The Bar Cart: Negronis and Boulevardiers

Casey Barber

by Casey Barber on April 23, 2012

I drummed my fingers on the bar at Lupa as I waited. I needed a boozy bourbon to start my night, but with what? Tonight neither a Manhattan nor an Old Fashioned would do.

“Do you like Campari?” the bartender asked. Do I ever!

“Well, I’ve got a drink I think you’ll love, but it’s got a really embarrassing name.” Do tell!

negroni and boulevardier cocktails
The Boulevardier is the Colin Firth to the Negroni’s Hugh Grant; equally charming and irresistible, but with just a bit of extra smolder. For those of you who haven’t made the acquaintance of a Negroni, I’ll wait a minute while you pop over to your neighborhood cocktail lounge. Any bartender worth his or her rimmed salt should be able to do it. Equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth, the Negroni itself is a riff on another drink, the Americano. Needing a little more kick than the Americano’s Campari, vermouth, and soda could offer, Count Camillo Negroni asked for his to be made with gin instead, and just like that, the man got a drink named after him.

The good Count had a stellar idea, using the herbaceous flavors of gin as counterpoint to Campari’s citrusy bite. But the Boulevardier takes those herbal highlights and turns them on their end, using bourbon’s roasted sweetness to make the bitters the high notes of the drink rather than the low bass they provide when paired with gin.

When mixing a Boulevardier, certain cocktailers slightly increase the percentage of whiskey or decrease the Campari to find a balance that best suits their tastebuds. I keep mine in equal portions, following the rule of thirds laid out in the original recipe in Harry McElhone’s 1927 primer Barflies and Cocktails. Some use rye instead of bourbon, giving the cocktail a more stringent flavor profile.

Neither the Negroni nor the Boulevardier are particularly seasonal—I drink ‘em year-round—and can be interspersed depending on your mood. Writer Michael Procopio, no stranger to debauchery, calls Negronis “louche” and finds them appropriate for drinking in “swank apartments at midnight, dimly lit trysting places at any time of day, on the sly in a toney sanitarium.” In her memoir, Blood, Bones & Butter, Prune chef Gabrielle Hamilton says a Negroni “sparks your appetite and brightens your mood, holds in balance the sweet and the bitter.” (She also calls them “mama’s nerve tonic” as a method of dealing with her two sons.)

I’d say all those characteristics are applicable to the Boulevardier as well, but with a little more relaxed, loungey warmth. I’ll call for a Negroni when I need a bracing start to my happy hour after a windblown blue sky day; I’ll take a Boulevardier when I’m walking into the bar as the sun is setting and golden orange, pulling a sweater on over my sunburned shoulders.

The Boulevardier is my jumping-off point for the evening and my winding-down drink at the end of the night. Ask for it by name and spread the gospel.

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