Tracing Boston’s Craft Cocktail Movement with Brother Cleve

When I go to meet Brother Cleve, musician, DJ and craft cocktail legend, he is working as a consultant at The First Printer in Harvard Square where he’s been charged with re-vamping the drink list. Cleve is one of those people whose reputations precedes them, especially if you live in the Boston area and have been to places like the former B-Side Lounge in Cambridge, Drink in Fort Point or Backbar in Union Square. It’s not an overstatement to say that the craft cocktail movement in Boston would not exist without Cleve.

“I got into craft cocktails as a kid,” Cleve said. “I drank Manhattans while listening to the Ramones in the ’70s.”

While on tour in the 1980s with one of the many bands he has been a part of, he stumbled upon a bar in Cleveland, Ohio, that had 100 drinks listed on it. At the time, “I thought there were like 10 cocktails,” Cleve said. He thought, “what the hell is a sidecar?”

He immediately went out to a bookstore and purchased an Old Mr. Boston cocktail guide. The rest, as they say, is history.

Cocktails had fallen largely out of favor at this time because the counter culture of the ’60s perceived them as being part of the establishment. Cocktails were seen as a remanent of the “Mad Men” era and as drugs became more popular, drinks became less so.

But while Cleve toured around the U.S. and the world in the 1970s and ’80s with his bands, he discovered that there were people all over the country getting back into cocktails. In Boston, people started holding parties downtown where they played easy listening records, drank cocktails and, as Cleve said, “sat around and pretended that we were sophisticated.”

He found similar scenes in San Francisco, Austin, Minneapolis, St. Louis, even Madison, Wisconsin. “There were people like us everywhere,” Cleve said.

It was in the latter location where Cleve was on tour with his band Combustible Edison that he came across a bartender making the band’s signature cocktail, which entailed setting brandy aflame. The bar kept going on fire, but that didn’t deter the bartender. He was James Meehan, now one of the world’s most famous cocktail crafters, owner of PDT (Please Don’t Tell), a New York City speakeasy style bar, and winner of the prestigious James Beard Outstanding Bar Program Award.

Cleve took all that he had experienced traveling with his bands and brought it back to Boston, where he was one of the founding members of the Boston craft cocktail scene. It went through some fits and starts in the 1990s before really coming together in 1998 at the B-Side Lounge, which was located on Hampshire Street in Cambridge (Lord Hobo now stands in its place).

“The B-Side Lounge is where it all coalesced,” Cleve said. “It was the first craft cocktail bar in the area.”

The B-Side boasted most of Boston’s best bartenders, like Misty Kalkofen, who Cleve first introduced to craft cocktails, and who has gone on to be a superstar bartender at places like Drink in Fort Point. And it was also the first bar in town in about 40 years to serve rye whiskey, like 80-proof Old Overholt Rye, which was used to make Manhattans.

In the middle part of the last decade, the movement really began to grow.

“This germ of an idea really started to take off again,” Cleve said. “With the new generation, these people started to get into positions of management. There was a huge second wind of the cocktail thing.”

As the cocktail movement has spread in the area, several excellent bars have sprouted up in Somerville slinging some of the best drinks you’ll find locally. Backbar in Union Square is, as Cleve says, “just phenomenal,” and right nearby, The Independent offers a diverse array of ever-changing cocktails. Also in Union, Casa B is raising the bar, so to speak, with its well-developed list of wine, ports and sherries.

“That’s stuff nobody does,” Cleve said. “Casa B is great. They had some really good cocktails.”

Cleve, who used to live near Union Square, was recently tapped to create several cocktails for the new Nibble cookbook, put out by the Somerville Arts Council as a celebration of the culinary creativity and culture found in Union Square.

Cleve conceived of the four drinks he created for the book as representations of the different waves of immigrants the Square has seen.

The Maharaja’s Revenge, based on the pre-Prohibition era cocktail called the Millionaire #3, is a blend of Old Monk Rum, apricot liqueur and fresh-squeezed lime juice that Cleve crafted based on the extensive time he has spent in India. The Peru Negro, which is a spin on the Negroni, contains Macchu Pisco, Campari, Punt e Mes Italian vermouth and Bittermens Xocolatl Mole bitters.

The Seoul Kiss, a riff on the martini, uses Old Tom gin, Chum-Churum Soju (which you can find at Union’s Reliable Market), blanc or bianco style vermouth and Fee Brothers grapefruit bitters. “That took the longest to perfect, but I love the way it came out,” Cleve said.

But the cocktail in Nibble that Cleve enjoyed creating most is The Union, which combines Irish whiskey, Portuguese Madeira wine, Italian Meletti Amaro and two types of Angostura bitters, to represent the Square’s earliest immigrants.

“This was the most fun,” Cleve said. “It’s old school.” To craft the cocktail, which is now available at The Independent, Cleve said he thought, “What can I do to mix all three of those groups in one glass?”

After all these years of traveling, reading and sampling, Cleve says the Manhattan remains his favorite cocktail.

“My grandma used to give me sips of hers,” Cleve said. He recently got his hands on some Knob Creek Rye, which he says is actually the previously discontinued, and much-loved, Old Overholt 100 Proof. “I made a Manhattan with it right away. It was awesome,” Cleve said with a satisfied smile.

P.S. To read more about the Nibble cookbook, including how and where you can purchase it, click here.

Photos courtesy of Drink Boston and the Somerville Arts Council.

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