Three-ingredient cocktails just might be the best

There are tool sheds bigger than our kitchen.

When the dishwasher door is pulled all the way down, I can barely inch past it to get to the stove. There is a doorway at each corner of the room, which means there’s no decent run of counter space. Moving around in there requires the precision of good knife skills.

But the second and third shelves inside the refrigerator present the real quandary.

We love well-crafted cocktails in our house and those shelves hold evidence of that commitment. Vermouths, cordials, homemade simple syrups and mixers hog so much space, there’s barely any room for a container of leftovers. Bottles of sherry and tinctures crowd every inch of the door compartment where the orange juice should go.

The weekend is when my partner and I get creative, taking time to make cocktails that have, perhaps, five ingredients or as many preparation steps. We have different peelers to get the perfect slash of citrus. One of us might pick through a container of star anise to find a specimen without fractured pods for a picture-perfect garnish.

Yet, that’s the weekend. Nobody has time for all of that work during the week, unless you’re a bartender paid to spend time prepping the stock or making reductions.

So, why, as a home-bar enthusiast, did I still feel guilty, as though using three or fewer ingredients was skimping? And to be honest, some weekends I don’t feel like making much more than a scotch and soda.

Robert Simonson, who writes about cocktails and cocktail culture for The New York Times, argues that simplicity often yields the most satisfying cocktails. His latest book is aptly titled, “3-Ingredient Cocktails: An Opinionated Guide to the Most Enduring Drinks in the Cocktail Canon.”

“There’s honesty in the three-ingredient cocktail,” Simonson writes. “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.”

There is satisfaction in experimenting, pulling from what’s in the refrigerator or the garden to get the right combination of flavors in a chilled coupe. But so is having something to sip while making dinner, a drink that doesn’t take as long to make as the meal itself. A Side Car, Manhattan or Rob Roy usually fit the bill, but sometimes you want a variation on one of those classics or something altogether new.

After work, on a recent weeknight, I made a drink from Simonson’s book called Remember the Alimony. The recipe was created by New York City bartender Dan Greenbaum.

I chose it not only because it had a gin base, but because it did not require a shaker or a strainer. I could even stir it with my finger instead of a bar spoon. Into the rocks glass went gin, Cynar, fino sherry and a thick square of ice. A quick stir, a twist of orange and it was business. Bright, the right kind of bitter and barely a lilt of sweetness, it was lovely to sip as I got dinner ready.

“When you’re at home and you’re relaxing, no one wants to put pressure on themselves,” said Keyatta Mincey, a bartender at 5 Church in Atlanta. “At work, my aesthetic is a brightly colored drink. I might use flowers, cranberries, cucumbers with skin, but at home, I keep that thing simple.”

Simple is usually three ingredients, the three building blocks of any good cocktail: a spirit, a sugar and an acid — usually citrus — or a bitter. Good, clear ice cools and blends the mixture, expressing the flavors. The cloudier the ice, the more impurities in the water. (Though neither Simonson nor Mincey consider ice one of the three ingredients. To them, it’s almost like an essential tool rather than an ingredient.)


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During the cocktail renaissance of the last 30 or 35 years, there has been an intense reclamation of classic recipes that are 75 years to well over a century old. Of all the books in our bar cabinet, our favorite is from 1944, “The Standard Cocktail Guide: A Manual of Mixed Drinks Written for the American Host,” by Crosby Gaige. My partner found an original copy years ago at a junk shop, the book’s pages yellowed but not stained. I wondered how it had escaped errant specks of lemon juice or droplets of brandy before it landed on our counter.

Gaige, who was a Broadway producer and once president of the New York Wine and Food Society, has his share of five-, six- and even seven-ingredient drinks. But at least half of the recipes call for only three. Gin, Crème Yvette and lemon juice. White rum, honey and lime. Absinthe, simple syrup, Angostura bitters. In an etched, vintage coupe, they are elegant. They are not high-stakes drinks, dependent on whether I properly infused my bourbon with the right kind of bacon. I open the bottles, cut the fruit, combine them, and there’s rarely a miss or false note.

The “more is more” doctrine as practiced by some bartenders can have as much to do with their own creativity as the push from distributors to use a brand. Simonson has a story about how a push from a savvy marketer got the liqueur Galliano into the hands of the right bartender, and from that the Harvey Wallbanger was born. The practice holds to this day.

“Bartenders can be influencers,” said Tiffanie Barriere, formerly of One Flew South and now an independent bartender, instructor and host. “When you work in a restaurant, you’re given a lot of options from the distributor. A lot of it is for brand recognition. So when the guest asks, ‘What’s that you’re using?’ you can answer.”

Which is how you can wind up with a crowded refrigerator.

Looking at some bar menus I’ve collected over the years, I recognized a theme. There were drinks listed that I’d enjoyed and tried to replicate at home in all their complicated glory. I’d watched skilled bartenders take care in making them, turning the preparation into a performance. Those drinks represented happy memories, a great vacation, good times and pleasure. Beyond flavor, that’s what I was trying to recreate — moments of mirth and leisure. I think I can do that just fine now, with three well-chosen ingredients.

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