Periodista Tales

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Periodista Tales: Brother Cleve—The Godfather

In a Harvard Square basement, exposed-filament bulbs burned golden beneath steel housings, Arcade Fire rumbled in the eaves, and a man in a straw porkpie hat and a beard sat alone at the bar. Outside, it was ninety-five degrees and the 4th of July. Down there, the AC had already started to dry my throat. I was at one of the newest fixtures of the Boston cocktail scene, Russell House Tavern, to meet with one of the oldest: Brother Cleve.

I’d heard whispers about Cleve since I started drinking cocktails in Boston. Some call him the Godfather of the cocktail scene. He was there when the B-Side Lounge opened. He’s a musician. He’s an influence. His name appears in print alongside all the notables: Kalkofen, Gertsen, Cannon—a familiar list by now. He’s mythic.

I introduced myself and took the seat next to him. Cleve knew the story thus far.

“I have, like, two hundred and fifty bartending books,” he said. “I haven’t had a chance to look through every single one of them, but the Periodista’s not in any of Trader Vic’s books. It’s not in the La Floridita guide and it’s not in Sloppy Joe’s—those are the two most famous bars in Havana. It’s not in any of Jeff Berry’s books, it’s not in Ted Haigh’s book, it’s not in Paul Harrington’s book, it’s not in the Savoy, it’s not in the Waldorf, it’s not in David Embury’s book, it’s not in Bottom’s Up. It’s not in any of the classics.”

We were off to a great start.

“I never thought about this until you brought it up,” he said. “It’s really fucking weird. Now I’m fascinated.”

Cleve sported large, round glasses and a blue silk kimono-print shirt. Plus the hat. I felt like drinking a Mai Tai. Aaron Butler, the bar manager of Russell House, asked for our order.

“I’ll have a ginger beer,” Cleve said.

I raised my eyebrows, then ordered the same. We drank our ginger beers. I asked Cleve how he fit into the puzzle.

“I was really the guy who introduced the whole classic cocktail thing to the city,” he said, matter-of-factly.

I told him I was going to need a little more than that.

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s do this in chronological order. Back in 1985 I was on tour with this band. One night we were at this diner in Cleveland, and on the back of the dinner menu was a cocktail menu.  I started looking at the names of the drinks, and I was like, ‘Whoa!  Grasshopper? My grandmother used to drink those. Ward 8? My aunt used to drink those.’ I left the restaurant and on my way to sound check I went over to a bookstore and bought an old Mr. Boston Bartender’s Guide. I said, I gotta get to the bottom of this. What the hell is a Ward 8?”

I knew the feeling.

“What you have to understand,” he continued, “is that at that time in history, in America, there were people of a certain age who were seeing parts of their culture disappear for the first time in their lives. Things like drive-ins, Tiki bars, spy movies, certain types of ’60s fashions. Cocktails were part of it. You know, shots were the thing in the ’80s. But things like martinis and Manhattans, nobody drank them.”

He looked at his ginger beer for a moment before taking a drink. Jackie Wilson’s “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me” had started playing in the bar. I thought about Ghostbusters II and the things from your past you let go of at a certain age. If you let go. Cleve continued.

“In Boston, things really coalesced in the early ’90s,” he said.  “There was this band called Combustible Edison. They started playing down at Green Street Grill in Central Square, back when it was John Clifford’s place. They would play the kind of stuff you’d get on vinyl for fifty cents at a record store because nobody wanted it. It was the musical equivalent of the drive-ins and Tiki bars. Spy scores, lounge, exotica. Mancini and Esquivel. Elevator music. Space age bachelor pad music. The first time I saw Combustible Edison I was standing there with my jaw on the floor.  Like, these guys broke into my house and stole my records and were playing them back to me.”

Cleve’s eyes glinted behind his spectacles. I could see the picture, sun-bleached, like a record left too long in the window display: Cleve’s fingertips flipping deftly through a stack of records. Vintage sunglasses perched on his ears. A thrift store pinstripe on his back. Looking for outsiders to be outside with.

“When the first Combustible Edison album came out,” he said, “it was bigger than anyone ever imagined. The Combustibles were on Sub Pop, and they were their highest-selling band next to Nirvana. When it came time to go on tour, the Millionaire—he was their front man—the Millionaire approached me and asked if I wanted to go on tour with them as their keyboard player. I said, ‘Sure.’ So we went out there in the spring of ’94, not knowing what the reaction was gonna be.”

Cleve grinned.

“But people were so ready for this it was unbelievable,” he said. “There were like-minded souls in cities across the country. Across the world, really. I would say that it was a movement, it really was.”

I asked him what this all had to do with cocktails.

