Barflies and Boulevardiers

The History of the Boulevardier Cocktail

If you walked into Harry’s New York Bar in 1927, which as you know was and remains in Paris, then undoubtedly the biggest celebrity you were likely to run into was Ernest Hemingway, fresh of the critical and financial success of his debut novel, The Sun Also Rises, published the previous year. But while he was the brightest star at Harry’s, Hemingway was by no means a man alone. Harry MacElhone, the Harry in the name of the joint, was a celebrity in his own right. MacElhone was a Scotsman whose influential fingerprints were on several of the era’s most iconic bars — Ciro’s in London, the Plaza Hotel in New York, and most notably, the Paris watering hole that still bears his name. MacElhone wrote a number of cocktail books throughout his storied career, including 1927’s Barflies and Cocktails (still in print), in which appears the recipe for a cocktail called the Boulevardier.

The recipe for the Boulevardier appears in a section called “Cocktails Round Town,” attributed to Arthur Moss. Moss was a writer, wit, and among a trio of wealthy American ex-pats who founded a magazine called Boulevardier  — a boulevardier being someone who prowled the Parisian boulevards in search of revelry. The magazine did poorly, but it was high enough profile to attract submissions from the likes of Ernest Hemingway. 

Moss was a regular at Harry’s, and when it came time for MacElhone to compile a book, he enlisted Arthur’s help. For his section, Moss profiles a rogues’ gallery of boulevardiers who called Harry’s home, each one paired with a signature cocktail. Among the barflies he included was a gadabout scion of the Vanderbilt family named Erskine Gwynne, who also happened to be another of the founders of Boulevardier. So it made sense that Gwynne’s cocktail would be called the Boulevardier. As Moss writes:

“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.”

If you are familiar with a Negroni, then you will recognize the similarity between it and the Boulevardier, which is often shorthanded in descriptions as “a whiskey Negroni.” That’s a bit like saying a Manhattan is a whiskey Martini. Compared to a Negroni, the Boulevardier is a richer drink, the bourbon lending a velvet touch where gin adds a bright botanical flavor.

A Dash of Mad Science

Author and historian Gary Regan wrote in The Negroni: Drinking to La Dolce Vita that one of the best things about the Negroni is its versatility. The classic recipe is exceptional, but it lends itself to endless experimentation. That’s probably how the Boulevardier was struck upon in the first place. And that is one way in which the Negroni and the Boulevardier are very similar. It begs to be tinkered with — different whiskies, different vermouths, a few drops of orange bitters, altered ratios. Heck, even Harry MacElhone wasn’t 100% on the recipe. In another of his books, Harry’s ABC of Mixing Cocktails, he lists the Boulevardier as being made with Canadian Club. This was 1927, after all. After seven years of Prohibition (and an era that was much less fussy about categorization), it stands to reason that pickings were slim.

So who knows what Harry (or Erskine Gwynne) was using when he made the drink? Toby Cecchini, one of the owners of Brooklyn’s Long Island Bar, where the Boulevardier is the house cocktail, prefers rye to bourbon. There are also options for how you serve it — straight up in a coupe glass, or on the rocks in an old-fashioned tumbler. But rather than wander pointlessly into the weeds, these variables should be embraced. Heck, Cecchini also suggests replacing the vermouth with Cynar or Braulio, and splits the rye into two styles — Rittenhouse (bonded, 100 proof) and the softer Old Overholt.

Not only is the Boulevardier easy to make, even for a novice, it’s also easy to play with.

Boulevardier: The Harry MacElhone Way

  • 1 oz bourbon
  • 1 oz sweet vermouth
  • 1 oz Campari

Combine all ingredients in a mixing glass with ice and stir well. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass.

For the bourbon, I had a mysterious bottle of 80-proof Mark Twain purchased in 2009 or 2010, produced apparently by Heaven Hill. It’s a serviceable 36-month-old bourbon that succeeds at being everything you think a decent bourbon should be while offering no surprises. For the sweet vermouth, Carpano Antica Formula, because I had a 2/3 empty bottle in need of finishing. And also because it’s lovely. You can disagree, but I feel like using “whatever is handy” is a pretty authentic way to create an old-school cocktail experience. For the Campari, I chose Campari. Because it’s Campari. When you need Campari, it’s hard to beat Campari.

This first attempt was a pretty good drink… but it wasn’t quite there. The relatively tame Mark Twain, at 80 proof, just wasn’t assertive enough to play with the bold, passionate Italians, all belting out “Funiculì, funiculà!” at the top of their lungs and drowning out the bourbon’s high lonesome bluegrass. A bolder, higher-proof bourbon might be less of a pushover, but if I was going to go bold, then I figured It was time to take Toby Cecchini’s advice and use rye.

Try the Rye

I used a 90-proof Jim Beam Pre-Prohibition Style Rye. I also decided to be true to myself and make this one in a rocks glass with ice. It’s just how I like ’em. Now this was a really good drink. The rye spice and higher proof match the vermouth and Campari blow for blow, then they all go staggering off down the cobblestone street, arm in arm, best friends for life.

An American (and a Scotsman) in Paris

Wanting to pay tribute to the Boulevardier’s French roots, and not having to wake up early the next morning, I tried a third variation using Brenne French Single Malt Whisky, a spirit made in France, finished in ex-Cognac barrels, and turned into a brand by American Allison Parc. My bottle of Brenne is of an older generation, bursting with tropical fruit notes. It made for a very interesting, very worthy entry into the sweepstakes.

Not one to leave well enough alone, I started wondering how it would taste with a really bold whiskey. And there, staring at me from a shelf, was a half-full bottle of Ardbeg Corryvreckan, a complex, peaty single malt scotch.  “Why not?” I said. After all, MacElhone was a Scotsman. I regret nothing. It was exceptional. Smoky, peaty, bitter, and a little sweet. But just as the bourbon was a little meek, the Ardbeg threatened to bowl over its compatriots in the glass.

But the rye? Like Goldilocks said, the rye was just right (I think that’s how the story goes). If you are looking for a cocktail that will allow you to experiment and almost always succeed, the Boulevardier is a fantastic place to start. I didn’t push the boundaries of my home bartending skills with this one, but I built up some confidence, got pretty good at stirring, and had a quartet of lovely drinks.

Further Reading

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