Drinking at 3:30 in the afternoon is rarely a good idea. The bar’s A-team is not on duty, and you're drinking before the culturally agreed-upon, appropriate hour of 5 p.m. And yet! Sometimes that mid-afternoon cocktail is necessary, and sometimes you end up at a place like Service Industry.
It is completely empty when I arrive one afternoon. Maybe it’s because Denton is full of sensible people who don’t consume cocktails in the middle of the day, or maybe because the day drinkers are elsewhere. The cocktail menu is simple — vodka-drenched bar standards and the obligatory Prohibition-era drinks — and seemingly difficult to fuck up. I order a Boulevardier, which is basically just a whiskey-based Negroni. But I throw a curve ball.
The Boulevardier here is made with Bulleit rye, a perfectly serviceable spirit, and especially good for mixing cocktails. But because the Boulevardier is such a straightforward drink — mixed only with a little sweet vermouth and Campari — I wanted something a little smoother. I asked the bartender about the rye selection to find a proper substitute, and spotted a bottle of Woodford Reserve that, for whatever reason, looked like it had the green label of the brand’s rye.
I ask if the bottle is indeed Woodford rye, and get an emphatic nod of the head from my bartender. Now I'm excited. Woodford Reserve makes a remarkable rye whiskey, especially if you’re still easing your way into the spicy, assertive world of this spirit. In the mood to splurge, I order the cocktail with the bottle of “rye,” and the bartender starts to mix. When the cocktail arrives, it is a gorgeous rich amber color and perfectly chilled. I am stoked. I fully expect it to cost $34.
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After one sniff, though, I realize that the spirit in my glass is not Woodford Reserve rye. It is Woodford bourbon, both an incredible whiskey and an acceptable substitute for rye in a Boulevardier. There’s really no mixing up bourbon and rye whiskey if you’ve ever tasted both, especially in such a spiritforward cocktail. After another, I can’t even be mad that the bartender screwed it all up. The substitution of bourbon is a delicious accident.
As the glass gets emptier, I wonder whether or not I would have enjoyed this drink if it had been served as printed on the menu. Bulleit rye is good enough, and a real bargain at $7 for a stiff cocktail, but maybe these kinds of drinks are best prepared with special booze. If you’re going to adorn your whiskey with fruit and other assorted crap, cheaper is fine. Better, even. Mixed with vermouth and Campari, though, it’s better to spend a little more for the good stuff.
The whole point of a Negroni, and ultimately a Boulevardier, is to be bitter. Adding bourbon seems like a way to dumb this cocktail by making it sweeter, but Woodford Reserve is still aggressive and spicy enough to work with the Campari. Oils from the orange peel floating in the cocktail round out the edges. The real advantage of making this cocktail with bourbon is that it becomes infinitely smoother without compromising any of the complexity that differentiates a Negroni from a Boulevardier.
One Boulevardier on an empty stomach is plenty, and driving back to Dallas from Denton with a swimming head is never a very good idea. I ask for the check, prepared to scoff at whatever egregious price they’re about to charge, and my bill comes to $10, including the requisite Topo Chico chaser. Any time you get the equivalent of two shots of top-shelf whiskey for less than $10, you thank the booze gods. And then, you order another.