It can be fun to watch a bartender carefully add a litany of ingredients to a mixing glass: layers of different spirits, unusual liqueurs, custom tinctures, bizarre bitters. A bar is a great place to get familiar with unusual bottles and sample drinks that take a more effort than just opening the cupboard and filling a few jiggers.
At home, though, most of us want a drink we can assemble with what we have on hand; nothing that takes an overnight infusion or 12 different bottles.
If your home bar is really bare (and you're up for a trip to the grocery store for produce), you may want to start with our one bottle drinks series: all of those recipes are centered around just one spirit. But if you're a little more well-stocked, or you're considering one more bottle to add to your collection, the easy cocktails below are your new house drinks. All of them are made with three ingredients or fewer, bitters included. Optional garnishes don't count in the three items; feel free to get fancy or skip 'em altogether, depending on what you have on hand.
Three-Ingredient Cocktails: The Spirits
If you make it with vodka, call it a Kangaroo. But other than that, this classic is pretty darn flexible. You can have it dry, making jokes about looking at a bottle of vermouth, or you can actually use a little vermouth (try a fresh bottle and you might be surprised how great it is). Or you can make your martini the way we—and many of our favorite bartenders—prefer: two parts gin to one part vermouth, stirred until well chilled. In case you're wondering, here are our thoughts on the best gin for the job.
Like vermouth, sherry is a fortified wine. But unlike vermouth, it draws its distinctiveness from the funky powers of yeast and oxidation—and the wine itself—rather than added herbs and spices. Here, dry sherry adds its characteristic saline and nutty, bright, downright savory flavors to a simple martini. It doesn't really need a garnish, but a slice of jamon Iberico plays up the savory aspect even more.
The Last Word is one of our favorite gin cocktails, but if you don't have maraschino liqueur on hand, you can still make this three-ingredient sibling. The herbal flavors of Chartreuse marry well with the botanicals in gin, and fresh lime juice makes it lively.
If you're friendly with the Martini, you might want to make the acquaintance of this drink: the Obituary starts with gin and dry vermouth, but adds in a little absinthe or pastis, for an anise flavor that brings the gin and vermouth's herbal aromatics to life.
If you're into cocktails at all, you've probably had a Negroni or twenty. You'll get the basic recipe clicking through, though you hardly need it: the drink is equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth. It's a cocktail that spawned a million easy variations, but you can also play around with the classic itself. Experiment with using a Navy-strength gin such as Perry's Tot: the boozier spirit has the muscle to grapple with the Campari. You may also want to try adjusting the ratios to your taste, or giving alternate amari like Gran Classico a try.
There's more than one way to make this sibling of the classic Negroni, and part of the fun is in the experimentation. If you can find Suze, Salers, or Bonal, those aperitifs will add a wonderful bitterness to the combo, but you can also try it with Cocchi Americano, as in this recipe. Some folks use rich, floral Lillet, while others turn to blanc/bianco vermouth. Your ratios will depend on which ingredients you choose, but tasting your way through the options is a pretty good way to spend an evening.
Yes, it's basically a Negroni adapted for your blender. But this frozen drink is so good it's worth calling out here. For the best balance when frozen, the bittersweet Campari and sweet vermouth are dialed back a bit. The key to easy hosting and a frosty drink that doesn't immediately melt all the ice in your blender? Store a batch of the cocktail in your freezer overnight.
The hardest part of making this drink is tracking down a bottle of Byrrh, but now that most top-notch liquor stores carry it, even that shouldn't be too rough. What is Byrrh, anyway? It's a richly aromatic fortified red wine that contains quinine, making the flavor akin to a light port with a mildly bitter edge. (There's coffee and bitter orange in there too—it's delicious stuff!) Try it alone, then try it this way, with a little gin and orange bitters.
Back in the 1800s, sailors with the British Navy would treat their sea sickness with Angostura bitters. Straight bitters are kind of intense, so they'd mix it with gin to help it go down easier. And so the Pink Gin was born. This brown-hued version amps up the spice a little for a citrus- and clove-scented drink that's bitter and delicious.
The Old Fashioned is one of those drinks that proves that a cocktail doesn't need to be complicated to be good. Booze, sugar, and bitters are all you need: bourbon and rye are pretty standard, but you can also experiment with other spirits, especially good aged tequila or rum. Note that this recipe keeps its distance from fussy fruit and soda water. (Still, if you slip in a Luxardo cherry and an orange peel and gently press 'em with your muddler before adding the whiskey, we won't tell.)
