The more I play with bitter elements, the more I love bitter Amari, especially when they take their place at the table for a classic like the whiskey Boulevardier cocktail. 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.
While it was originally a riff on the Negroni, it’s come into its own as a great cocktail for whiskey and Negroni lovers alike. Many times, it’s a whiskey drinker’s first foray into bitter liqueurs used in cocktails with their favorite spirit.
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The Boulevardier is a simple cocktail with just three ingredients, and you often start with equal proportions. It’s a mix of whiskey (usually bourbon or rye), Campari (or any Italian red bitter liqueur), and sweet vermouth.
Sound familiar? It’s a riff on the Negroni’s equal parts of gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. While the Negroni is refreshing and bright, the Boulevardier tastes richer with the base spirit of whiskey. It’s a little deeper, more complex, and less herbal without the gin. Where gin adds pine, floral and herbal notes, whiskey adds vanilla, baking spices, and a sweet spirit base.
Did you need to know how to say it? It’s French, so you pronounce it boo-luh-var-dee-yay’.
History of the Boulevardier
The Boulevardier cocktail was first recorded in Harry McElhone’s book Barflies and Cocktails in 1927 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 called The Boulevardier. Boulevardier was a term that meant something like “man about town.” The name of the cocktail was a nod to the gentleman’s magazine.
Bourbon or Rye in the Boulevardier?
It’s certain that the initial Boulevardiers were a bourbon cocktail 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 a Boulevardier, is a bitter red aperitif. It’s a bittersweet, low-proof spirit often used in cocktails or prior to dinner as an aperitif. 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.
I’ve got a full article on Campari infusions which includes more information on what Campari is and how it functions in a cocktail: How to Infuse Campari for Cocktails.
While a Boulevardier traditionally uses 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 Make 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 Boulevardier 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 would give you is experiment with ratios to find the best expression of the Boulevardier. 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 may not be the same as mine, and while there are recipes that experts agree are quintessential expressions of a cocktail in terms of ingredients and ratios, the bottom line is do YOU like it. Would you order another one?
Dial the Bitter Up and Down
For some people, the aggressiveness of Campari as the bitter aperitivo 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 amount of the cocktail that is apertivo and increase the sweet vermouth.
While Campari is the standard aperitivo used for the Boulevardier, if you have access to other bitter reds get them out. It’s worth trying them in the cocktail to see if there’s one you prefer, or one that matches a favorite whiskey you’ll want to use for the Boulevardier.
Play with the citrus garnish
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, or if you end up using a different apertivo, lemon or grapefruit might be a better choice. If I swap out Aperol for the Campari, I prefer a grapefruit garnish to tie in with stronger grapefruit notes from Aperol over Campari.
Use a single large cube
If you’re a slow sipper, a single, large-format ice cube will be best for your Boulevardier. 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, both the first sip and the last satisfy.
Infuse your Campari
Another tip to supercharge your Boulevardier is to use Campari infusions in the cocktails. I have a full article on How to Infuse Campari. It’s got seven fun and easy infusions that only take a day or so. The infusions draw out different notes in the aperitivos hidden behind other flavors. Coffee infusions are incredible, but I’ve also got lovely strawberry, chocolate, lavender, rosemary and pineapple infusion recipes in the article.
Experiments with your Boulevardier
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 Boulevardier.
Your Boulevardier Palate Experiment
Make each of these concurrently and sip them side by side, tasting the differences that changes in ratios make. You’ll tweak the ratio of the base spirit to the modifiers, and the ratio of vermouth to bitter aperitivo. You won’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 whiskey, sweet vermouth, Italian bitter aperitivo:
- 1 oz whiskey
- 1 oz sweet vermouth
- 1 oz bitter aperitivo
- Increase the ratio of whiskey, and drop the other two:
- 1.5 oz whiskey
- ¾ oz sweet vermouth
- ¾ oz bitter aperitivo
- (or you could do 1.25, ¾, ¾)
- Increase or decrease the ratio of the two secondary ingredients, the vermouth and Campari. If you think you might like more bitter:
- 1.5 oz whiskey
- 1 oz bitter aperitivo
- ½ oz sweet vermouth
Or if you’d prefer to dial down the bitter, and get the flavor closer to a Manhattan cocktail:
- 1.5 oz whiskey
- 1 oz sweet vermouth
- ½ oz bitter aperitivo
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 cocktail below. I too have swapped out the bourbon for rye. However, if you ask me in 5 months which base spirit I should use I might tell you bourbon.
After I played with ratios, I decided that over ice I preferred a combination with a bit higher rye ratio. I also increased the Campari just a tad. That level worked best over ice. Now, if I wanted to sip neat, I’m absolutely in the 1:1:1 ratio. See my favorite ratio in the recipe below.
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Recommended Bar Tools
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You probably already have these, but you may need them, too:
- 1.25 oz rye whiskey
- ¾ oz sweet vermouth
- 1 oz Campari
- Garnish: orange peel
- Combine whiskey, vermouth and Campari in a mixing glass and fill with ice. Stir until well chilled and strain into a rocks glass with a single large cube. Express the orange peel over the cocktail and add to glass.