As anyone with a bottle of booze and an ego knows, classy homemade cocktails are fun to show off. Most of your friends don’t know what a negroni is. If they do, they probably don’t know that by swapping out just one ingredient of the three, they can make a whole range of other drinks.
Those who have little hardcover cocktail books next to their booze know this better than anyone. Books and alcohol says you don’t just swill hooch like a common frat brother, mixing an eight-dollar handle into whatever flat, syrupy soda happens to be at hand. You don’t just drink – you learn how to drink better. You’re an alcoholic pioneer.
But the problem with most bar books is that looking something new up and mixing it often requires a bar’s worth of resources – all the bitters, liqueurs, citrus, garnishes and, obviously, spirits. You look up the pumpkin spice rum fizz (that’s not a real drink, hopefully) and suddenly you need Carpano Antica, molasses bitters, and China-China liqueur, but only half an ounce of each. And if you skip those, you’re basically left with just rum.
There’s a theory out there on how to address this problem, and it’s damn simple:
Start with a three-ingredient cocktail you know you like, and buy those three ingredients.
When you decide you want to switch it up a bit, you swap one ingredient out for something similar.
Continue until you've got a fully-stocked bar and an encyclopedia's worth of cocktail knowledge.
The Three-Ingredient Setup
I really like negronis. That sweet, smoky, full-bodied flavor got me through a brutal upstate winter last year. In case you’re not familiar (and I wasn’t until last winter) a negroni is equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari, garnished with an orange peel. But if you swap out gin for rye or bourbon, you have a whole new flavor profile and a whole new name: the boulevardier.
Along with that new cocktail, you also have a new bottle of whiskey in your repertoire. And you already have sweet vermouth from the negroni, so all you need is a $5 bottle of Angostura bitters and you can now make Manhattans and Old Fashioneds. With some mint and simple syrup, you’ve got Mint Juleps. If you go back to your negroni recipe and swap club soda for the gin, you have an Americano. And again, with one more purchase, say, a bottle of Kahlua, you can use your whiskey and bitters to make a Revolver, and now you have Kahlua, so... well, you get the idea.
The point is that instead of going straight for the fanciest 7-ingredient cocktail you can find, stick with a few simple three-pronged classics and keep expanding on that until you have a forest of bottles to choose from and can make literally whatever you want. Spoiler alert: eight times out of ten, you’ll probably still opt for the deliciously simple three-ingredient classic you started with.
So to get you started, here are a few of our favorite three-ingredient masterpieces to help you build your behind-the-bar empire. We focused on drinks with great denominators so you can swap out basics while bringing in fancy stuff from that oh-so-impressive cocktail culture fringe.
This is a dead horse, and I am beating it. But really. This drink is the first thing mixologists-in-training learn, because it’s so easy, so good, and so popular among the drinking class.
Sometime in the early 1900s, Count Camillo Negroni walked into a bar in Florence. He had been traveling extensively in the States, and after ordering an Americano, he asked the club soda be swapped out in favor of gin. Boom: the negroni was born.
All you do for this is combine equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth in a mixing glass with ice, stir vigorously for about 30 seconds, and then dump into a chilled rocks glass. Garnish with an orange peel. For an ultra-smoky touch, bend the orange peel a bit, rind out, and apply a flaming bamboo skewer (matches and lighters leave an aftertaste). The oils in the skin will flare up, impressing your guests and giving you an additional layer of smoke to the drink.
With one or two substitutions, you can make a Boulevardier (whiskey, Campari, vermouth), Americano (sweet vermouth, Campari, club soda), Sbagliato (Prosecco, Campari, vermouth), or Martinez (gin, vermouth, Angostura bitters).
The Dark and Stormy
Another Swiss Army Knife of cocktail utility is ginger beer. And, to be clear, this doesn’t equal ginger ale. Ginger beer has a definite bite and robust ginger sting that gets carried on those bubbles straight up your nose.
The Dark and Stormy is five ounces of the stuff plus two ounces of dark rum. Garnish with a lime wedge and squeeze the juice into your drink before imbibing.
