Clover Club

The cocktail revolution bellies up at the neighborhood bar.

It’s 2 or 3 p.m. on Sunday, long after the regular brunch crowd has left, when the groggy mixologists of Brownstone Brooklyn start rolling into Clover Club. Chef Gil Calderon doesn’t have to leave the tavern’s tiny kitchen—directly beneath the grand wooden bar that is the hub of this haven of cultured bibulosity—to know when they’ve arrived.

He just looks at the tickets coming through. “They order the most difficult drinks,” he says. “They order a lot of oysters. Anything briny they’re about, anything sweet.” Most of the bartenders/patrons worked a shift at other joints the night before, and have just fallen out of bed. “They arrive as late as they can,” tells Calderon. “Most places are getting ready for the evening service at that point. Here, it’s like the second hump on the roller coaster. Before you know it, everyone at the bar knows one another. Then it spills into a happy-hour scenario.”

The latecomers can include the cream of Gotham’s mixology community. “I look down the bar sometimes,” says Julie Reiner, owner and den mother of Clover Club, “and there’ll be Phil Ward, Katie Stipe, Joaquín Simó, Sammy Ross.” That foursome is responsible for many of the glasses emptied at, respectively, Mayahuel, Vandaag, Death + Company and Milk & Honey. Heaven help the barkeep who fills their orders. “The brunch bartender needs to know how to make a Ramos Gin Fizz perfectly,” says Reiner.

The expectations of the laymen barflies are scarcely lower. “Brooklynites are very discerning drinkers,” says Reiner. A Brooklynite herself, her reputation as the co-owner of Flatiron Lounge in Manhattan made the June 2008 coming of Clover Club a red letter day in swilling circles. She has since opened Lani Kai in SoHo, but continues to rate her Kings County customers most highly. “We have the most highly educated clientele of the three bars. The bartenders have to be on their toes and know their shit. There’s no faking it. The people will call you out on it if you don’t. Nobody’s going to ask for a Remember the Maine at Lani Kai.”

Ivy Mix, who joined the Clover Club team last March, learned early that working the bar was a trial by firewater. “Since I’ve been here, I’ve learned some cocktails I hadn’t known before,” she says. “I always knew what a Penicillin was”—a marriage of blended and Islay Scotch invented by Sam Ross—“but I worked here for two shifts and I knew it by heart. People would ask for it as a modern classic. You get a lot of ‘Stump the Bartender.’ You go through your internal Rolodex.”

Or, you go through an actual Rolodex. The Great Rolodex, as Mix calls it. It’s kept in a far corner of the bar, and bartenders turn to it whenever memory—cranial or motor—fails. Curated by Reiner, it’s stuffed with hundreds of recipes. The Scofflaw, the Scotch Law, the Seelbach, just to mention a few of the “S” entries. The classics, the cultish, the Clover Club originals—they’re all in there. “We’re all smart people, but keeping everything in your head is difficult,” says Mix, who is tall, thin, curly-haired, pretty and, for the record, a distant descendent of film cowboy Tom Mix. But once the Great Rolodex is consulted, all barroom debate ends. “We’ll stand behind these specs 110 percent,” says Mix. “If someone says, ‘That’s not how that drink is made,’ we’ll say, ‘Yes—it is.’ ”

Reiner opened Clover Club in a former shoe shop on Smith Street in 2008, choosing the area because she wanted a saloon that was up to her standards near her Park Slope home. (The bright-white vertical signage along the building once read Johnnie’s Bootery). Reiner built the long, deep room around an imposing mahogany bar, dating from 1897 and found in northeastern Pennsylvania. The floor is a mosaic of decorative tiles, the ceiling tin. Filling the back bar are the various weapons of today’s craft cocktail warriors: more than 120 bottles of fine, and sometimes obscure, spirits; custom ice; a dozen or so vials of housemade syrups; a small colony of bitters; two rows of freshly hewn garnishes: mint, cucumber, oranges, lemons, limes, blackberries, raspberries, pineapple, strawberries and a couple seasonal items. Finally, there are various tins, shakers, strainers and other tools of the trade needed to convert the above liquors, liquids and produce into luscious and picturesque adult beverages.

