1934 — Just one heady year after Prohibition was repealed, Esquire Magazine, in a civic-minded attempt to reestablish the norms of a long dormant drinking culture, published a list of 10 Worst Drinks of the Previous Decade. There, among what they called out as the “pansies,” were the Brandy Alexander, the Bronx, a shaken 50/50 mix of rum and sweet vermouth called the “Fluffy Ruffles,” and, for some reason, the Clover Club.
Well, it wasn’t exactly called a pansy “for some reason.” It’s for this reason:
Such is the injustice that has followed the drink its whole life. The Clover Club is too pretty to be taken seriously. It’s the Brad Pitt of cocktails.
In January of 1880, an informal dinner of 15 newspaper men was arranged. The social benefits of this association became quickly apparent, and they formed the Thursday Club, which met every 4th Thursday for almost two years. For various reasons, the group re-branded, and on January 19, 1882 at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia, they met with a new formal name: The Clover Club.
To call it formal, however, was to miss the point. Its membership was made up of 35 men from all over industry, government, and law, as well as various other prominent wits. Oscar Wilde was there. There was no specific aim — “a Club for Social Enjoyments, the Cultivation of Literary Tastes, and the Encouragement of Hospitable Intercourse.” The one major rule was to enjoy yourself: if anyone was found to be too ponderous, sullen, or dull, they’d be mercilessly heckled. “The Clover Club,” according to the old Waldorf-Astoria bar book, was “composed of literary, legal, financial and business lights of the Quaker City, [who] often dined and wined, and wined again.”
As no self-respecting drinking club could be without its own drink, a Clover Club cocktail was needed. We don’t know when or by whom it was invented, but by 1901 it’s referenced, and 1908 finds it published, in William Boothby’s The World’s Drinks and How to Mix Them. By then it is already popular at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York, where William Butler Yeats, upon first discovering the drink, reportedly took down three in a row.
The Clover Club organization more or less disbanded around WWI, and by 1934, Esquire calls the now-orphaned cocktail one of the worst drinks of the previous decade. They’re wrong on both counts — it’s an exceptional drink, and it’s not from the previous decade — but no matter. It had somehow lost its association with the gentlemen’s club of noted wits, and becomes one of the “pansies.” Still in 1949, Esquire’s Handbook for Hosts incompetently dismisses it as “something for the ladies.”
And so it is today. Just look at the damn thing:
The pink. The white head. The cocktail glass. The garnish. It’s seems specifically designed to provoke insecure men. Which is a shame, because here’s the thing: the Clover Club is savagely fucking tasty.
What is the Best Recipe for a Clover Club?
Over the course of a month, I made every Clover Club recipe I could find. I tried grenadine vs. raspberries, dry vermouth vs. no dry vermouth, tweaking ratios, and did several blind trials with 16 different gins, which reduced to 8, then to 4, then to a winner. So here, the best Clover Club recipe, and then, below, I’ll explain my choices:
The Clover Club
2oz Hendrick’s Gin
0.75oz fresh lemon juice
0.75oz simple syrup (1:1)
1 egg white (about 1oz)
Add egg white to tin. Add the rest of the ingredients, as well as the raspberries. Seal, hold tight, and dry shake, without ice, for 5-6 seconds. Add ice, reseal tins and shake hard for 15 seconds. Strain into cocktail glass. Express a lemon peel over the top, then discard peel (for the aroma). Garnish with a raspberry, or 2, or 3, on a pick.
Raspberries vs. Grenadine: FRESH RASPBERRIES
There’s a bit of wavering about whether it’s raspberries or grenadine in this, and it’s comforting to discover bartenders have been wavering since the very beginning. Booth’s 1908 recipe calls for grenadine but adds that raspberry syrup “will answer the purpose” while a 1909 recipe calls for raspberry syrup, but says grenadine will work if raspberries aren’t in season. So it seems pretty simple: raspberry season is June — October, and pomegranate season is September — February, so pre-globalization, just use whichever you can get.
That being said, it’s 2017, and we can have everything all the time, so use raspberries. Grenadine makes a fine drink, but it’s not magic. Raspberries, in this, are magic.
As for fresh vs. syrup, use fresh. Syrup mutes the flavor, and fresh raspberries sing out of this drink. The PDT cocktail book advises raspberry jam, and again, it’s a fine drink, but fresh is always better.
Vermouth vs. No Vermouth: NO VERMOUTH
Very smart and talented people claim that a spot of dry vermouth improves the drink, and indeed, dry vermouth shows up in some of the earliest recipes. What dry vermouth achieves is to lend complexity — midtones — to a sour that otherwise rests on its brightness and vibrancy.