“Our fans were called the Cocktail Nation,” he said. “Cocktails were a huge part of it. At a time when everyone was wearing flannel shirts and drinking Rolling Rock, we wore vintage suits with flowing ties and ascots, we drank martinis on stage. It was kind of a punk rock moment. We had a signature cocktail, the Combustible Edison cocktail. It was flaming brandy, Campari, and lemon juice. At lots of our shows you’d get a free cocktail with the price of your ticket. We eventually got a Campari sponsorship. Entire venues would be sold out, and at least half the crowd would totally get it and be completely dressed up, and everyone in there would be drinking some kind of cocktail. Much to the dismay of bartenders, who didn’t know how to do this stuff, especially in rock clubs. The best one was in Philadelphia. I remember this, when the older bartender looked at me toward the end of the night, totally exasperated, and said, ‘Why can’t you people just drink beer like everybody else?’”

Cleve laughed.

“When I got back to Boston I was a celebrity,” he said. “My picture was on the front of the Globe Arts section, with a two-page interview inside. I’m sitting there drinking a martini, looking like one of those ‘What sort of man reads Playboy?’ spreads. There was an Esquire magazine cover story, GQ, all these different major major publications at the time.”

I thought about the man on that Globe Arts cover meeting the man flipping through records in that thrift shop. A like-minded soul? Maybe.

I still hadn’t heard how the Periodista came into play. I asked about the B-Side Lounge.

“Patrick Sullivan and I opened the B-Side in the winter of 1998,” he said. “Back in ’95, Patrick had been bartending at a place called Flat Top Johnny’s in Kendall Square. I had my fortieth birthday party there, and I was going up to the bar and ordering all these drinks. Sidecars, Negronis. Patrick didn’t know what any of them were. I was like, ‘Can I tell you?’  ‘Sure!’ he said. So I showed him how to make all these drinks. That was his moment, his version of that Cleveland cocktail menu.”

Cleve took a drink of his ginger beer. I thought about asking, but didn’t. I’d finished mine, so I ordered a Coke.

“Fast forward to 1997,” he continued. “I’m back from the first Combustible Edison tour, and the Lizard Lounge is just opening up in Porter Square. The booker there asked me if I wanted to do a night.  I said, ‘Sure.’ I called it Saturnalia. My idea was to play a bunch of lounge and exotica records and have classic cocktails.”

He gave me a wry look.

“This is where it starts,” he said. “This is where it really all begins, because the bartender at the Lizard was Misty Kalkofen. So, I brought in my cocktail menu—it had eight or ten classic drinks on it—and Misty was like, ‘I don’t know anything about this. I know how to pour beer.’ This is why when you read interviews with Misty now, she calls herself my protege, because I showed her, ‘Look, here’s how you do it.’ And the rest is history. All credit goes to Misty. She took that ball and ran with it. Saturnalia was huge. It was written up in the Globe, the Phoenix. We were sold out every night, lines down the block—and nobody drank beer, everybody ordered cocktails, and Misty made every drink. It was trial by fire. She learned how to do it, and she learned how to do it fast.”

The making of a star. These days Misty is nominally bartending at Drink, when she’s not being flown to cocktailing events all over the world by tequila companies. I met her once, but that’s another story.

“After that, Misty pretty much became my personal bartender,” Cleve said. “We ended up down on Lansdowne Street—everyone does, eventually. I was DJing at Bill’s Bar and Misty was making drinks. One night Pat Sullivan comes in. He’s like, ‘You don’t remember me—.’ He tells me the story of that night at Flat Top Johnny’s. Now he was opening up a new bar. He’d bought the old Windsor Tap, which was this real lowlife kind of dangerous bar that you only drank in if your father and your grandfather had drunk there before you. He was re-dubbing it the B-Side Lounge, and he wanted the focus to be classic cocktails. He asked if I would come on to create the menu. I said, ‘Sure.’”

Cleve sat back in his chair. At the rear of the restaurant, black-clad staffers were anxiously tugging curtains, blocking the view of a long table. At the front, a large group of men and women in rolled sleeves and sundresses were tapping their feet, cracking their knuckles, and one of them was giving the hostess a piece of his mind. Such as it was.

“You know the rest,” Cleve said. “The B-Side was a huge success pretty much from the beginning. And all the folks that are the leaders of the bar scene in Boston now—Misty, Jackson, Dylan, McGuirk, Rob at Chez Henri, Dave Cagle over at Deep Ellum—they all came out of the B-Side.”

The prophet and his disciples, spreading the cocktail gospel across the land.

“And here’s the B-Side’s first menu.” Cleve opened a black folder and pulled out two narrow, beer-stained sheets of paper. There it was. Periodista.

“We knew the Periodista from Chez Henri,” he said. “Joe McGuirk had been working at Toad, and he knew I was into cocktails, so when he opened at Chez Henri he told me, ‘Hey, you gotta come check out this new place. We’re going to be doing real cocktails.’ And they had the Mojito, and they had the Periodista. That was the first place I had one. We knew it was a great drink, and they sold a lot of them, so Patrick and I put it on the menu at the B-Side.”