In its first blush, the new saloon seemed easy to pigeonhole. The intended mise-en-scène was America’s austere yet rich Gilded Age, an era that acts as such a narcotic to a certain kind of cocktailian. The place’s very moniker, after all, is taken from a pre-Prohibition cocktail named after a Philadelphia men’s club. As it evolved, however, Clover Club’s aura grew more complicated, and harder to pinpoint. The Old World decor became a backdrop to New World informality. Yes, the bartenders dressed like Jerry Thomas’s cousins, in vests and ties, but the bar completely eschewed any sense of precious exclusivity, its glass doors open wide to the street, the bar’s illuminated sign visible from a mile away.

The key to the saloon’s complexity, it turned out, was the address: Brooklyn. Life is different on this side of the East River, after all, even for one of the borough’s first few haute cocktail emporia. The bar’s clients skewed slightly older and were not as tightly wound as those at Flatiron and other Manhattan bars of its ilk; people brought their kids during early hours. (Once I saw a parent bold enough to strap his tyke’s high chair to the lip of the bar.) The vibe was laid back, unpretentious, democratic. This, as much as the drinks, drew other mixologists to Clover Club’s brass rail. Death + Company bartender Joaquín Simó summarizes Clover Club’s unique  attraction as an “utter lack of pretension while striving for the highest standards. It has a very convivial saloon sensibility that doesn’t feel stuffy or out of place in Brooklyn. It’s also an enormously versatile space, functioning as beautifully during the day for brunch/lunch service as it does after dark. I have gone there by myself to read the newspaper, brought friends and family in from out of town, stopped in past last call to heckle the staff and even had my bachelor party there.”

“When you come here,” adds head bartender Brad Farran, “you’re not going to get a whole lot of attitude and snobbery about what you drink. I’m just as happy to give someone a vodka and soda as I am nerding out about Manhattan variations.”

Though not yet four years old, Clover Club is already regarded as a borough standard bearer. In 2008, nouveau cocktailianism had barely dented Brooklyn. But after Reiner put down roots, she was quickly followed by Jake Walk, Fort Defiance, Prime Meats, Henry Public and, in Williamsburg, a veritable boozy ocean of high-end boîtes. Today, Manhattan has little to offer in alcoholic refreshment that Brooklyn can’t match.

The bar was influential in other ways as well. Food was once a sideshow at the city’s mixology labs. Snacks shivered in the shadow of King Cocktail. Clover Club’s grub program also started small, but soon showed surprising strength. “We realized that people in Brooklyn want to sit, they don’t want to stand, and they want to eat,” says Reiner.

Chef Craig Rivard shaped a bill of fare as hearty, retro and borderline decadent as the bar’s 19th-century aesthetic. There were baked eggs, deviled eggs, steak frites, French dip and a bacon tasting. Dining traffic grew steadily until it became the “monster” of today, with 150 seatings on Saturday and 300 on Sunday. Recently opened bars (Maison Premiere here, and the Tippler, the Beagle, Mother’s Ruin in Manhattan) prove that new spots in both boroughs now consider a serious food program essential to profitability.

Last year, Rivard moved to Reiner’s Lani Kai, drafting his pal Gil Calderon to oversee the CC food menu. The special connaissance between the kitchen and the bar is something that Calderon had not encountered before. “At other restaurants I’ve worked at, you get really restrained feedback from the house staff,” he says. “Here, there is a much more obvious relationship between the chefs and the bartenders. If they’re developing a drink, they’ll always ask me my thoughts. We get each other.”

For all the success of the food program, however, Calderon knows his place in the Clover Club universe. “The identity of this place is still that bar, and I think everyone who works here is completely aware of that. We’re facilitating an expertly made cocktail.”

Getting a cocktail onto that menu is not easy. Four times a year, every Clover Clubber who wields a shaker auditions for the drink list, which changes seasonally. Not participating is an option—but not one that’s encouraged. (The customer is not confined to the bar’s cocktail list, though it is extensive. Ordering off-menu is common.) “We kind of frown on those who don’t submit drinks, because they’re not a part of the process,” says Reiner, who is a warm, likable presence, but, as a judge of drinks, not one to mince words. “We want them to be engaged. Even if you have something that sucks, let us tell you it sucks, and why. Then they learn. Brad’s drinks sucked in the beginning and now they’re great.”

