13. Clover Club cocktail

28 Jul

“So then we went down to the Ratskellar [sic],” Nettie chattered on excitedly, “and Mr. Schwarz asked me what I’d have since I hated beer so much. So I took a Clover Club cocktail because Mr. Schwarz said that in Cleveland they were absolutely all the go.”

— Dawn Powell, Dance Night (Hanover, NH: Steerforth Press, 1999 [1930]), p. 114.

Yet every time she looked at Dottie, sitting in their living room, so serene and conventional in her pearls and dressmaker suit, with white touches, and smart navy-blue sailor, sipping her Clover Club cocktail out of the Russel Wright cup and wiping a moustache of egg white from her long upper lip with a cocktail napkin, she could not picture her in bed with a man.

— Mary McCarthy, The Group (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1964), p. 53.

The Clover Club cocktail was created in the early twentieth century in the bar of the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel in Philadelphia. It was there that the eponymous Clover Club, an exclusive society of 35 active members established in January 1882, met on the third Thursday of every month for “Social Enjoyments, the Cultivation of Literary Tastes, and the Encouragement of Hospitable Intercourse” (in the words of Article II of its charter). Prestigious guest speakers were invited to address the brethren at banquets and then gently mocked, ribbed and roasted. (President Grover Cleveland, an honorary member, was the only guest never to be subjected to the indignities of a roasting.)

The Clover Club cocktail, then, was originally associated  with, and celebrated, a certain breed of gentlemen, serious fellows, local machers, who once a month let their hair down and had a bit of fun. Something of the meaning of the Club’s name, as well as that of the drink itself, comes out in this letter written by member Samuel J. Randall, in which he declines an invitation to the First Anniversary Dinner in 1883:

I looked in a “Herbal” to learn something about clover. It was not there, but I found that clover-pink was recommended by old Chaucer and others as a cordial and anti-poison, and in all disorders of the heart and in nervous complaints of whatever kind. For its cordial cephalic virtues it has been more particularly noted. Old Gerard says when it is made into a conserve it is exceedingly cordial, and wonderfully above measure comforts the heart. I sincerely hope that the benign influence of this fragrant flower may pervade your entertainment, and that all poison of brain or heart or body may be removed from your midst. (Quoted in: Mary R. Deacon, The Clover Club of Philadelphia [Philadelphia: Avil, 1897], p. 110.)

The cocktail, like the clubmen, is studiedly frivolous (the club motto was: While we live, we live in clover). How could it not be? It’s pink, for crying out loud! Hard to imagine someone like poet, playwright and sourpuss  W.B. Yeats drinking and enjoying it, but that’s precisely what happened, according to an anecdote told by the journalist and barfly A.S. Crockett in Old Waldorf Bar Days (1931). In 1911Yeats was in New York with a touring company of actors from Dublin’s Abbey Theatre. At a luncheon held in his honour at the Waldorf, the professional Irishman was given “his first lesson in the American art of drinking” when a tray of Clover Club cocktails, which “had just come into vogue” was brought in. Crockett continues:

Yeats eyed the novel pink drink warily. […] Yeats, glancing about, noted in surprise that his table companions handled the concoction in what seemed to him a precipitous and summary fashion. All they did was to lift their glasses, open their mouths, crook the elbow and then set down an empty glass. This was not a poet’s way. Yeats tasted the cocktail, and smacked his lips. Another taste. His eye gleamed and his face lighted up. But, to the surprise of his hosts, he declined to gulp. This thing must be taken slowly. It was filled with a variety of flavors, and it must be tasted all the way down to the bottom of the glass. So he just sat and sipped that Clover Club Cocktail. When wine was brought and proffered him, he waved it away. “Another of the same,” he said, in effect, and he kept sipping Clover Club Cocktails all the way through the meal. (Old Waldorf Bar Days [New York: Aventine, 1931], p. 74).

By the middle of the 1930s the Clover Club cocktail had become somewhat notorious. In 1934 Esquire had named it one of the ten worst cocktails of the previous decade. Charles Browne, author of The Gun Club Cook Book, was not kind either:

A Philadelphia concoction, may be one of the jokes indulged in at the Clover Club. It’s an awful mixture. One jigger gin, juice of ½ lemon, white of 1 egg, 1 teaspoonful pulverized sugar and 2 teaspoonfuls of raspberry syrup or grenadine. This will make three cocktails if there can be found three people who want them. (The Gun Club Cook Book [New York: Scribner’s, 1930], p. 265.)

But if the Clover Club drinker was, as Jack Townsend, president of the Bartenders Union of New York, put it in 1951, “traditionally a gentleman of the pre-Prohibition school” and a “distinguished patron of the oak-paneled lounge”, the cocktail, certainly by the time Townsend was writing, had become to be seen as “something for the girls” (according to the Esquire Handbook for Hosts in 1941). Well, it is pink. Not at all the sort of thing the buttoned-down Organization Man of the 1950s would want to swig. Then again, maybe it had always been a woman’s drink. Take a look at this advert placed on the front page of the New York Times, in the same year that Yeats was entertained at the Waldorf:

New York Times, 4 July 1911

Anyway, my recipe:

2 oz. gin

1/2 oz. freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 tsp homemade grenadine

The white of half an egg.

If you’re interested, and I don’t see why you wouldn’t be, this is the recipe used by the Waldorf (and thus presumably exactly what Yeats drank):

Juice of half lemon

White of an egg

Half teaspoonful powdered sugar

One drink of Plymouth Gin

One pony Raspberry Syrup

It was served with a mint leaf for garnish, technically making it a “Clover Leaf” cocktail, but there you are.

Sometimes the Clover Club is made with dry vermouth and sometimes with both dry and sweet vermouth. Here’s the recipe of the Hotel Belvedere in Baltimore:

Juice of  lime

Few dashes of Grenadine Syrup

One-sixth Italian vermouth

One-sixth French vermouth

Two-thirds gin

Add white of an egg. Frappe well.

Dress with three mint leaves on edge of glass.

In season use raspberries instead of Grenadine. Mascerate the raspberries with a muddler.

[Both hotel recipes taken from George R. Washburn and Stanley Cromer, Beverages de Luxe (Lexington, KY: Wine and Spirit Bulletin, 1914).]


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