What’s the best recipe for a Clover Club?

1934 — Just one heady year after Prohibition was repealed, Esquire Magazine, in a civic-minded attempt to reestablish the norms of a long dormant drinking culture, published a list of 10 Worst Drinks of the Previous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:

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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.

History:

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:

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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)
4-5 raspberries

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.

Ingredient Notes:

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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.

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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.

GINS: HENDRICK’S

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:

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Individual Gin Notes:

MY FAVORITE:

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.

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TRIVIA:

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.

What’s the best Gin and Vermouth for a Negroni?

There is a rule in my house: if I ever make a Negroni for myself, and Victoria is home (or about to come home), I have to make one for her too. Every time. This rule was put in place more than two years ago, and never once has it been broken, never turned down, never exceptioned.

There is only one other such mandate between us, in the case of bacon.

That’s the Negroni. It’s the bacon of cocktails. And yes, I take that comparison as seriously as it deserves, because like bacon, (1) it is always great, and (2) I’m never not in the mood for it.

The Negroni:

[nt] stirring

So first things first — what is a Negroni?

I’m not going to spend too much time on the history, but briefly: from the moment Campari was invented in 1860, it’s had a heedless love for sweet vermouth.

Somewhere along the line, some genius (perhaps Gaspare Campari himself) united them with a little soda water and created the Americano, still the greatest pre-meal cocktail ever made. And the story goes that in 1919, Count Camillo Negroni walked into the Caffe Casoni in Florence and ordered an Americano with gin instead of soda water. He took one sip, lightning struck in the same spot three times, Jesus appeared on a biscotti, and the Negroni cocktail was born (unless it wasn’t. See Trivia, at bottom).

Look anywhere for the recipe for a Negroni and you’ll find the same thing, more or less everywhere, from more or less everyone:

The Negroni
1oz gin
1oz Campari
1oz Sweet Vermouth
Stir, and serve either on ice or up. Garnish with an orange slice or peel.

[nt] intro glamour shot

Almost no one specifies types of gin or vermouth, and in a way, it’s not vital — one of the charms of the Negroni is it’s near invincibility. Use any gin or sweet vermouth you like, and it’s going to taste great. Substitute Campari for any of it’s competitors, and it’s going to taste great. Understir it, overstir it, add orange bitters, screw up the measurements, carbonate it, age it in barrels, do whatever you want to it, and it’ll still be great. It’s great for men or women, first dates or business meetings, after dinner, before dinner, before breakfast, on the train, in outer space, anywhere, always, forever. It’s bitter, it’s sweet, it’s perfect. It is one of the handful of mixed drinks that enjoys universal respect in this industry.

But that’s my problem. I get it, no one looks for the best Negroni because saying “best Negroni” is a little like saying “best orgasm” — yeah, there are shades of difference there, some better than others, but even a terrible one is still better than almost everything else in the world. But. If you could have the best one every time, wouldn’t you?

And so, our question: what’s best? What gin, what vermouth, what combination?

Rules:

These are my guiding principles:

(1) Campari. Bartenders are a tinkery bunch, which is mostly a good thing, but here, we’re sticking with Campari. Yes, a Cynar/Aperol/Cappelletti/etc Negroni is a fine drink, but a true Negroni has to be made with Campari.

(2) Sweet Vermouth. Not dry vermouth, not bianco vermouth, not barolo chinato (which is like double-dutch heaven), but sweet vermouth. The red kind. Because that’s what’s in it.

(3) Gin. It’s made with gin. For the love of god. Not mezcal, not aquavit, not genever, not barrel-aged gin. Gin.

(4) Equal Parts. A Negroni is equal parts Gin, Sweet Vermouth, and Campari. Yes, it comes with a bit of sweetness. Deal with it. The sweetness is part of the charm. There’s no adding more gin. That’s blasphemy, and it also doesn’t taste as good.

Procedures:

Identical glasses, identical large (2″ x 2″) ice, stirred the same amount of times, tasted double blind by both Victoria and I according to the sticker on the bottom of the glass method. As double blind as possible, anyway. Punt e Mes is recognizably darker than the others, but it tastes so different it’s not like we wouldn’t have known anyway.

[nt] double blind

Competitors:

I chose gins and vermouths that are fairly standard. Yes, obviously I’m only tasting 5 each, and yes, I might be missing out on some other brand that makes the Negroni of my dreams. I’m sure you’ll message me about it.

GIN: Beefeater, Tanqueray, Plymouth Navy Strength, Hendrick’s, and Aviation.