This is personal taste territory, and I tread lightly to disagree with such august opposition. Legendary cocktail historian David Wondrich says vermouth turns “a serviceable drink into an ambrosial one.” Julie Reiner, equally legendary operator who opened a bar in Brooklyn almost 10 years ago and named it after this exact drink, chooses vermouth. Along with that are a couple quieter choices as well — Plymouth, softer than it’s London Dry big brothers, and raspberry syrup instead of fresh. Her choices all lend toward subtlety and nuance instead of the vibrant, electric sour I’ve landed on. I admit I think mine is much better, but obviously she’s not incorrect. It’s just a difference in taste, and I like it better without vermouth.
Note: If you are using vermouth, I personally found it best with Tanqueray. To me, Tanqueray best incorporates the complexity of the vermouth into the greater drink. I feel like vermouth spoke too loud for the other gins, even Beefeater.
Imagine my surprise. Plymouth is traditional, in that some very early recipes call for it (though they didn’t have the selection we now enjoy). I was sure it would be Tanqueray 10, but nope — the structure and floral nature of Hendricks just melds perfectly. Side-by-side it against your favorite and tell me I’m wrong.
Here are the gins I tested, more or less in order of how I preferred them:
Individual Gin Notes:
Hendrick’s: really delivers that brightness I enjoy. Raspberry depth all the way through, buttressed by floral components of gin. Strong but mild, complex and delicious. Perfect.
TOP TIER, WOULD HAPPILY ACCEPT ANY TIME EVER:
Beefeater 24: very close second, even won some early blind rounds against Hendrick’s, just that Hendrick’s won more often. Really outstanding, bright, full flavored. “No hair out of place.” As it warms it can betray a little spirit hottness, but this is a very close 2nd.
Sipsmith: interesting that this would be so close at only 41.6%, but it provides the perfect infrastructure for the drink. Another close 2nd. Allows the raspberry to sing while complementing them with what translates as a textured grapefruity semi-bitterness. Really great.
STILL GREAT, BUT WOULD SLIGHTLY PREFER ONE OF THE ABOVE:
Beefeater: Very good, creamy and a little hot. “Like ice cream,” I wrote. Simple but tasty.
Tanqueray: Also extremely good. Starbright and vibrant at first. Gin shows through a little too much as it warms, but this is still an excellent drink.
Tanqueray 10: Same benefits and detriments as Tanqueray original. I thought the grapefruit would come through more, but I get more grapefruit-y notes on Sipsmith than I do on this.
FINE, BUT IT GETS BETTER:
Miller’s Westbourne Strength: one of my favorites for so many other uses, and almost made the above category. The cucumber here comes through as a green note that is very interesting, but ultimately distracting away from the clarity of flavor, which I see as the one of the Clover Club’s main strengths. Good though.
Plymouth: a little boring. Tastes fine, not bad, just a bit flat.
Death’s Door: just weighs in a little out of balance on this particular drink, but certainly not bad. “Creamy, tasty, good. A little hot on the finish but good on the whole.”
DON’T RECOMMEND FOR THIS APPLICATION
Aviation: this gin really stakes a different claim for itself — strong sarsaparilla notes, and some lavender — and that claim distracts from the overall drink. “Not bad — like a spinoff. Makes a Root Beer-flavored Clover Club.”
Sipsmith VJOP: in both trials, it wouldn’t foam up right. Flat, hot and uninteresting. I made it again because maybe the non-foaming part was my fault, and didn’t foam second time either. A catastrophe.
Plymouth Navy Strength: I thought extra proof points would do this favors, but still more suppresses flavor than enhances it. And there’s a strange, barnyardy earthiness just out of grasp that I find unpleasant.
Old Harbor San Miguel Gin: again, a bold new-style gin that is tasty, but too much cilantro for this application. “Green. Herbal. That’s cilantro. Not unpleasant, actually, but no reason to use this gin for this drink unless it’s all you have around.”
Ford’s Gin: this coaxed an earthy midpalate out of the cocktail and led to a somewhat unpleasant finish. I have no idea where that’s coming from on the gin, but we both placed it in the bottom half of its heat.
What is a “Clover Club?”
The name “Clover Club” was adopted from a then-famous phrase, “While we live we live in clover, when we die we die all over.” To be “in clover” was to be flush with luxury, comfort, and happiness, and the phrase shows up in the early 1700s, when clover was seen as a particularly savory and fattening meal for cattle.
What does that phrase come from?
The entire “while we live we live in clover…” phrase itself was coined by singer and playwright Samuel Sanford. Sanford was also an actor, as well as a hideous bigot — he achieved fame in 1850s for writing a fiercely pro-slavery stage version of the anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which he titled “Happy Uncle Tom, or Life Among the Happy.” He himself played Uncle Tom, in blackface, and an 1895 article in the Baltimore Morning Herald adoringly reported that “Sanford’s life is practically the history of negro minstrelsy in America.” What a dick.