Rediscovering The Boulevardier Cocktail
There are times when you’re reading about, and thank god tasting, classic cocktail recipes when you come across one that is so tasty and fits so well into today’s cocktail revival that you’re surprised by how rarely it shows up on drink menus.
The Boulevardier Cocktail is one of those drinks. The Boulevardier is essentially what would happen if a Manhattan and a Negroni had a really great night together and popped out a cute, little baby cocktail.
History of The Boulevardier Cocktail
The Boulevardier Cocktail is a simple combination of rye or bourbon, Campari, and sweet vermouth. The drink comes to us through Harry McElhone who was the founder and proprietor of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris and his book Barflies and Cocktails published in 1927.
In the book, Harry credits the Boulevardier Cocktail to Erskine Gwynne, who ran off to Paris and started The Boulevardier literary magazine, hence the name of the cocktail. In his book, Harry doesn’t give us a full recipe. Instead, he writes “Now is the time for all good barflies to come to the aid of the party, since Erskine Gwynne crashed in with his Boulevardier Cocktail: 1/3 Campari, 1/3 Italian vermouth, 1/3 Bourbon whisky.”
A Cocktail by Any Other Name
People’s tastes are always changing, and many of the great cocktails being made now are inspired by older classic cocktail recipes; which raises the question of how much a recipe can change before it becomes a different drink.
The Boulevardier is a great example, if you switched out the whiskey for gin you’d have a Negroni, which is clearly a different drink, make the sweet vermouth dry and you’d have an Old Pal. But when you take Gwynne’s original recipe and change the bourbon to rye you still have a Boulevardier Cocktail.
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So what happens when you keep the main ingredients but change their proportions a little bit here and there?
A Great Boulevardier is All About Proportions
The original recipe mentioned by McElhone called for a 1 to 1 ratio of whiskey to Campari to sweet vermouth, in other words, a three-ounce drink would have one ounce of each liquor. Most modern recipes call for a ratio of either 1½ to 1 or 2 to 1 whiskey to Campari to sweet vermouth. Most recent Boulevardier recipes are pretty evenly split between bourbon and rye whiskey.
Of course, when you’re only working with three ingredients small changes make a big difference. What’s nice about playing with a drink like the Boulevardier is how easy and how fun it is to taste all the different variations. This also makes it pretty easy to update the drink for modern tastes, if you think it needs it.
In our testing, the original 1 to 1 ratio is straightforward and very good, but it’s dominated by orange and cherry overtones and the bitterness of the Campari.
What was interesting in our testing is that we preferred the bourbon in the 1½ to 1 ratio cocktail and the rye in the 2 to 1 version. What we liked about the 2 to 1 version, which ended up being our overall favorite, is how the rye helps bring out the flavors in the Campari and the sweet vermouth, so you end up with a drink that has some nice cinnamon notes that are flattered by the orange twist.
There’s a pretty even split in Boulevardier Cocktail recipes on whether or not to garnish with a cherry, use an orange twist, or be a show-off and use a flamed orange peel. We prefer a simple orange twist because it helps bring out the flavors in the Campari. Also, the flamed orange peel seems a bit ostentatious when you’re making a drink at home and have to spend twenty minutes rummaging around for matches just to light an orange on fire.
We did find that this is one of those cocktails best served in a chilled glass, the chilled glass and long stir help bring out the flavors and keep the drink cold long enough that you can enjoy it at your leisure.
Whether you end up preferring bourbon or rye, orange twist or cherry, take the time to get to know the Boulevardier Cocktail, and it will be like finding an old friend that you never knew you had.
Mark is Umami's publisher