You need three ingredients for a cocktail. Vodka and Mountain Dew is an emergency.
—Peggy Olson, Mad Men
Three—it’s a magic number.
We see in three dimensions. Three strikes, you’re out. Three-pointers are the highlight of any basketball game. Baby makes three. Reading, writing, and ’rithmatic makes an education. Three is a hat trick. Three’s a charm. Ready, set, go. One, two, three: take the picture. Nobody counts to two. Nobody counts to four. Three makes magic.
The triangle is the most stable of shapes, so it comes as no surprise, then, that the three-ingredient cocktail is the most sturdy and lasting of cocktail constructions. One ingredient, you’ve got a nice dram. Two, you’ve got a highball. Get three things to marry together, you’ve likely got a cocktail on your hands. More than three and you’ve got a more complicated cocktail, not necessarily a better one.
Since the cocktail renaissance began around the turn of the twenty-first century, detractors have been complaining that too many of the new drinks being turned out by mixologists contain a surfeit of ingredients. “So what?” I often thought. If it leads to deliciousness, who cares if they threw in the kitchen sink and a pair of cufflinks?
Except, those detractors had a point. Complexity may lead to the flattery of the senses, but not to imitation. If the Manhattan had eight ingredients, nobody would be making it today—at least, not at home and probably not at many bars. There is practicality in the three-ingredient cocktail. Because you don’t need a grocery cart when shopping for its fixin’s at the liquor store, if it’s tasty, it will catch on. Whiskey, vermouth, bitters? You got this.
There’s also honesty in the three-ingredient cocktail. When you get past five ingredients in a drink, the further additives are often there, not to add to what’s already present in the glass, but to correct what’s still lacking in the mixture. If you spot a drink on a menu that has seven or eight things in it, chances are two of those are Band-Aids, attempting to mend a broken cocktail. That’s not possible with a trio. There are no obfuscating ingredients the purpose of which might be to cloud the drinker’s mind and mask some innate unsoundness of the drink. You can clearly taste and adjudge every component. Every player must be strong. As bartender Audrey Saunders once said, “The three-ingredient cocktail doesn’t lie.”
Finally, the three-ingredient cocktail has history on its side. Every time the cocktail world has stirred up dust within the great culture, it’s because some three-legged liquid creature has ventured, all big-footed, onto the world’s Main Street: the Whiskey Cocktail, Mint Julep, Manhattan, Martini, Tom Collins, Whiskey Sour, Daiquiri, Margarita, Moscow Mule, Negroni, and Harvey Wallbanger—all three-ingredient game-changers. Triumphal triptych cocktails don’t provoke arguments about whether they’re good or not; they start arguments about the best way to make them well. It’s taken as an article of faith that they’re good.
This is all a lot of words to justify something that doesn’t really need justifying. Most everyone agrees there is some innate virtue in simplicity, whatever field of endeavor you’re talking about. If you don’t even agree to that, that’s fine—contrary away. I’m the first to admit, in terms of cocktails, that it’s possible to make a fairly solid argument for any style or method you choose to get behind. Think more is more? A lot of tiki drink aficionados would agree with you. Think that sous vide method brings out the flavor more strongly? Science has a case to make. I grant you all your points.
But this remains: these drinks are easy to make (point one), while none of them read on the tongue as simple-minded creations (point two), and they all taste good (point three). Give me an argument against that.
People often ask me what cocktails I make when I drink at home. The answer is, by and large, the ones included in these pages, the classics: Old-Fashioned, Manhattan, Daiquiri, Negroni, and so on. I turn to them regularly because they are delicious, dependable, and easy to prepare, and I almost always have the ingredients on hand. And if that is the situation for me, there’s no reason it can’t be the same with anyone reading this sentence. That was one reason for my writing this book. Another is that many of the cocktail books that have come out in recent years have been a little, well, fussy. Those volumes, put out by estimable bars and bartenders, all have something to offer. But perhaps this book can serve as an alternative.
While most of the cocktails that follow are well established and were invented decades ago, there are a number of new drinks. Finding those was more difficult, simply because hitting upon a solid, three-ingredient cocktail today is a tall order; most of the obvious formulae were laid down long ago. Still, I found a few worthy specimens of recent vintage.
Remember the Alimony
Dan Greenbaum, 2012
This is one of the best of the modern sherry cocktails out there. Dan Greenbaum created it in 2012 at the short-lived New York City cocktail bar The Beagle. It continues to be served—but maybe only because I keep ordering it and writing about it.
1 1/4 ounces fino sherry
1 1/4 ounces Cynar
3/4 ounce Beefeater gin
Combine all the ingredients except the orange twist in a rocks glass filled with one large piece of ice. Stir until chilled, about 30 seconds. Express an orange twist over the drink and drop into the glass.
T. J. Siegel, 2001
A Whiskey Sour rendered silky and viscous by the addition of honey syrup, this drink was a mainstay during the early years of New York bar Milk & Honey. It has since become a modern classic, served worldwide. As with the Whiskey Sour, Henry McKenna bonded ten-year-old bourbon is a good choice for this drink.
2 ounces bourbon
3/4 ounce lemon juice
3/4 ounce rich honey syrup (3:1) (recipe follows)
Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake until chilled, about 15 seconds. Strain into a rocks glass over one large piece of ice.
Rich Honey Syrup (3:1)
Makes 1/3 Cup
1 cup honey
1/3 cup water
Heat the honey and water in a saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the ingredients have integrated. Remove from the heat, let cool, and then refrigerate. Stored in a tightly sealed container, the syrup keeps for a week.
Another succinct Sasha Petraske creation, this is his sly retort to the popularity of the Cosmopolitan, as the name coyly indicates. Indeed, the drink, piquant and slightly fruity, fills much the same purpose, tastewise, as that ubiquitous cocktail—only more so.
2 ounces gin
3/4 ounce lemon juice
1 bar spoon raspberry preserves
Combine all the ingredients in a cocktail shaker filled with ice and shake until chilled, about 15 seconds. Strain into a chilled coupe.