In its original formulation, the Bijou is a true relic of the 1890s. First published in C.F. Lawlor’s 1895 book The Mixicologist, the drink was conceived as an equal-parts cocktail featuring gin, sweet vermouth and Grand Marnier—three ingredients then-new to the States and quickly making waves. But it’s Harry Johnson’s Bijou from 1900 that has lived on. His recipe swaps out the orange liqueur in favor of green Chartreuse and adds a dash of orange bitters, perhaps as a nod to the citrus element of the original, and is garnished with an expressed lemon twist and a cherry “or a medium-sized olive,” a flourish that was not unheard of in the later Gilded Age.
Estelle Bossy never thought of the Bijou as her drink, but she did think, “There’s a way for me to make this drink something I love.” The opportunity arose while developing the Francophile drinks program at the newly opened Le Rock in New York City, where she works as the beverage director. After years of slinging amaro and Negronis at Italian properties, including Del Posto and La Sirena, Bossy was excited to create a program around herbal liqueurs, eaux de vie, Armagnac and elixirs from France and the surrounding regions.
However, Bossy’s training in Italianate cocktails came in handy when approaching this particular drink. Though she doesn’t view the Bijou as a Negroni by any means, her Bijou Blanc, which builds from the original equal-parts formula, is akin to applying the White Negroni treatment to the classic.
The choice to swap out sweet vermouth for lighter, brighter aromatized wines addressed Bossy’s biggest issue with the original spec, namely, that it was too sweet. “What I wanted to do to make the Bijou something I really liked was dry it out,” she says. To do so, Bossy opts for a half-ounce each of the bianco and extra-dry vermouth styles from Bordiga, a Piedmontese producer that forages many of its botanicals from the Occidental Alps. It’s a move that nods to Ted Saucier’s 1951 recipe for the Bijou, which consists of equal parts Grand Marnier and dry vermouth, plus Angostura bitters. The two vermouths combine to contribute floral, bitter and fresh herb flavors to the Bijou Blanc, and, Bossy says, “they’ve got great structure.”
Where the original Bijou calls specifically for Plymouth gin (an altogether different style from London dry), which shows up frequently in turn-of-the-century cocktails, Bossy instead turns to Four Pillars Navy Strength, which channels the earthiness of the Plymouth style. Its notes of turmeric and citrus ground the drink’s wild herbaceous quality and the high proof (58.8 percent) allows Bossy to keep the equal-parts composition of the original. “Rather than upping the gin and bringing down the Chartreuse, upping the ABV of the gin just worked better for me,” she says.
Finally, the all-important liqueur component. Bossy is a longtime Chartreuse devotee, but that didn’t stop her from trying a variety of liqueurs and combinations thereof in her Bijou spec. She experimented with subbing yellow Chartreuse in for green, using a combination of green and yellow, and even looking to other traditional herbal liqueurs, like the Abruzzese Centerbe, instead. In the end, she stuck with a full ounce of green Chartreuse, which keeps the ABV robust, delivers maximum flavor, and allows her to serve the drink on the rocks without worrying that it may deteriorate quickly. As Bossy explains, “A drink doesn’t just need to taste good when I put it down. It needs to taste good if it takes four to five minutes to get to the table from the service bar.”
With most of the drink’s components settled, Bossy deemed the orange bitters in the classic spec unnecessary, but she did make one major addition: a quarter-ounce of the French gentian liqueur Salers, which reinforces the gin’s earthiness as well as the bitter backbone of the vermouths. Then, to finish, instead of the cherry or olive from Johnson’s recipe, the drink is garnished with a simple lemon peel cut into a pennant shape, expressed then attached to a handsome wooden pick to resemble a flag.
To say that Bossy’s Bijou Blanc is a departure from the original would be fair, but with tie-ins to each of its three predecessors, it feels like a fitting continuation of the Bijou lineage. And by giving the drink a decidedly French twist, Bossy’s take is a welcome shift from the Italocentric nature defining so much of American cocktail culture today. As she explains of the deliberate departure, “We don’t achieve greatness if we just do what everybody else is doing.”