Sidecar: Q&A With Brother Cleve, and two cocktail recipes.
January 20, 2022
After writing yesterday’s article on the new New York cocktail bar Lullaby, where Boston cocktail godfather Brother Cleve will be a partner, I realized there’s so much left to say about the bartender-musician-DJ-legend Brother Cleve that you can’t fit in 600 words. So here are a few more words on the subject, as well as some photographic evidence of his many past lives.
No cocktail community in the United States has a hipper godfather than Boston. Or a godfather with a cooler name. Brother Cleve, aka Robert Toomey, found his way to mixological mastery by accident, sampling drinks from the outdated drink menus at diners, restaurants and bars while touring the country as a member of such bands as The Del Fuegos and Combustible Edison. (The latter may be alone in the annals of music as the only band that actually had its own eponymous, signature cocktail, made of brandy, lemon juice and Campari. A cocktail that was lit on fire, in fact. Recipe below.) By the 1990s, he knew more about cocktails and cocktail history than most bartenders. He put that knowledge to work at the B-Side Longue, a Cambridge bar that helped kick off the craft cocktail movement in Boston; and as a mentor to such prominent Boston bar figures as Jackson Cannon and Misty Kalkofen.
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After three decades as a big noise in Boston, Cleve is finally getting a perch in New York as a partner in Lullaby, where he will both bartend and DJ. (Cleve’s LP collection, which runs in the thousands, is legendary.) The subterranean Lower East Side bar, which I recently wrote up in the New York Times, will open in February. I asked Cleve a few follow-up questions about drinks, music and that unusual name that I have to keep explaining to editors. At the end you’ll find a recipe for the Rivington cocktail, which will be an off-menu item at Lullaby.
You're a national figure in the cocktail universe. Is it a surprise to you that it took this long for you to land a bartending gig in New York?
Yes, it really is! I've done numerous events in New York over the years—Manhattan Cocktail Classic, Bar Convent Brooklyn, Brian Miller's Tiki Mondays among them—but having a sort of home base is quite exciting. [Partner] Harrison [Snow] and I work extremely well together, similar to a great songwriting team. And that makes it all the better.
What kind of music can we expect from you at Lullaby?
I like to provide a chill lounge atmosphere. After all, I started as a loungecore DJ in the ‘90s when I got to spin at cool cocktail spots around the U.S., London, Paris, Moscow, Barcelona, St. Bart’s, etc. I'm working on mixes featuring AOR/Yacht, Japanese City Pop, Caribbean sounds, Bossa beats, Souldies/Sweet Soul/Latin Soul, Jazz Funk, old-school Hip Hop, and International Disco/Boogie. Other nights may feature more Library beats, EZ Listening, Soft Tempo Lounge, Soundtrack Funk, even Go-Go dancing music. I've got thousands of records and very eclectic tastes. The possibilities are endless. We’ll also have local DJs spinning their own jams.
Where do you like to drink when in New York?
I'm always up for trying the newest spots when I can to them. But deep in my soul I—like my Lullaby partner Jake [Hodas]—am a dive-bar guy. When I first started hanging in New York, my best friend worked in Broadway musicals, so in that area we used to frequent midtown bars and grills like P.J. Clarke’s and McAnn’s and the Times Square Howard Johnson’s. I have a collection of their tulip-shaped cocktail glasses with “Simple Simon and the Pie Man” printed on them. Been a McSorley's fan since the ‘70s. On the other extreme, I started going to Angel’s Share in 1995. So many cool bars of all sorts to hit!
If you have to choose just one line of work for the rest of your life--music or mixology--what would it be?
Tough question. If I chose mixology, I'd still like to stock the bar jukebox.
I read that you toured with Bryan Ferry once. I've always been a fan of his. Did he drink cocktails? I always assumed he was the cocktail type.
Yes, Combustible Edison toured with him for a few months in the fall of '94. I never saw him drink, but I don't think that means anything. He sipped tea and honey and was always very careful about protecting his voice. Interesting guy, a true "rock star" in the glamorous sense. I always assumed that when he was off-duty he'd favor an ice cold Martini.
What's your favorite drink to make?
Probably the Boulevardier. It's so adaptable, because you can make it with so many different whiskies, vermouths or amari. I love playing around with those.
What do you drink most often at home?
Boulevardier. My wife's favorite drink.
When's the last time you made or drank a Combustible Edison?
It's been a while. I believe it was a few years ago at Drink in Boston. They always made them flaming, the proper way. Only other place that did that was the Cafe Montmartre in Madison, Wisconsin in the ‘90s. Loved that place!
What's the most recent cocktail you drank?
I made a couple of Uruapan Charanda Single Estate Daiquiris for friends the other night.
Just how well known are you in Boston? When you walk down the street, do people yell out, "Hey, Brother Cleve!"
More like when I walk into a bar. Though it has happened on the streets.
Do you ever regret adopting the name Brother Cleve? I imagine you have to explain your handle fairly often.
Nope! I don't get questioned about it very often, but when I tell folks the real story behind it, they laugh quite a bit.
There was some debate as to what to call you in the Times article: Mr. Cleve or Brother Cleve. We ended up with Brother Cleve. Would Mr. Cleve have been weird?
A bit yes, though I would have gotten over it.
This latest concoction by Brother Cleve is a twist on the Manhattan with deep notes of orange and chocolate. Named after the Lower East Side street that is the address of his bar, Lullaby, it can be considered an extension of the “Neighborhood Cocktails”—all Manhattan and Brooklyn cocktail riffs named after New York areas—that flourished in the late aughts.
1 ounce Evan Williams Bonded Bourbon
1 ounce Starlino Rosso Vermouth (Cocchi Vermouth di Torino can be substituted)
3/4 ounce Bigallet China China Amer
1 barspoon Mr. Black Cold Brew Liqueur
1 dash Dr. Elmegirab's Orinoco Peruvian Bitters (Angostura will work in a pinch)
Orange twist for garnish.
Combine liquid ingredients in a mixing glass half filled with ice. Stir until chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe. Garnish with orange twist.
The original preparation for this drink, created in 1994, called for lighting the brandy on fire and then pouring it, Blue Blazer-style, into a glass that already contained the Campari and lemon juice. The recipe was printed on the back of the band’s album, “I, Swinger.” The Mix does not recommend you attempt this perilous act. If you catch Brother Cleve in a good mood at Lullaby, however, perhaps he can be persuaded to attempt it.
2 ounces brandy
1 ounce Campari
1 ounce lemon juice
Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass half-filled with ice. Stir until chilled. Strain into a cocktail glass.
I leave you with a little ditty from “I, Swinger” on YouTube: Combustible Edision’s "Cadillac"