This is perhaps unsurprising, considering that by its most technical, 19th-century definition, a cocktail consists solely of three ingredients: spirit, sweetener, bitters—a formula which, over the years, has proved its staying power. As Robert Simonson observes in 3-Ingredient Cocktails, his recent book on the subject: “Triumphant triptych cocktails don’t provoke arguments about whether they’re good or not; they start arguments about the way to make them well,” concluding, “it’s taken as an article of faith that they’re good.”
Within the realm of three-ingredient cocktails, Martini riffs prove to be a fruitful source of inspiration. Case and point: the Alaska. Simply gin, yellow Chartreuse and bitters, historical versions of this herbal take on the Martini differ over the use of London dry or Old Tom gin (though Simonson prefers the latter, as called for in Jacques Straub’s 1914 Drinks). Dan Greenbaum’s Remember the Alimony, on the other hand, inverts the typical Martini structure, building on a split base of fino sherry and Cynar finished with a quarter ounce of gin for a more modern take.
The combination of spirit, sweetener, citrus—better known as the sour—offers another nearly infallible three-ingredient template that encompasses everything from canonical classics like the Margarita to more modern examples, like the late Sasha Petraske’s Cosmonaut—a spin on the Cosmopolitan made with gin, lemon juice and raspberry preserves that showcases Petraske’s signature succinctness. On the other end of the sour spectrum, the Blinker—first printed in 1934—stretches the formula to its extreme: Built on a base of rye whiskey, the recipe calls for a full ounce of grenadine and three ounces of grapefruit juice for a potent but surprisingly refreshing cocktail.
But it’s Timothy Miner’s Fumata Bianca—a mixture of bianco vermouth, Suze and mezcal made tall by sparkling water (which Simonson nonetheless considers to be within the three-ingredient canon)—that really captures the unexpected complexity offered by so few ingredients. Seamlessly blending herbal, sweet and smoky profiles, it proves that simple doesn’t need to be simple-minded.