Brad Farran admits this. “Millions” is his estimate of how many of his early inventions didn’t make the cut. “When it comes to creating drinks here, you have to go at it without much ego. There’s a lot of trial and error and tweaking and fine-tuning.” His first cocktail to chart: the Leone, a stirred tequila drink with bianco vermouth, blood orange liqueur and Peychaud’s bitters. Farran’s come up in the world since then; he and Reiner now jointly test each new cocktail on the menu. Two entries from the fall tryouts that made the menu include Farran’s Apple Turnover, composed of Scotch, Calvados, apple liqueur, ginger syrup, lemon juice and cinnamon bark syrup; and Macy’s Coin Toss, a mix of rum, Luxardo Amaro Abano, Benedictine, and lemon and maple syrups. The crew gets plenty of help executing these complex cocktails from Clover Club’s hardworking bar-backs, who do everything behind the bar except make drinks. Duties: fetch fresh ice and bottles, wash and stock glasses, cut up garnishes daily, prepare the syrups and set up the bar’s two stations. These are known as “point” (direct contact with barstool occupants; the glamor spot) and “service” (where, according to Mix, “you’re a machine, you put your head down and go for it,” churning out cocktails for the waitstaff ). Which you work depends, says Mix, on your evening’s answer to the question, “Do you want to be the arms or the mouth.” Bar-backing is brutal work. Yet, when Reiner placed an ad for bar-backs on Craig’s List in 2009, 50 people showed up. Tom Macy was one of them. A former actor, garrulous and approachable, Macy became interested in cocktails while working front of house at Savoy, the recently closed SoHo institution. He called getting the Clover Club gig “the equivalent of my big break in acting. I would have done a dive bar in Williamsburg. I had no floor.” Clover Club’s inaugural head bartender, Giuseppe Gonzalez, was a wicked taskmaster, and Macy expected to get fired, or quit, a hundred times. But he stuck with it. “My first few months were just a nightmare,” he recalls. “Now I wear it as a badge of honor.” (Gonzalez—who is about as charismatic and mercurial a bartender as New York has to offer—has since leapfrogged from Dutch Kills to Painkiller to Mother’s Ruin, and plans to open his own bar, Golden Cadillac, as soon as he finds a location.)

Macy, a mere 24, rose through the ranks and now has his own bar-back, but says it was a privilege to be in the position. “I loved being slammed on a Saturday night and just killing it. I’d get really cocky about it. I’d listen to Rage Against the Machine before coming into work.”

Reiner says she generally hires people based not only on skill and experience, but on something she calls “the likeability factor. When I meet them, do they have that thing where you like them before they even speak? There’s a charisma. You want that.” Though Reiner never actually met Farran before hiring him—the North Carolina native sent an incredibly earnest “manifesto of drinks-making philosophy” that caught Reiner’s attention—Farran does indeed have a likeability factor. He’s easygoing and affable, with no trace of the show pony. If Brooklyn’s cocktail world has a Jimmy Stewart, Farran is it. And this Stewart doesn’t need an angel to tell him he has a wonderful life. The only member of the original Clover Club crew still at it, he has no plans to stray. “Why would I leave such a great establishment to work somewhere else, just for a change of scenery?” asks Farran. “Being in the role I am, I feel responsible for what goes on here. We’re part of the neighborhood. And people who come here mostly are from the neighborhood. They’re neighbors. It speaks to the amiability of our staff. It’s a friendly place to be.”

Perhaps that, then, is Clover Club’s ultimate distinction. It’s where the sleek and elite cocktail revolution finally meet up with the neighborhood bar. It’s the place where the bartender may actually know your name, but most definitely knows your drink. Better yet, he knows how to make it. And well.

Editor’s note:  Milk and Honey, the Beagle, Painkiller and Lani Kai have closed.

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Robert Simonson writes about cocktails, spirits and bars for the New York Times. His book "The Old-Fashioned: The World's First Classic Cocktail" was published by Ten Speed Press in May. With his visit to Van Brunt Stillhouse, he thinks he's finally seen every Brooklyn micro-distillery. But he's not sure.