The Boulevardier was one of Toby Cecchini‘s favorite drinks long before it crossed over from an obscure bartender’s call to a certifiably famous classic cocktail.
“I feel like I get some of the credit for helping exhume it in a way and shepherding it along to some degree, but I didn’t make up this drink,” says Cecchini.
The original recipe for the Boulevardier first appeared in 1927’s Barflies and Cocktails by Harry McElhone, the proprietor of Harry’s New York Bar in Paris, and called for equal parts bourbon, Campari and sweet vermouth; it’s mentioned fleetingly in an advertising index in the back of the book and credited to Erskine Gwynne, a gadabout American expat and socialite who ran a monthly literary magazine called Boulevardier.
At The Long Island Bar in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, Cecchini’s take on the Boulevardier quickly became one of the bar’s signature drinks, competing with the house Gimlet, made with a fresh ginger-lime cordial, for the top spot among their best-selling cocktails. “I tried to take if off the menu after six months and people screamed bloody murder,” he says.
For Cecchini, the spec of a drink is everything. “How you’re going to add or subtract to balance the modifiers against the strength and body of the whiskey is key,” he says. “People see an equal-parts drink and think, ‘I can just throw everything in together.’ I couldn’t disagree more.”
While he first started making the Boulevardier as an equal-parts drink, he found the whiskey playing third fiddle to the vermouth and Campari, so he dialed up the bourbon to one-and-a-half ounces. But it still wasn’t where he wanted it to be. “I want the base spirit in my cocktail to be basso profondo,” says Cecchini. “I want to taste the spirit and have it nudged this way and that by whatever modifiers I’m using.”
He increased the whiskey component to a full two ounces and found that reaching for rye instead of bourbon brought him closer to what he was after. Several combinations in, he settled on a split base of Old Overholt 80 Proof and Rittenhouse 100 Proof. “The Old Overholt is a nice rye but very soft in structure and can sometimes fade away a little too much with stronger modifiers,” says Cecchini. “And the Rittenhouse is kind of a little too roughneck for some things. But together they form a pretty moderate, pleasant rye.”
While there are plenty of other red bitters available to experiment with, for Cecchini it always has to be Campari in his Boulevardier. “I’ve already parsed this drink into so many different parts to get it correct in my mind and on my palate,” he says. “Now I’ve got the whiskies dialed in to where they’re pretty staunch and they can stand up to that amount of Campari.”
For the sweet vermouth, Cecchini first tried it with Carpano Antica Formula. “It’s just hands down the best sweet vermouth, but it’s also a bully,” he says. “To me it has a super chocolatey cocoa thing that I find really beautiful, but can also just overpower a softer whiskey.” But using Cinzano Rosso, a popular workhorse vermouth, on its own didn’t stand up to the dominant rye and Campari. Even after splitting the vermouth in equal parts the Carpano was still overwhelming the Cinzano, but Cecchini found the desired balance by splitting an ounce into two-thirds Cinzano and one-third Carpano Antica, which he now batches and uses as Long Island Bar’s house vermouth.
While serving a Boulevardier on the rocks or over one large cube is common, at Long Island Bar the Boulevardier stands out in its slightly oversized coupe glass with elevated sides perched atop a delicate stem. The final touch is a twist of lemon, which runs counter to the traditional orange peel you typically see garnishing many Campari drinks. To Cecchini, it gives the drink a final, balancing ping: “The Carpano Antica’s been tamed. The Campari is within reason. The whiskey is where I want it. This is where I want it to be.”