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Brother Cleve's Tall Cocktail Tale of the Day: Stalking The Elusive Orange Bitters

Photo: Brother Cleve/Aaron Kagan

No Boston Cocktail Week in its right mind would be complete without a mention of local cocktail legend Brother Cleve, who has been instrumental in stoking the fires of Boston's cocktail revival. Cleve, a musician and cocktail consultant, chatted with Eater about some of his most memorable cocktail adventures and misadventures during his years on the road. This time, Cleve shares the story of his hunt for the - at the time, in the 90's - impossible to find orange bitters.

I feel like my grandfather sometimes, who used to tell me they had to walk to school for like five miles in the snow and had no shoes and that type of thing. I've told this story to a bunch of people over the years, and people can't fathom what life was like. But not long ago, you just couldn't get bitters. Sure you could find Angostura here and there, but when I first started collecting cocktail books in the 80's, I'd see all these recipe with orange bitters and I'd go to to the liquor stores and they'd go "oh, no, they stopped selling those in the 60's, you can't get those anywhere." And I'd think, 'I wonder what it tastes like?'

It boggles people's minds now when I can go to a place like The Boston Shaker and have 60 different bitters, when a scant 15 years ago it was impossible to get anything but Angostura, and it wasn't like you could get Angostura in your supermarket, like you can now. So I was out in Ohio, which was like the promised land in my whole cocktail story because of where I had my cocktail epiphany in Cleveland in 1985. I think this was 1991. I was playing in Columbus, I was on tour with soul singer Barrence Whitfield. We were playing at this club, and they sent you across the street to this Italian restaurant for dinner. You know, an old school Italian place. They had these little table tents that said "Why don't you try a martini?"

It might have been Beefeater or Tanqueray, I'm not so sure. It said blah-blah-blah gin, dry Vermouth, and orange bitters! I looked at this thing and was like, orange bitters!? I can't believe it. I've been trying to find these for fucking six years now and they have them here in Ohio? This kind of figures.

I'm rushing up to the bar - and it was this old guy, who had probably been a bartender for 30 years - this was a red sauce Italian place with the red and white checked table clothes and that sort of thing, and it was an old bar.

Cleve: You really have orange bitters?
Barender: Yeah.
Cleve: Well... can I see them?
Bartender: (suspiciously) Sure, here you go.
Cleve: Do you mind if I just put a little bit on my finger and just taste it?
Bartender: Uhhh.... yeah, I don't think it tastes too good, but sure, go ahead.
Cleve: So you can get these here in Ohio?
Bartender: Oh no, you can't get these here.
Cleve: How come you have them? How'd you get them?
Bartender: Indiana. They got everything in Indiana.

Well guess where I'm going tomorrow? Indiana: we were playing Indianapolis or something like that. So the next day we crossed the Indiana state line and I said if we see a liquor store off the highway, we have to stop. Sure enough, we weren't in Indiana all that long and there was a giant liquor store right off the highway. We pulled in and I went in with my drummer, who was also excited, and I said 'do you have orange bitters?' And they looked at me like "of course we do." I bought twelve bottles.

After the tour ends about four weeks later and I get home, I'm all excited and I start going through the books and making every cocktail that had orange bitters in it, for months after that. I was all excited I finally had them. About two years ago, at the Manhattan Cocktail Classic, I was hanging out with Stephan Berg, who's The Bitter Truth guy from Germany, and his partner. I'm telling him the story and he's like...

Stephan: Vat vas ze brand that you bought?
Cleve: It was from Chicago, it was called the Collins brand, and it came in a little plastic bottle.
Stephan: Collins? But zat vas the vurst!

Yeah, it was. They were terrible. I had no idea. It was another five years before I had the only other brand that existed, which was Fee Brothers. How was I to know? It was like the first time I had real tequila in Mexico. I said 'what is this stuff anyway?' And the woman from the record company I was with in Cuernavaca said "that's tequila." Well what the fuck have I been drinking for 25 years!? "Oh, vodka with food coloring."

Oh, okay. Well now I know.

Brother Cleve is currently bartending at the "Speakeasy to Repeal" parties at Noir, in the Charles Hotel, on Wednesdays from 6pm to 8pm. He also plays the monthly Jive Party at An Tua Nua on the first Friday of every month, featuring Electro Swing music and classic-influenced cocktails.

· All coverage of Cocktail Week on Eater [~EBOS~]
· All coverage of Brother Cleve on Eater [~EBOS~]