The Boulevardier (aka bourbon Negroni) is a spirit-forward drink. Let’s explore the ingredients needed for this Parisian prohibition classic, Boulevardier cocktail!
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History of the Boulevardier
The more I play with bitter elements, the more I love bitter Amari, especially when it sits in classic cocktails like the Boulevardier drink.
Originally a riff on a Negroni, with bourbon as a substitute for gin, the Boulevardier recipe has come into its own. Many times, it’s a whiskey drinker’s first foray into bitter liqueurs in cocktails.
Did you need to know how to say it? It’s a French word, so you pronounce it boo-luh-var-dee-yay.
The Boulevardier cocktail was first recorded in Harry McElhone’s book, Barflies and Cocktails and came from Harry’s New York Bar in Paris during Prohibition. He attributed the cocktail to Erskine Gwynne, a customer and well-connected expat who ran a literary magazine of the same name. Boulevardier was a term that meant something like “man about town.” The name of the cocktail was a nod to the gentleman’s magazine.
Served on the rocks with an orange peel expressed over the top, it’s a complex cocktail with layers of flavor from the heat of the bourbon, the intriguing bitterness of the Campari and the sweet, gentle notes of the vermouth.
The Boulevardier is a simple cocktail with just three ingredients, and you often start with equal proportions. It’s a mix of bourbon or rye whiskey, Campari (or any Italian red bitter liqueur), and sweet vermouth.
Sound familiar? While a gin Negroni is refreshing and bright, a bourbon Negroni tastes richer, with the base spirit of whiskey. It’s a little deeper, more complex, and less herbal. Where gin adds pine, floral and herbal notes, this version adds notes of vanilla and baking spices.
Rye or Bourbon
It’s certain that the initial Boulevardiers included bourbon because it was described as a bourbon Negroni. Since then, rye has made converts of some cocktail enthusiasts as the whiskey of choice.
For some, the spicier rye whiskey with its full mouthfeel creates a richer and more complex cocktail than the use of the sweeter spirit, bourbon.
Personally, I love both in my cocktail. Each one has their place, and much depends on which vermouth you decide to use and the ratios you’ll use. As always, I firmly believe experimentation is called for to find out which vermouth and spirit to use with your bitter liqueur.
Campari, the traditional third ingredient in the bourbon Negroni, is a bitter red aperitif. It’s a bittersweet, low-proof spirit often used in cocktails prior to dinner. Although it is traditionally made in Italy, more and more are produced in the US and around the world.
For our purposes, the category of Amari, or drinkable bitters, adds interest to the cocktail because each brand of bitter red aperitif has its own combination of infused plants, herbs and flowers to create the overall flavor profile of the spirit.
For more information on what Campari is and how it functions in a cocktail, see How to Infuse Campari for Cocktails.
While the Boulevardier recipe traditionally calls for Campari, you can vary your cocktail with the use of other Italian bitter apertivos such as Aperol, Luxardo Bitter, Gran Classico and more.
Each brand has its own flavors from the complex infusions they use to create their spirits . Many mixologists choose a particular base spirit to match the bitter liqueur they’re using. One might pull out matching or contrasting flavors between the two for a unique, balanced Boulevardier.
Tips to Mixing a Great Boulevardier
- Play with Ratios
The classic Boulevardier recipe has three elements in equal parts, 1:1:1. It’s easy to remember, but it might not be what your palate finds best. Nowadays, as the drink has grown in popularity, a number of establishments and cocktail experts tend to favor a higher ratio of whiskey to the cocktail. Many will advocate 1.5: ¾: ¾ (or 2:1:1).
So, the first tip I offer is to experiment with ratios. To do this, experiment using the same ingredients in three cocktails to find which ratio tastes best to you.
I’m of the firm opinion that your palate is your own. Your perfect Boulevardier ingredients may not be the same as mine. The bottom line is that YOU like it. Would you order another one?
- Dial the Bitter Up and Down
For some people, the aggressiveness of Campari will be too much. It’s a very heady spirit to sip on. It has earthy notes, bitter citrus, dark cherry notes, and tastes very herbaceous. If you find it overwhelms the cocktail, substitute out another Italian red aperitivo, or play with the ratio of the cocktail. If you need to, dial down the bitterness and increase the sweet vermouth.
Garnishing the Cocktail
Traditionally the Boulevardier relies on the finishing touch of an expressed orange peel. But if you’d rather heighten some of the other citrus notes, lemon or grapefruit might be a better choice.
Use a single large cube
If you’re a slow sipper, a single, large-format ice cube is best for your glass. One of the things I find most enjoyable about aperitivos is the way their flavor changes over time as the ice melts and the cocktail slowly dilutes.
Much like whiskey, sweeter, more fruity and floral flavors tend to open up. The drink you finish is not the one you started, but with a great Boulevardier cocktail, both the first sip and the last satisfy.
Because I think each cocktail can be made perfect for your own palate, here’s a set of experiments for you to play with ratios and levels of bitterness for your perfect cocktail.
Make each of these concurrently and sip them side by side, tasting the differences that changes in ratios make. You don’t need to finish all of them, but taking the time to sip simultaneously will tell you what your palate prefers when it comes to the Boulevardier.
- Equal ratios of bourbon, sweet vermouth, Italian bitter aperitivo:
- 1 oz bourbon
- 1 oz sweet vermouth
- 1 oz bitter aperitivo
- Increase the ratio of bourbon:
- 1.5 oz bourbon
- ¾ oz sweet vermouth
- ¾ oz bitter aperitivo
- (or you could do 1.25, ¾, ¾)
- Increase or decrease the ratio of vermouth and Campari:
- 1.5 oz whiskey
- 1 oz bitter aperitivo
- ½ oz sweet vermouth
For each cocktail, create in a mixing glass filled with ice, stir and strain into a rocks glass with a large cube. Express an orange peel over the cocktail and drop it in the glass. Ideally, make all three at once and sip on them to see your initial impression. Wait a bit, then sip a little later as the dilution has started to affect the taste of the cocktail.
So, after all that experimentation, I give you my favorite Boulevardier recipe below. I too have swapped out the bourbon for rye. However, if you ask me in 5 months which base spirit to use, I might tell you that a bourbon Negroni is the way to go.
Recommended Bar Tools
You don’t need every slick, beautiful bar tool out there, but there are several I’ll recommend. (As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases. However, that does not affect the cost of the items below.) My favorite pieces usually come from the Cocktail Kingdom section of Amazon:
- Shaker Tin Set
- Hawthorne Strainer
- Bar Spoon
- Nice to have: mixing glass
You may already have these bar essentials, but just in case:
Boulevardier Cocktail (Bourbon Negroni)
- 1.25 oz bourbon or rye whiskey
- ¾ oz sweet vermouth
- 1 oz Campari
- Garnish: orange peel
- Combine bourbon (or rye), vermouth and Campari in a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir until well chilled.
- Strain into a rocks glass with a single large cube. Express the orange peel twist over the cocktail and add to glass.
This post, originally published September 2020, was updated with new content March 2023.
1 thought on “Mixing a Perfect Boulevardier (Bourbon Negroni)”
Excellent article! I love learning about the makup drinks and the interactions of the ingredients especially with tips to play around with.