Cocktail Spotlight: The Boulevardier

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Cocktail Spotlight: The Boulevardier

Cocktail Queries is a Paste series that examines and answers basic, common questions that drinkers may have about mixed drinks, cocktails and spirits. Check out every entry in the series to date.

I’ve already outed my opinion of the beloved negroni cocktail on any number of other occasions at this point, so there’s no harm in simply repeating what those who have read my work before are already likely to know: I’ve never really loved this particular cocktail. The negroni may be one of the most ubiquitous drinks of the last 25 years in American cocktail culture, but it’s never quite been for me.

I can see the appeal, sure. The equal parts recipe couldn’t be easier to remember or assemble, and it appears to offer an inherent sense of balance when you see “1:1:1” written on the page. And yet, that line of thinking would be based in fallacy, assuming that all three ingredients in a classic negroni (gin, sweet vermouth, Campari) are equally assertive in their flavor. They simply aren’t, which in my opinion tends to lead to a drink where the Campari comes to dominate. The average negroni, to me, is all too likely to obliterate the more subtle floral, resinous or herbal flavors of the gin with a big wall of bitter orange, courtesy of the aperitif in the recipe. Where another equal parts cocktail such as the Last Word does achieve a pretty sublime balance, the negroni never really pretends to care about equally weighting the flavors of its components. You can always tweak the ratios, but as written it’s simply a drink for when you want something relatively dry and bitter. And that’s fine! You can have your negroni, if that’s what you want. Me, I’ll probably be over here with my boulevardier instead.

Ah yes, the boulevardier: First refuge of the negroni doubter. On one hand, it’s just “a negroni with whiskey instead of gin.” But look deeper, and it alters the formula in a more pervasive way.

It’s a bit of a curious case of a cocktail, in the sense that it has a historical basis, but was well and truly forgotten until relatively recently. The boulevardier was referenced as early as the 1927 Parisian cocktail book Barflies and Cocktails, where it was originally described as an equal parts combination of bourbon, sweet vermouth and Campari. The drink then fell off the face of the Earth in subsequent decades: Even I didn’t really realize how thoroughly it disappeared, or the fact that it wasn’t rediscovered and published again until 2007, when Ted Haigh dug it up. The boulevardier then experienced a truly extraordinary adoption rate, until by the mid-to-late 2010s it seemed like a drink that had always been with us. It does beg the question of whether one should really consider the boulevardier a historic drink of a “modern classic” like the Paper Plane. Is it more defined by its relatively unheralded beginning, or by its more recent, negroni-adjacent popularity?

Regardless, in its modern incarnation the drink has evolved slightly. The official International Bartenders Association recipe no longer considers the boulevardier to be an equal parts drink, as the proportion of whiskey has now been bumped up slightly. This proves to be key. That recipe is as follows:

— 1.5 parts bourbon whiskey
— 1 part sweet vermouth
— 1 part Campari

Pour all ingredients into a mixing tin/cocktail shaker with cubed ice. Stir well to dilute. Strain into either a cocktail coupe for “up” preparation, or a lowball glass with ice for on-the-rocks preparation. For the boulevardier, I tend to lean toward the on-the-rocks variant, but this is a matter of personal taste.

Compared with the classic negroni, the boulevardier displays a more gentle approach that allows each of the individual elements to come into greater clarity. The slightly higher proportion of whiskey–and you should probably be using 90 or 100-proof bourbon–allows the base spirit to influence the drink significantly more than the too easily trampled gin component of the negroni, and the oak-inflected bourbon flavor profile makes for a natural bedfellow with the vinous fruitiness of the vermouth and sharper citrus brightness of the Campari. The drink still retains plenty of its bitter edge, helping to cleanse the palate at the end of each sip, but the greater sweetness of both the whiskey and vermouth pull the overall profile closer to genuine balance between sweet and bitter. This serves to make the boulevardier more “friendly” and approachable than the more bracing negroni, which potentially makes this cocktail a better way to introduce drinkers to bitter red Italian aperitifs.

Beyond the aspect of balance, the boulevardier has ultimately become a favorite cocktail of mine for a few specific reasons. One is the ubiquity it now possesses: If you’re at a bar with any kind of cocktail program at all, then surely they will know how to easily make one for you. As long as you spy a bottle of Campari behind the bar, you know that a boulevardier is a viable option. Another thing I love about this drink, though? They’re really easy for me to nurse over a longer drinking session. Whereas an up drink like the classic daiquiri or the Paper Plane is defined by how refreshing and easy it is to quaff, there’s no part of me that is tempted to down a boulevardier in a couple of big gulps like I feel when I’m drinking a lovely daiquiri. Instead, it’s a cocktail that is well suited to drinking over a longer period of time, which can aid in moderation. It’s a good cocktail for “I’m only going to have one drink here” occasions, for that reason. Likewise, whereas a daiquiri or Paper Plane may quickly lose its chill in a coupe, encouraging fast drinking, building a boulevardier in a lowball glass over ice encourages more of a slow and steady drinking pace as the drink stays cold. Its bold flavors and bitterness hold up well to the additional dilution it undergoes throughout.

These are all reasons why you’d be likely to see me order a pre-dinner or late night boulevardier, but at the same time the format is also open to further riffs and experimentation. I have previously shared the recipe for one of my favorite boulevardier variants, but I’ll close by including it again here, a drink I call the Cafe Boulevardier. This is a more rich boulevardier variant that has a slightly more desserty, after dinner vibe thanks to a modest amount of coffee liqueur, but the presence of the Campari still ties it back to its heritage and keeps the drink from reading too sweet, helped along by an extra infusion of orange bitters. So grab the coffee liqueur you’re already keeping on hand for espresso martinis, and give this a try:

— 3 parts bourbon whiskey
— 1 part sweet vermouth
— 1 part Campari
— 1 part coffee liqueur
— 1-2 dashes orange bitters

Combine all ingredients over ice in a mixing glass, and stir thoroughly to chill. Strain, and serve either “up” in a coupe glass, or over ice in a lowball glass. Personally, I like this one in an old fashioned glass with a single, large ice cube, which mellows the drink over time. Garnish with a strip of orange peel.

The boulevardier is a cocktail that manages to simultaneously exist as a classic out of time, and as a modern staple that is equally at home in bastions of fine dining and back room dive bars. If you’ve never quite been able to gel with the popularity of the negroni, consider this one of the most inspired alternatives.

Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer and liquor geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more drink writing.

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