DJ, antiquarian, tiki eminence and all-around Beantown living legend.
That Cleve could talk was no surprise. The bar world is full of good talkers. The gift of gab comes with the territory. The real trick is to talk and also have something to say. Cleve had something of value to say on nearly every subject under the sun. That’s what happens when you lead successful parallel careers as a touring musician, DJ and roving bartender. Those are three professions that gather up stories the way black corduroys collect lint. His gift for storytelling was effortless. And his was not in the theatrical, self-aggrandizing manner of some raconteurs. His communications were warm, casual and friendly tête-à-têtes. It was yarn-spinning as sharing, not grandstanding.
I had similarly edifiying experiences with Cleve when I interviewed him for a 2017 profile for Imbibe magazine, and an article earlier this year in the New York Times to announce the opening of Lullaby, the New York bar where he was a partner.
He also wrote just like he spoke. Sending a question to Cleve via email was no different than talking to him on the phone or in person. You got the Full Cleve data download every time.
Once, when working on an article about birch beer for Imbibe, I sent him a quick email to see if he had any thoughts of the subject. I knew he would. I’ve never met anyone who possessed more experience or interest in quirky regional foods and drinks than Cleve. He used to travel with a copy of Roadfood and Goodfood, a 1986 book by Jane and Michael Stern. Wherever he toured with Combustible Edison or The Del Fuegos—the two bands he was most closely associated with—he went out of his way to sample the local grub and quaffs.
He ate pig snoots and toasted ravioli in St. Louis, hamburgers with peanut butter and red onion in Springfield, Missouri; fried alligator in Mississippi; boiled peanuts in the Carolinas; Dynamite sandwiches in Woonsocket, Rhode Island; carne seca in Phoenix; chow mien sandwiches in Massachusetts; and Dole Whip in Lake George. If, while touring in the 1980s and ‘90s, an old-school restaurant or bar in Cleveland or Columbus or wherever offered throwback cocktails, he’d be sure to order one. In this way, and by collecting old cocktail books before anyone did that, he educated himself about cocktail history.
That he would have an opinion on birch beer was a given.
My email was four lines long. His response ran more than 1,000 words. After he related his birch beer knowledge, the email segued into Rhode Island food traditions; his love of Golden Ginger Ale, another regional soda flavor that had all but disappeared; birch syrup and where to get it (he had a connection!); road trips he took with his grandfather as a kid; and an A&W root beer stand he knew of that still had carhop service.
“For a guy who’s sort of holds silly trends at arm’s length, yes, he’s on a quest,” his protege Jackson Cannon told me a few years ago. “He’s always finding meaning in how completely he can absord something. That’s his wiring as much as anything else.”
The timing of Cleve’s passing is particularly heart-wrenching. Beginning in 2007, just when the cocktail revival was shifting into high gear, he stepped back from the scene to deal with some serious health issues. He became, in Cannon’s words, “a generational secret.” It is only in the last several years that he has returned to the bar world, manning several Boston cocktail programs, lecturing on drinks history, influencing a new generation of Boston bartenders and, finally, opening Lullaby, his first New York bar. 2022 looked to be one of his biggest years yet. He was DJ’ing in Los Angeles when he passed, on the road as always.
I was lucky enough to enjoy Cleve’s company quite a bit this year, both in person and digitally. He was the first person I interviewed for “The Mix,” and the subject of the newsletter’s second-ever post. Thereafter, he was a dedicated supporter of my scribblings here. Cleve left more comments on posts than any other subscriber, by a very long measure. And a Cleve comment was gold. His words always radiated his innate positivity and contributed something valuable to the conversation, making every article that much better.
I am going to deeply miss seeing his name pop up in the comments section. And I’ll just have to imagine what the regional food road trips we were planning on taking would have been like. I picture Mary Kate doing all the driving (she always does), Cleve in the passenger seat with a story to go with every town we pass, every drive-in and food stand we stop at. Me? I’m in the back seat, happily learning.
The Ninth Ward
Robert “Brother Cleve” Toomey
Brother Cleve considered this drink to be his best-known original invention. He created it for an event at Tales of the Cocktail in 2008. He said of the Ninth Ward, "I wanted to create a drink for the event that would have some sort of New Orleans and Boston connection... So my idea was to take the Ward Eight, the best-known drink created in Boston, and turn it into a tropical cocktail for New Orleans."
1 1/2 ounces Bourbon, preferably Bulleit
3/4 ounce lime juice
3/4 ounce falernum
1/2 St. Germain elderflower liqueur
2 dashes Peychaud’s bitters
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker half-filled with ice. Shake until chilled, about 15 seconds. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with an orange slice.