The Boulevardier is an old drink, but a young classic. It first appeared in print as a footnote in the 1927 book Barflies and Cocktails by Paris bartender Harry McElhone. But the entirety of serious thinking and debate about the drink has occurred only in the past 10 years, after bartenders rediscovered it during the modern cocktail revival and started serving it in abundance.
That decade, however, was more than enough for the Boulevardier to warrant a blind tasting in pursuit of the cocktail’s ultimate expression, which PUNCH recently organized at Brooklyn’s Clover Club.
Hot on the trail of the recently resurgent Negroni, which it very much resembles, the Boulevardier quickly rocketed in popularity during the 2010s until it was called for in bars in every time zone. But something funny happened to the drink on the way to fame. The Boulevardier transformed into something not quite the Boulevardier—or so the tasting would appear to illustrate. The original recipe—ascribed by McElhone to Erskine Gwynne, a well-heeled American expatriate who had founded a magazine called Boulevardier—called for equal parts bourbon, sweet vermouth and Campari. Of the 11 cocktails sampled, collected from bartenders coast to coast, not one followed that formula.
For starters, all 11 bartenders upped the quotient of whiskey. That change was not terribly surprising. “More booze” has long been a popular “fix” in contemporary cocktail circles; modern bartenders have made the same sort of adjustment to other cocktails that were formerly equal-parts affairs, such as the Negroni and Sidecar. Guest judges Karin Stanley, of Existing Conditions in Greenwich Village, and Frank Caiafa of The Stayton Room in Midtown Manhattan, had no objections to the increase in whiskey. “I’ve never thought of it as an equal-parts drink,” said Stanley. Added Caiafa: “If you go with a higher-proof bourbon, then maybe you can get away with a 1:1:1 ratio.”
The question of what that original whiskey was, however, posed a bigger issue. That the Boulevardier is a bourbon drink seems no longer a safe assumption. Stanley and I agreed that the choice had to be bourbon for the drink to wear the Boulevardier name, while Caiafa was open to the option of rye. The competitors hailing from Dallas to Denver and San Diego to Seattle, meanwhile, were way more receptive to rye, so much so that one might conclude that the majority of the bartending community now considers the Boulevardier to be a rye drink. Of the 11 drinks submitted, seven were made with rye.
Bartenders reaching for rye whiskey when making classic American-whiskey cocktails is not a new phenomenon. When the Old-Fashioned and the Manhattan came back into vogue during the last decade, many craft cocktail bars presented them as rye drinks. (The return of quality rye whiskey to the shelves helped make this option a possibility.) Such variations, however, weren’t overly jarring, because historically, both drinks had always been an either-or proposition; sometimes they were made with bourbon, sometimes with rye.
The Boulevardier, however, is a different case. It was first introduced, quite unequivocally, as a bourbon Negroni. And, since the drink didn’t really take off for eight decades, it pretty much stayed that way. If you consult the significant cocktail books published during the last decade, most, if not all, list it as a bourbon drink or, at the very least, a bourbon or rye drink. (If one wanted a Boulevardier made with rye, there was always the Old Pal, another drink from the same era. It originally called for rye, sweet vermouth and Campari, though it has since typically been made with dry vermouth.)
The bartenders who submitted drinks for this tasting, however, seem to have not read those books, or they read them and then threw them out. Perhaps they thought the drink lacked something and needed a little assistance in the flavor and balance departments. Clover Club co-owner Tom Macy, who helped prepare the drinks for the tasting, said, “It’s boozy and bitter. To me a Negroni is a perfect assemblage of that. The Boulevardier is a less-successful version of that.”
Stanley amplified that slight dissatisfaction with the cocktail. “If [I] want Campari and vermouth, I want a Negroni,” she said. “If [I] want Campari and whiskey, I want an Old Pal.” The Boulevardier came in third in her reckoning.
Maybe the panel, too, secretly craved rye Boulevardiers, for all three of the top cocktails chosen contained the spicy spirit. Beyond that, the formulae were all fairly classic, by modern standards. Each used Campari, and each called for 1 ½ ounces of whiskey, ¾ ounce sweet vermouth and ¾ ounce Campari.
The winner was Abigail Gullo, of the State Hotel in Seattle, who used Rittenhouse rye and La Quintinye Vermouth Rouge. The drink was served in a rocks glass over a large cube, with an orange twist. The judges termed it a near-perfect example of the cocktail.
Second was Griffin Keys, of (appropriately enough) the Boulevardier bar in Dallas. He reached for WhistlePig rye and Carpano Antica vermouth, and served the drink up, also with an orange twist. Finally, in third place, was Erick Castro of Polite Provisions in San Diego. Castro’s rye was Colonel E.H. Taylor and he too opted for Carpano vermouth.
So, if a bar that calls itself the Boulevardier serves a house Boulevardier made with rye, is there any going back to bourbon? Has the definition of the cocktail changed irrevocably? Maybe. But in either case, one thing about the drink remains the same. “It’s a whiskey Negroni,” said Caiafa. “I always thought of it that way and probably always will.”