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History Lesson: The Boulevardier

As the crocuses bloom and spring emerges, thoughts turn invariably to rebirth. In honor of such fancies, it seems appropriate to choose a cocktail from the years of national Prohibition. “Dr. Cocktail,” you ask, “don’t you mean the repeal of Prohibition … rebirth and all?”

Well, no. Before Prohibition, the cocktail had become something of a stuffed bird in a dusty cage. Ironically, the Volstead Act helped revive the American cocktail—it was handy to disguise otherwise unpotable hooch with preferable flavors and a pretty name. But Prohibition had also sent thousands of bartenders into a tailspin. Most had to find other work, since their profession had been summarily yanked from beneath them. An adventurous few expatriated themselves to Europe and made a name shepherding nascent Old World barmen through the craggy fields of cocktail creation.

New Yorker Harry McElhone was among the first to go. Robust, jolly, cigar-chomping Harry once helmed the bar at the Plaza Hotel in New York. By the time America went dry Harry had relocated, first to Ciro’s in London, then to its branch in Deauville, France, and finally to Paris with his own place, Harry’s New York Bar. There and in other American bars, he and other Yanks served the expected pre-Prohibition cocktails as well as new drinks—created with European ingredients never imagined back home and mixed with a lively continental ingenuity.

One amply palatable drink of that milieu, The Boulevardier, appeared in Harry’s 1927 bar guide, Barflies and Cocktails. It was the signature drink of Erskine Gwynne, expatriate writer, socialite and nephew of railroad tycoon Alfred Vanderbilt. Gwynne edited a monthly magazine, a sort of Parisian New Yorker, named The Boulevardier. Here’s an adapted version of its namesake cocktail. Obviously, this is a Negroni with bourbon in lieu of gin. The Negroni, however, would not see print for another 20 years, and Americans had never heard of Campari in 1927.

The Prohibition men of the Bureau of Internal Revenue (today’s IRS)) were outraged by all the festive drinks and fun being had at their expense across the pond by Harry and his coterie. Some of the drinks would raise hackles to this very day. Arthur Moss, one of Harry’s literary accomplices, even wrote about a potent example containing the following: “One part pulque, two parts tequilla (sic), one part brandy and a dash of liquid marijuana; this … is guaranteed to put a tarantula to sleep for a year.”

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