If you’re careful with your pour, you can make really impressive bands of color in this drink, too. Just make sure you stir it before drinking, so all the flavors blend.
Bored? Try a Moscow mule (vodka, lime, ginger beer) in a signature copper mug, or a Gingersnap (amaretto, ginger beer, Angostura bitters), an adaptation of a Momofuku Ko special.
This reimagined martini is literally straight from a James Bond novel. In Ian Fleming’s 1958 classic, Casino Royale, Bond requests a martini, then doubles back and asks for it to be made with gin, vodka, and Kina Lillet. In the 1980s, Kina Lillet was converted into what we know today, Lillet Blanc, “a fresher, fruitier, and less bitter” liqueur, if the ads are to be believed.
To make a Vesper, chill a martini glass for 10 minutes, then add three ounces of gin, one ounce of vodka, and one half to one ounce of Lillet Blanc. Stir vigorously for 30 seconds with ice, then strain into the glass and garnish with lemon.
Lillet can be used on its own as a spritzer by mixing with prosecco and mint sprigs, or as an ingredient in slightly more complicated cocktails. An Ash Blonde (Lillet Blanc, Cointreau, sweet vermouth), or another Lillet-infused martini, the Bastille Day-favorite Liberté (gin, Lillet, orange bitters), both use the sweet, citrusy aperitif to the fullest.
Like so many of the best, simplest cocktails, the Sidecar’s origins have gotten murky throughout the past century. Most people think it came from Europe shortly following World War I. But whether it was actually the Ritz Hotel in Paris, a much-adored bartender at the Buck’s Club in London, or an American army captain stationed in Paris whose favored mode of transport was – you guessed it – a motorcycle sidecar, everyone can agree that this sweet and strong drink is one for the books.
There are a couple different schools of thought regarding how to make a proper Sidecar. I mean that literally – the so-called "French school" calls for equal parts cognac, Cointreau, and lemon juice. The "English school" calls for something a bit dryer: two parts cognac and one part each of Cointreau and lemon juice.
Both cognac and Cointreau are handy, versatile bottles to have on your home bar.
Pair cognac with a bit of maple syrup, mint, and Campari, and you have yourself a Campari Stinger. Cointreau opens a whole new world of imbibable possibilities, including the Singapore Sling (gin, Cointreau, benedictine, grenadine, bitters, lime juice), Corpse Reviver #2 (gin, Cointreau, Lillet Blanc, absinthe, lemon juice) and, for the 21-year-old girl in all of us, the Long Island Iced Tea (vodka, rum, gin, tequila, Cointreau, cola, lime juice, and two dashes youthful regret).
Heaven forbid we not include a whiskey-based cocktail on this list, particularly one that lends itself so well to the theme of versatility. While the origin of this drink remains obscure, we do know this perfectly simple drink became fashionable in New York City in the mid-to-late 1800s and probably received its name from the popular request around New York for “that Manhattan cocktail.”
The ingredients in the Manhattan are three of the most basic and useful to have in supply: rye, sweet vermouth, and Angostura bitters. Like all of the drinks on this list, the small number of ingredients means you can spend a bit more for the good stuff – which really pays off in things like vermouth (if you’ve never tried Carpano Antica, make an extra stop today and pick some up).
For the classic Manhattan, combine two-and-a-half ounces rye, one ounce sweet vermouth, and two dashes Angostura bitters in a rocks glass with ice. Stir for 30 seconds. If you want, add a cherry and crush it against the side of the glass with the spoon.
Rye is the traditional choice, but you can swap that out for bourbon to get a smoother, less spicy version. Or change the rye to scotch for a Rob Roy. Or keep the rye and tweak the vermouth for a "Perfect" Manhattan (rye, Angostura, and both sweet and dry vermouth).
Start with any one of those base cocktails that sounds appealing, then just build from there. Mix often, fine-tune your tastes until you know exactly how you like a specific cocktail, then float onto some new variation. You'll have the bottle collection and know-how of a pro bartender in no time.