VERMOUTH: Carpano Antica, Punt e Mes, Dolin Rouge, Cocchi Vermouth di Torino, and Martini and Rossi

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Process:

First, we did 5 rounds of 5, keeping the gin constant and doing 5 different vermouths. Victoria and I silently rated them, then shared when we were done. Then, we did 5 more rounds, keeping the vermouth constant and doing 5 different gins. By the end, every one of the 25 possible combinations was tasted twice in two different heats. Points were given based on our respective ratings (we didn’t always agree, of course), and the data looked like this:

Negroni raw data

There are a couple different ways to look at this:

The way I like best is to count the amount of times each ingredient earned a 1st place ranking. You’ll notice every ingredient had its own heat, so at one point or another, they all got at least 2 first place prizes, one from each of us.  If I tally up Victoria’s and my votes, the data looks like this:

Number of times each gin won it’s heat:

Tanqueray — 6
Plymouth Navy Strength — 5
Hendricks — 4
Beefeater — 3
Aviation — 2

Number of times each vermouth won it’s heat:

Cocchi Vermouth di Torino — 7
Carpano Antica — 4
Punt e Mes — 4
Dolin — 3
Martini and Rossi — 2

[nt]  test lineup

Another way to sort the data is individual Negroni scores. As we tasted every combination twice and both of us ranked them 1-5 each time, each Negroni has 4 ratings, so if it were #1 every single time, it would score a 4:

By points (lower is better):

Beefeater & Carpano — 6
Tanqueray & Cocchi — 7
Hendricks & Punt e Mes — 7
Aviation & Carpano — 7
Plymouth Navy Strength & Cocchi — 7
Tanqueray & Dolin — 9

This isn’t perfect because they’re rankings as opposed to evaluations, which means even if all 5 were bad (looking at you, Martini and Rossi) they still get ranked 1-5. However, this is how we did the Final Round, because it has the added benefit being fairly diverse, which is good because they’ve already competed against themselves in every possible way.

The final combined results, with my ranking and Victoria’s ranking for reference

6th: Carpano and Aviation | #6 and #5
5th: Plymouth N.S. and Cocchi | #5 and #3
4th: Beefeater and Carpano | #4 and #4
3rd: Hendrick’s and Punt e Mes | #2 and #6
2nd: Tanqueray and Dolin | #3 and #2
1st: Tanqueray and Cocchi | #1 and #1

Not even close. We both, independently, liked Tanqueray and Cocchi best by a significant margin. They were all great, but Tanqueray and Cocchi tasted tasted the most like the ideal Negroni. No hair out of place. As close to perfect as I can imagine.

In fact, of the 6 times Tanqueray and Cocchi was rated, there is only once where it wasn’t #1, a weird spike in the data on our very first test and one I’m tempted to explain away by error, but we’ll never know. Nonetheless:

The Best Negroni*
1oz Tanqueray
1oz Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
1oz Campari.
Stir on ice. Garnish with an orange peel. Drink. Melt. 

[nt] winner!

*That is, best of the 5 gins and 5 vermouths we tried, of course. And according to our specific palates. Out of only 1:1:1 Negronis. With strict rules. This is a very limited experiment featuring two people and 10 products. But, Tanqueray and Cocchi is now my champion, and what I’ll make against any new combination I’m told about.

Ingredient Conclusions:

GINS

[nt] gin lineup

Tanqueray: The bars I’ve worked at have always carried Beefeater instead of Tanqueray so I’ve never been too familiar with its nuances. But I’m finding the more of these experiments I do, the more I find Tanqueray still standing at the end. I’m beginning to realize what an incredible gin this really is.

Beefeater: Great product, great for Negronis. Most cocktail bartenders I polled before starting this said Beefeater and Carpano are the best, and indeed, it’s great. Carpano was too sweet, too much vanilla for most gins, but Beefeater handles it admirably.

Plymouth Navy Strength: I really thought the strength would counter the sweetness of the cocktail, but it just made most of them kinda flat, like a dampener.

Hendrick’s: Performed better than I would’ve thought. I figured it didn’t have the backbone for this and only included it as a reference point, but it did well. Its floral nature is absorbed by the cocktail and doesn’t stick out. I’ll drink Hendrick’s & Punt e Mes Negronis all day.

Aviation: I love Aviation gin. It won my Martini experiments, after all, but the sarsparilla note comes through as wintergreen, and has no place in a Negroni.

VERMOUTHS:

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Cocchi Vermouth di Torino: Performed incredibly well. Mixes with Campari like a dream.

Carpano Antica: Great vermouth, but most of the Negronis, especially against peers, were too sweet with too much vanilla. It’s like a Vanilla Negroni as opposed to just a Negroni.

Punt e Mes: I like Punt e Mes Negronis a lot, but Victoria doesn’t much. It really shouldn’t have been in this experiement because t’s like a spin-off of a Negroni. It’s too different. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a cherry/chocolate Negroni with Punt e Mes, but if I just want a normal one, Punt e Mes is not the answer.

Dolin Rouge: Too weak. All the Negronis with Dolin tasted flat & dull.

Martini and Rossi: Terrible. The worst performer of the whole experience. It tastes like an herb shop. The only time this was best was when it ran unopposed.

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Trivia: All of that history up there is true, unless of course Count Camillo Negroni never actually existed, but we’re pretty sure he did. It’s a minor rats nest and I don’t feel like getting into it. If you’re curious, there’s an admirably complete discussion of the topic here.