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Three cheers

Expand your repertoire with simple three-ingredient cocktails

Glasgow bartender Mal Spence created a drink to celebrate the 2014 Commonwealth games that required 71 different ingredients, ranging from prickly pear to devil’s claw (that’s the genus Harpagophytum, for those following at home). When cocktail enthusiasts think about stocking their living room bars, sometimes this is what they envision—the need to buy bottles on bottles, spending hundreds of dollars on base spirits, liqueurs, and amaros, not to mention all the hardware required to mix these ingredients. Here’s the thing: many of the best drinks ever created are completely accessible to the aspiring home bartender, even on a budget. It’s as easy as one, two, three.

In his book 3-Ingredient Cocktails: An Opinionated Guide to the Most Enduring Drinks in the Cocktail Canon, New York Times cocktail writer and Punch contributing editor Robert Simonson says, “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.”

Manhattans, old fashioneds, daiquiris, negronis, mint juleps, margaritas, moscow mules … all three-ingredient cocktails. And for those with a budding home bar, they’re a godsend. Why? Because if there’s one cocktail on the list above (or the dozens of other amazing tri-fold drinks) you like, you buy one or at most two bottles, and then have a great jumping-off point for the next drink. Slowly, you’ll build a fantastic liquor collection.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Why is three the magic number? The formula couldn’t be simpler.

1: Spirit

2: Sweetening agent

3: Modifier

The spirit is often a given, if you’re mixing drinks. That’s your gin, rye, tequila, vodka, and so on. The sweetening agent is usually some form of sugar (go figure), though not always. It could be a liqueur, like Campari, or an amaro, like vermouth. The modifier can be a lot of things, and it changes what’s in the glass from syrupy-sweet booze to something complex and enjoyable. Modifiers can be bitters, fruit juice, additional liqueurs, amaros, etc.,

To illustrate why this formula works, take the negroni. Apart from the fact that this drink has a great origin story (think French cavalry charges, cowboys, and high stakes gamblers) it’s also a perfect example of the balance three ingredients lend a beverage.

The negroni is equal parts gin, Campari, and vermouth. In this case, gin is of course the spirit, vermouth the sweetening agent, and Campari the modifier. What makes it and so many other three-ingredient cocktails so delicious is that the elements blend into and complement one another. Campari is a liqueur—it’s sweet but also bitter and herbaceous. Depending on the brand of vermouth you use, you’ll get sweetness but also a wide range of flavor complexities that combine in really cool ways with the Campari. The same goes for the gin. The flavor notes in your favorite bottle change the character of the drink.

This drink also illustrates the fluidity of the three-ingredient cocktail, which is the key to building a home bar. If you swap out bourbon or rye for the gin in a Negroni, you have a completely different drink—the boulevardier. Remove the spirit completely and sub in soda water, you have an Americano—a nice, light spritz. Take an Americano and replace the soda water with prosecco, and you have a sbagliato. But here’s the point: Let’s say you go with the boulevardier. Your home bar now contains gin, Campari, vermouth, and a whiskey. What can you do with whiskey and vermouth? Buy an $8 bottle of bitters and you can now make a Manhattan. Swap out the vermouth for a sugar cube, and you can make an old fashioned.

That’s the beauty of the three-ingredient cocktail. With minimal investment, your repertoire grows exponentially. The model also allows you to focus on quality over quantity. With so few elements in the glass, make them count.

Casey O’Mara, part owner and head bartender at Vern’s, put quality at the fore when he created the Take Me Away, available off-menu at the Park Avenue restaurant and cocktail bar. A combination of Rittenhouse Straight Rye Whiskey, a high caliber, spicy ginger syrup (Pickett’s is a great brand) and fresh pineapple juice makes this take on the Garibaldi cocktail a perfect choice for blending the summer and fall seasons. According to O’Mara, juice quality makes the difference in this drink—he recommends using a Breville juicer.

“The Breville juicer creates incredible texture by separating the pineapple’s pulp and skin from the juice. While doing this, it aerates the juice to create an incredible foamy and frothy drink,” he says.

They say good things come in threes. In the world of building great drinks, and in turn building a great home bar, that’s certainly the case. Whether you’re just starting out or are already halfway to the Commonwealth, it’s always refreshing to come back to something simply perfect.


Pete Wayner is a food- and beverage-centric content creator based in Rochester.

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