Don’t confuse hip for classic
“Hey Jeff,” my co-worker said. “Do you know what this is?”
I followed the point of his thumb to the tattooed 24-year-old in his stocking cap and bushy hipster beard.
“Boulier?” the hipster asked in the worst French accent that I have ever heard.
“Beaulieu?” I asked. “As in Beaulieu Vineyards wine?”
“No, Boulv-yay,” he said exaggerating the accent, as if that helped.
“I’ve never heard of that. Do you know what is in it?”
There are thousands and thousands of cocktail. Bar guides seem to think that volume is the way to go. Page after page of recipes, 99 percent of which are probably awful. But that doesn’t stop people from trying them. Ironically the most popular drinks of the moment are all really old. Manhattans and old fashioneds are nothing new. Martinis, Pisco Sours, Amaro, premium vermouth and even Moscow Mules are at least a half a century old — double the age of many hipsters.
“Uh, whiskey, vermouth and Campari,” the hipster said, squeezing out the recollection from his tightly clad head.
“Yeah,” he said in carefully feigned hipster nonexuberance. “Classic.”
The Boulevardier certainly feels like a classic. Bourbon, which predates the current rye trend (although rye predates bourbon in the grander scheme of things), and both sweet vermouth and Campari, about as old timey as it gets. Think a Negroni with whiskey instead of gin, or a Manhattan with Campari instead of bitters, or an Americano with whiskey instead of soda.
Go ahead, look it up on your Internet thingies. The Boulevardier was originally touted by Harry McElhone, the Harry of the famous Harry’s New York Bar. It’s in all the magazines now: Imbibe, Bon Appetit, the New York Times Magazine, etc., and as a result it’s on cocktail lists across the country. It even tastes good. Classic, right?
I own nearly 50 classic cocktail guides, everything from “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks” to “The Savoy Cocktail Book” plus nearly a dozen different versions of Mr. Boston’s and the Boulevardier doesn’t appear in any of them. Not one.
Let’s consider the source, Harry’s New York Bar.
• Not in New York but in Paris
• Harry’s not from New York; he was from Scotland.
• Harry didn’t make the bar famous; he just named it after himself after he took over.
In French, a boulevardier is a man about town, a bon vivant, a — dare I say — hipster. But in late 1920s France, Boulevardier was a magazine. Owned and operated by Erskine Gwynne, a wealthy American ex-pat, the eponymous product of both the Gwynne and Erskine families as well as a the great nephew of Cornelius Vanderbilt (and married to the great niece of Confederate President Jefferson Davis) — talk about a socialite pedigree. Gwynne was kind of the Paris Hilton of his day, but with an education and some talent. He patterned his new magazine after the New Yorker and capitalized on the American expatriate zeitgeist so popular at the time. Many American’s living abroad wrote for the magazine, including Ernest Hemingway, Sinclair Lewis and Noel Coward. The gang presumably graced Harry’s Bar, which placed ads in the magazine. Harry returned the favor by mentioning Gwynne’s favorite drink, named after his magazine, in his 1927 book “Barflies and Cocktails.” Ironically it does not figure into the 300 recipes in the book.
The Boulevardier then disappears from the scene completely. Soon thereafter so did the magazine, as did Gwynne. Odd for a drink that seems to have all the ingredients necessary to be quite popular, including the fact that it’s quite tasty. All of which can lead us to one inescapable conclusion: Gwynne must not have been very popular.
“Classic right?” I asked the hipster.
He looked at me oddly.
“I meant ‘classic’ as in ‘cool,’ old dude,” he said shaking his head.
Leaving me with these thoughts:
• “Talent is God given. Be humble. Fame is man-given. Be grateful. Conceit is self-given. Be careful,” John Wooden said.
• CNN newscaster Anderson Cooper is also a Vanderbilt. No surprise then that he has sought public attention evidenced by the two shows named after himself: Anderson 360 and Anderson Live.
• The Internet is everywhere, which means it really is the tail wagging the dog these days.
• Screw you, kid.