For years the Boulevardier languished in dormancy while drinkers reached for Negronis, Martinis and Manhattans. Yet the drink that was once a toast to Paris’s Jazz Age is now here to stay, writes Jake Emen.
Take a Negroni, a drink which – perhaps more so than any other – is the Platonic ideal of a perfect cocktail, swap out its gin for Bourbon, and boom, the Boulevardier is born.
The Negroni was unleashed on the world in 1919, and within a decade, the Boulevardier graced us with its presence as well. The use of whisky alters the balancing point for the drink, achieving a rich, dark sultriness in place of the bright botanicals and crisp cleanness of the Negroni.
‘The Boulevardier is a complex drink, full of body and texture,’ says Mariantonietta Varamo, assistant restaurant and bar manager at GBR London in Dukes Hotel. Varamo shifted roles to GBR after a six-year stint alongside Alessandro Palazzi at Dukes Bar.
‘It works very well, as it has the wonderful taste and balance of the Negroni with the plus factor of oak and spicy notes from the whisky. It can go very well as either a strong aperitif or as a digestif.’
The Classic Boulevardier Recipe
The traditional Boulevardier uses Bourbon, and features an equal parts combination of the whiskey alongside Campari and sweet vermouth.
30ml sweet vermouth
Orange or lemon twist garnish
Stir the ingredients together over ice, then strain into a coupe glass. Garnish with your choice of an orange or lemon twist, expressing the peel over the glass.
French roots: Harry’s New York Bar in Paris makes the earliest reference to the Boulevardier cocktail
History of the Boulevardier
The Boulevardier’s origins are simple enough, though taking a bit of a circuitous journey to explore its roots is a worthwhile endeavour. The drink makes its first known appearance in the 1927 book Barflies and Cocktails from Harry McElhone, the raconteur proprietor of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris.
McElhone’s book includes recipes, toasts and extensive ‘bar life’ instructions, with much space devoted to an organisation dubbed the IBF, or ‘International Bar Flies’. There are 14 rules for the group – one example being: ‘Remember, nothing is on the house but the roof’ – as well as a list of its first 500 chartered members (Harry is second, with his last name written as McElhone, though the family seems to have used the spelling MacElhone), and an official jingle for the organisation, Buzz-Buzz-Buzz, accompanied by sheet music and a note on its history.
It’s there that we see boulevardier deployed in its classic context, to describe a man-about-town or well-to-do socialite. The word was originally used however to specifically describe ‘a frequenter of the Parisian boulevards’.
If you were a boulevardier, you knew how to drink and have a good time, and likely didn't mind spending your money on either pursuit. In Ernest Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises, his character Jake says: ‘Enjoying living was learning to get your money’s worth and knowing when you had it.’
Hemingway’s book was published a year prior to Barflies, and Hemingway himself had a well-known association with the Paris scene of that era, particularly including his time spent at Harry’s New York Bar. He and his character in the book were both assuredly boulevardiers.
Printed work: The cocktail appears in McElhone's book and in an advert for a magazine of the same name (Photo: Mud Puddle Inc.)
The Boulevardier was also the name of a magazine at the time, and the publication had a one-page advertisement in Barflies, with the name ‘Boulevardier’ spelt out vertically down the side of the advert:
The advertisement instructs readers to:
‘Mix all these before subscribing to THE BOULEVARDIER, the magazine that is read before, between and after cocktails (sic) THAT TIRED FEELING disappears after you have squandered the price of a subscription to (sic) THE BOULEVARDIER.’
Thankfully, this is not the recipe which shared the magazine’s name in perpetuity. A recipe for the Boulevardier is given elsewhere the book, though not in the text’s main recipe section. Instead it’s offered in an article which follows the recipes, ‘Cocktails Round Town’, attributed to Arthur Moss. Moss talks much about the stereotypes of the ‘Man-About-Town’, and then rumbles through several dozen of them, offering a signature drink for each. This, finally, is where the Boulevardier as we know it today is introduced:
‘Now is the time for all good Barflies to come to the aid of the party, since Erskinne Gwynne crashed in with his Boulevardier Cocktail; 1/3 Campari, 1/3 Italian vermouth, 1/3 Bourbon whisky (sic).’
Bringing everything full circle, Gwynne – whose name is properly spelled as Erskine, including when he appears as number 27 on the IBF’s membership list – was the founder of The Boulevardier magazine.
Versatile spirits: Bartenders today are swapping Bourbon for rye whisky in Boulevardiers
The Modern Twist
The drink was lost to the decades before the modern cocktail revival, not achieving the same sustained prominence of drinks such as the Martini or Manhattan. Perhaps as a result of the drink’s long dormancy, the modern Boulevardier is largely unchanged from how it first appeared in 1927, with an equal combination of Campari, sweet vermouth and Bourbon.
There are two main ways to start shifting beyond the classic recipe, though. The first is a commonly seen switch to rye whiskey in place of Bourbon. ‘I would rather have rye than Bourbon, as it tastes a little drier and is better balanced,’ Varamo says.
The next is tinkering with the ratio of the ingredients. For a stronger whisky backbone, dial up its presence in relation to the Campari and vermouth.
Either a lemon peel or an orange peel can be used as a garnish, and less frequently, a cocktail cherry. The drink is stirred on ice and typically strained and served up in a coupe. However, it’s not unusual to see the drink offered on the rocks either.
Given all of the above, there’s plenty of flexibility to craft your own preferred Boulevardier – choose your type of whisky, your preferred garnish, the ratio of the spirits, and how the drink is served.
Peaty punch: Varamo offers a smoky variation of the Boulevardier cocktail at GBR London (Photo: Mariantonietta Varamo)
The Misty Negroni
30ml Ardbeg 10 Year Old
30ml Martini Bianco vermouth
30ml Benedictine (house-infused with coffee beans)*
3 drops orange bitters
Pour all ingredients into an Old Fashioned glass with ice. Stir gently. Garnish with an expressed orange peel.
*Place whole coffee beans in any jar or non-reactive container, cover with Benedictine and leave for 12 hours or overnight. Create it in batches, and adjust the quantity of beans and infusion time for personal taste.
In homage to its heritage, Varamo named her Boulevardier riff after its forebear, the Negroni. In the Misty Negroni, she swaps the spice of rye for the peaty punch of Ardbeg, a favourite tactic of hers. ‘I often recommend a peaty whisky; it gives such a twist, and your taste buds will feel like they’re on a rollercoaster,’ she says. ‘To keep it traditional I just switch the two ingredients, and it will be hard to stop drinking it.’
Once she got tinkering though, she couldn't help but strip this cocktail to its bare foundations before rebuilding it with an entirely new floorplan. Dry vermouth is used in place of sweet, and Benedictine jumps in for Campari, with the coffee beans providing bitterness which might otherwise be lacking. Orange bitters and an orange garnish tie everything together, while livening up the dry vermouth and playing nicely off the coffee.