Sometimes at the end of a long day you just want a drink to help take the edge off, one that doesn't require too much fuss or thought. It's easy to turn to a glass of wine, a bottle of beer, or perhaps two fingers of your favorite scotch in such a time. But maybe, just maybe, you can rouse enough effort to pull together a cocktail.
The Boulevardier is such a drink to add to your repertoire. The basic recipe is a snap, the ingredients are standards of any well stocked home bar, and the end result is supremely satisfying.
I first learned of this little doozy in Ted Haigh's outstanding Vintage Spirits and Forgotten Cocktails. As you'll notice, this is a Negroni with bourbon substituted for gin. But according to Haigh, in all likelihood the Boulevardier preceded the Negroni. While the Negroni has gone on to well deserved fame, the Boulevardier seemingly slipped into relative obscurity. I say relative because I've actually happened upon it on the menu at a few bars here in Phnom Penh, which suggests a well deserved resurgence.
Despite the simplicty of the drink, the flavors and experience are really quite complex, and it makes for an elegant refreshment at home or the local watering hole. It also leaves plenty of room for experimentation, which is where we come in.
The standard recipe for the Boulevardier is one part each of bourbon, Campari, and sweet vermouth. Straightforward, easy to remember, easy to make, and rewarding in its own right. Toss in a maraschino cherry or an orange twist as garnish and you're good to go.
As usual, the ingredients here are key. With the standard recipe, the Campari is front and center. The distinctive, bright red liqueur provides a bitter, herbal flavor with a hint of orange that can be a little overwhelming to the uninitiated. The sweet vermouth balances the Campari somewhat and, depending on which brand you use, will increase the viscosity of the drink. The bourbon will bring the heat and can add a touch of sweetness as well, again depending on the brand. The Boulevardier's red hue is also noticeably darker and a little less vibrant (though no less appealing) than the distinctive coloring of the gin-based Negroni.
As I played around with the recipe, I found that increasing the amount of bourbon helped it shine through a little more, while decreasing the vermouth helped reduce the sweetness. I also eventually switched to a rye, which heightened the spice and heat of the drink. A few drops of orange bitters helped make up for the comparative reduction in the amount of Campari used and can simultaneously highlight the hint of orange the Campari already provides.
Your choice of garnish will depend on what you want to emphasize in the drink. A maraschino cherry (Luxarado, please) will help highlight the sweetness of the vermouth. An orange peel, on the other hand, will help further the cause of the Campari and orange bitters.
If this is your first drink of the night, no ice is necessary. If you've already had one or two, or you plan to cozy up with this for a little bit, then add one large ice cube; it will keep it cool without diluting it too much.
Ultimately I settled on the following variation:
2 ounces - rye (Redemption Rye)
1 ounce - Campari
3/4 ounces - Dolin Sweet Vermouth
2-3 dashes - orange bitters
Stir with ice, then strain into chilled cocktail glass with one large ice cube and garnish with an orange twist.