If you've flown all day — nearly missing your final connection — en route to your first work trip since 2019, and someone hands you a blessedly strong stirred cocktail, you accept it without question. Only after that first sip dispenses its customary balm, erasing the claustrophobic grime of economy travel, can you focus your attention on what's in the glass.
I was, technically, drinking a Boulevardier. A Negroni with bourbon standing in for the gin, the traditional version also contains Italian red bitter liqueur and Italian sweet vermouth. But wait. This one tasted woodsy and herbaceous; there was minerality and mintiness (and licorice, perhaps?) beneath the dry, smoky single-malt whiskey, whose ratio slightly overtook the other two components. This was the Ballervardier, a bold iteration from the whimsical minds behind 40-year-old craft distiller St. George Spirits, which I sipped on a mild September evening at the distillery's sprawling headquarters in an old airplane hangar in Alameda, Ca.
Was this the drinkable version of the boldly patterned, green floor-length dress I had on? I wondered, thankfully not out loud.
Vice president and head distiller Dave Smith later told me he likes batching this singular cocktail, whose beguiling component parts speak to the terroir and cultural melting pot of California's Bay Area. "We keep it on hand for home or to bring to friends' homes as an alternative to wine," he said, adding that he'll adjust the whiskey ratio down slightly for a gentler vermouth than his ideal Campano. "Like lasagna, the cocktail gets even better when the ingredients have been allowed time to marry."
Aside from its ingredient deck, this brash, sultry creature shared precious few similarities with the first Boulevardier I ever tasted, some years back in a pretty hotel bar I can't remember the name of. More explicitly Negroni-esque, that bittersweet aperitivo comprised equal parts vanilla-scented bourbon; bitter, viscous Campari; and cocoa- and marmalade-tinged sweet vermouth. And like my denim vest, jeans and t-shirt combo that day — an impeccable choice for the 75-degree high — the three worked in harmony.
Now that the leaves have withered, the temps slip noticeably with the setting sun, and blazers and sweaters have overtaken the t-shirts in my closet, the standard-issue Boulevardier no longer satisfies. Perhaps it's time to go a little heavier-handed on the whiskey — a 1.5:.75:.75-ounce-ounce ratio, to be exact — as New York City bartender Harrison Snow prefers his Boulevardiers.
"Skewing more whiskey-forward, I see it more as a Manhattan riff than a Negroni riff," said Snow, who's co-owner at Lower East Side cocktail bar Lullaby. "When you allow a little more space for the bourbon or rye to speak and come to the forefront, I think the cocktail has so much potential to be this amazingly velvety, kind of thick, luxurious cocktail — served up in a frosty, elegant Nick & Nora glass."
"So, like the velvet jumpsuit of cocktails?" I ventured, to which he graciously replied, "Sure."
Indeed, what makes the Boulevardier so customizable is its bourbon base. As the Negroni's status has swelled over the past decade, "we've seen so, so many bartenders try to make variations infusing Campari with this or gin with that," Snow said. "They're always good, but it's rare that I drink one and I'm like, I'd prefer this over a traditional Negroni."
Barfolk can't help but incrementally tinker with cocktail specs, disassembling and piecing together these intricate flavor puzzles. Maybe they start blending vermouths until they realize that not one but four achieve the right balance in a Boulevardier. Perhaps they try dry vermouth instead of sweet and rye whiskey rather than bourbon, yielding a still-potent, lighter-handed Old Pal. Or they add two dashes of chocolate bitters to the standard version, creating a Left Hand cocktail. What if they ditch the whiskey altogether in favor of aged rum, then build the rest as is — finishing with a few drops of warmly spiced mole bitters? Well, then that's a Right Hand.
Theoretically, this means you don't even have to like a Boulevardier to enjoy one — putting you in the same category as Leslie Krockenberger, creative drink lead at Maker's Mark in Loretto, Ky. When she first started tweaking the Boulevardier, she played with measures. But she soon found that "a more delicate and soft wheated bourbon in a standard Boulevardier measure of equal parts, just can't stand up to the 'bold and bitter beast' that is Campari, even in the small measure that it occurs."
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Not satisfied to, say, split the bourbon base with tequila and mezcal, add a few coffee beans and dust in grated tonka bean, Krockenberger's epiphany only really arrived when she started toying with the remaining components. Like Snow, she prefers blending vermouths — favoring a mix of Cocchi Torino and Carpano "to highlight the flavor profile of our bourbon, and also give it some structure and grip." Or she'll replace the vermouth altogether with white port.
This month, she's upping the ante at the Maker's distillery with a Boulevardier featuring cacao nib-infused Campari, and swapping the traditional vermouth for Cocchi Barolo Chinato, an aromatized wine infused with quinine bark, rhubarb, ginger, cardamom and cacao. As she notes, the sexy winter sipper "still maintains its cocktail familial integrity, but (it's) perhaps a bit more interesting, and dare I say it, palatable!"
In short, you may find you're sipping a Boulevardier more often than you realize. All you have to do is focus your attention on what's in the glass after that first, invigorating sip. Fortunately, like smart denim layering and a well-tailored blazer, you'll always be in style with this cocktail in hand.
I, for one, plan on drinking Snow's whiskey-heavy iteration below as long as these dark, wintry days remain. I've renamed it the Velvet Jumpsuit, though thankfully not out loud.
1.5 ounces bottled-in-bond whiskey, like Evan Williams
¾ ounce sweet vermouth, like Cinzano 1757 or Martini Rosso (or try a blend of vermouths, such as Carpano Antica and Cocchi Torino)
¾ ounce Italian red bitter liqueur, like Campari
Orange peel twist
- Stir all ingredients with ice, and strain into a chilled Nick & Nora glass (or rocks glass with ice, if preferred). Drape the orange peel over the rim of the glass, and serve.
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