The Boulevardier has a fairy-tale story like no other cocktail. It began as a footnote and, 90 years later, has emerged as a colossus.
Fifteen years ago, you’d have to have been a super-sleuthy cocktail historian with a high-powered magnifying glass to even know that such a drink as the Boulevardier existed. It was mentioned as the tiniest of footnotes in Barflies and Cocktails, the Paris-published 1927 cocktail manual by bartender Harry MacElhone. The Scottish MacElhone was the reigning mixological force at Harry’s New York Bar, an expatriate watering hole in the heart of Paris just steps from the Palais Garnier at 5 Rue Daunou.
MacElhone listed dozens of drink recipes in his slim volume, but the Boulevardier’s recipe was not one of them. That twist on the Negroni was relegated to the back pages of the guide, where it said only, “Erskine Gwynne crashed in with his Boulevardier cocktail,” made of 1/3 Campari, 1/3 sweet vermouth and 1/3 bourbon whiskey. Gwynne had his own colorful story. A well-born American who counted Vanderbilts among his relations, he founded a monthly literary magazine in Paris called, yes, Boulevardier. That Gwynne should have a signature cocktail, or frequent Harry’s, is no surprise. He spent much of his time in Paris carousing, dating models and getting into fights. As one paper said in 1933, “Where there’s Erskine, there’s always action.”
That would have been that, if not for the enterprising ways of the striving young bartenders of the early 21st century who, like amateur historians, got their hands on as many old cocktail books as possible, including Barflies and Cocktails. (The MacElhone book was reissued in 2008 by publishing scion and cocktail geek Greg Boehm of Mud Puddle Books, thus further exposing bartenders and enthusiasts to the recipes within.)
Bartender and writer Toby Cecchini, in a 2012 column in The New York Times’ T Magazine, lamented that the Boulevardier had not yet won a wider audience. Just two years later, he had nothing to complain about. The cocktail was everywhere, including at Cecchini’s The Long Island Bar, where it become the house specialty. (Cecchini spent a long time on his formula, eventually settling on a combination of two whiskeys, two vermouths and Campari. It is widely regarded as the best example of the cocktail to be had in New York and, perhaps, the United States.) One bar in Dallas went so far as to name itself Boulevardier, after the owner became enamored of the drink during an exploratory New Orleans bar crawl. Around the same time, barrel-aged Boulevardiers were being served in some bars, and a few distilleries began selling the cocktail in bottled form.
That the drink should take off so quickly with bartenders was no mystery. They were already in love with the Negroni, a three-ingredient cocktail that contained everything they loved: gin (as opposed to vodka), Campari (beloved for its bracing bitterness) and sweet vermouth (often unjustly vilified). The Boulevardier was the same bill of goods, except with something else they loved — bourbon — substituting for the gin.
For the consumer, the Boulevardier — like the Negroni — was a lost classic that they could easily wrap their tongues around, as well as master at home with minimal effort and a light shopping trip to the liquor store.
And so a footnote drink, and the forgotten Gwynne himself, improbably achieved a belated bit of immortality. It couldn’t have happened to a better drink.