Talk about the story thus far. What about the Hemingway connection, the American reporters during the Cuban Missile Crisis, the whole Havana thing?

“It’s probably all bullshit,” Cleve said. He laughed. “It’s not in the books. But when you see it on menus, sure enough, it’s always tied to the Cuban thing. Puts it up there with the Mojito or even the Daiquiri—which are famous Cuban drinks. The Mojito is in the La Floridita guide. The Daiquiri is named for the beach in the town in Cuba where it was created. The Periodista—”

He shook his head.

I thought about the legend behind the drink, the stories on the menus. All those Periodistas Joe McGuirk sold at Chez Henri, all the ones Jackson Cannon sold at Eastern Standard. Did you need a story to sell a drink?  If so, how bad did you need it?

I’d been putting it off, but I knew who I had to ask.

Brother Cleve’s Periodista

1 ½ oz Appleton rum, 12-year or 21-year (depending on your budget)
¾ oz Rothman & Winter Orchard apricot liqueur
½ oz Cointreau (or Bols dry orange curaçao)
½ oz fresh lime juice
1 barspoon (⅛ oz) simple syrup

Shake with ice, strain into a cocktail glass.  “A lime garnish,” says Cleve.  “A wheel if you’ve got it or a wedge if you don’t.”

Tasting notes:  Cleve is an advocate of Jamaican rum, and his friend Jeff “Beach Bum” Berry claims that the Appleton 21-year is the closest you can get to the old Dagger’s rum, which is no longer produced.  If you can’t afford that, the 12-year (or Reserve, even) will do as a substitute.  He observes that there is no Cuban dark rum, which is why he recommends a Jamaican spirit here.  (A classic Cuban cocktail with a non-native base spirit? Hmm…)  He’s also an advocate of another unavailable product, the Bols dry orange curaçao, but Cointreau will do in a pinch.  Cleve uses only fresh lime juice and adds a bar spoon of simple syrup to balance the sour.  (NOTE:  A big thanks to Aaron Butler for indulging Brother Cleve and I and making this delicious Periodista to Cleve’s specifications)

This week’s post also comes with a bonus recipe.  Brother Cleve brought with him the original B-Side Lounge menu, and the recipe cheat sheet he would hand out to all his bartenders.  The instructions for constructing an original B-Side Periodista, the first Periodista for many a Boston imbiber, is as follows:

The B-Side Lounge Periodista

1 ½ oz Myers’s dark rum
¾ oz triple sec (generic bottom shelf)
¾ oz apricot brandy (generic bottom shelf)
1 splash Rose’s lime juice
G: lime wedge

Shake with ice, strain into a cocktail glass.  Garnish with a wedge of lime.

Tasting notes:  Cleve is certain that Joe McGuirk would have brought this recipe over from Chez Henri.  His comment on using bottom shelf brands: “That was the other thing with cocktails, and why a lot of places got into it: the markup on these things was incredible.   As far as what it actually cost in ingredients.  Because cocktails were never made with top shelf ingredients.  These drinks were cheap to make.  We sold them—you can look at the prices, I mean these drinks were mostly five or six dollars, and most of them cost about 85 cents to make.”  Yum!

3 comments to Periodista Tales: Brother Cleve—The Godfather

  • Fred

    Great post and really interesting character, this Cleve. The whole nineties version of retro is such an interesting phenomenon in our pop culture history…I think of stuff like Combustible Edison, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, swing dancing, etc. (though I’m sure someone would flay me alive for lumping all of that together) and compare it with our current midcentury fetishization (Mad Men and the like)…the nineties take was so much more lighthearted and kitschy, very reflective of a sunnier mood in the country. Though I’m sure in ten years we’ll look back on this period as hopelessly naive.

    In any case, it’s fun to read about the swirl of nerdy private passions, personal connections, and random coincidences that go into the creation of a niche cultural movement. Reading this post sort of reminded me of the movie “Hype,” about the evolution of the Seattle Grunge scene, which essentially came out of a relatively small, very incestuous group of friends who shared the same interests and sort of spurred each other on into the creation of this kind of music that went from a regional trend into an (inter)national phenomenon. I wonder if, with the internet, that kind of thing is even possible anymore. You know, like, what if Brother Cleve had had Google. Would he have been as excited and inspired about old cocktail recipes and exotic lounge music if he had been able to log onto the internet and discover thousands of other people into exactly the same thing?

  • I’ve had this exact conversation with Cleve but never had the good sense to record it! Here’s to you for getting the story out there, Devin.

  • Nat

    I’m alone, sitting at the bar at Toro, right now reading “Imbibe!” by David Wondrich. F*** you for doing this to me. ;)