Benedictine is sweet and herbal, and it's wonderful with whiskey. (You can stop there: just mix a few ounces of rye with a quarter ounce of Benedictine and a dash or two of bitters for a variation on the Old Fashioned: the Benedictine replaces the simple syrup and enlivens the cocktail, adding all sorts of herbal flavors.) But if you want something a little more bright and bracing, you'll need a lemon, too. In the Frisco Sour, spicy rye stars and the Benedictine adds interest, while the citrus cuts through and keeps things dry.
It's probably the most well-known Negroni variation, but the Boulevardier deserves a spotlight of its own. This combo of whiskey with Campari and sweet vermouth is one of the most delicious simple drinks we know. Try it with both rye and bourbon and see which way you like it.
Man About Town
If I had to choose between a classic Negroni and a Boulevardier, I'd lean toward the brown-spirited one. If you feel the same way, I urge you to try this rye variation on the cocktail from Gramercy Tavern in New York. Instead of Campari, it calls for vegetal, bittersweet Cynar. It's a deep, rich drink, with a punch of rye spice and a lush, bitter finish.
Spicy rye meets sweet vermouth in this old-school cocktail; yeah, you can make it with bourbon, too, but in that case you'll want one with rye in the mashbill and a slightly higher proof. Angostura bitters bring each element together; you can garnish with a nice brandied cherry (no fluorescent red ones please!) or an aromatic lemon twist.
You don't need to use fancy (and pricey) single malt Scotch for this variation on the Manhattan; any decent blended Scotch will meld nicely with rich sweet vermouth and spicy Angostura. Not a big fan of vermouth? It could be that you've only tasted oxidized bottles. Grab a fresh one and be sure to keep it stored properly.
Ever had a Bee's Knees? It's a great simple gin sour made with honey. If you lean more toward bourbon than gin, though, give this a try: it's the same thing, more or less, but made rich with whiskey.
Have you ever tried slicing a juicy grapefruit in half, sprinkling it with sugar, and sliding it under the broiler? You end up with something tangy and bright, but also rich and caramelized—flavors we've captured in this simple drink. Even better there's no broiler work required: bourbon adds the toasty caramel notes that deepen the fresh grapefruit flavor nicely.
I'm a little obsessed with Punt e Mes, an Italian vermouth that has a streak of unrelenting bitterness along with rich winey flavors. It's great stuff on its own, so it doesn't need much to make a great mixed drink. Paired with an equal measure of high-proof bourbon, it's the easiest Manhattan variation you can make, no extra bitters required.
Knowing how to make a good margarita is an essential skill for any home drink-maker. Note: it does not start with a bottled mix. Instead, this perfectly balanced cocktail demands good blanco tequila, Cointreau, and fresh lime juice. (Some would say the salted rim is required and takes this over the three-ingredient limit, but I'd say that's up for debate.) Where's the sugar? Turns out you don't actually need any as long as you're working with good triple sec like Cointreau.
Rum and Cachaça Drinks
A little lime and sugar helps a bottle of rum shine; there's no need for any other fruit, and getting your blender involved makes an entirely different concoction. It's especially satisfying in warm weather, and can be a fabulous vehicle for exploring whatever new bottle of rum you track down.
It might seem like just a rum and Coke, but the Cuba Libre has more to offer, especially if you squeeze a lime in and then muddle the spent lime shell to get a little citrus oil in the mix. This easy drink is great with any aged rum, but it also shines with a funky, grassy rhum agricole instead.
Gotta love a simple drink that really shines. Here, you'll bring together the deep molasses flavor of dark rum (we used Coruba) with spicy-tropical Velvet Falernum and fresh lime. It's a little boozy, a little sweet, and plenty bright thanks to the lime.
Dark & Stormy
This spicy-sweet-boozy-tart drink is a vacation classic: just be sure to pick up a bunch of limes, a bottle of rich Gosling's Black Seal Rum, and some spicy ginger beer when you roll into the beach town of your choice. This version is served in pretty layers, but you'll want to stir before serving so that you don't get a mouthful of straight lime.
Turn on the samba music and break out the cachaça for this easy Brazilian drink. All you need to do is crush up some fresh lime quarters with sugar and add in the booze, then shake with ice 'til it's frosty-cold.
Lillet Blanc is a floral and citrusy aperitif that's wonderful with grapefruit; here it gets fresh juice and a little vodka to cut through the fruity flavors. Drink it with pre-dinner snacks or pair it with biscuits and marmalade at brunch.
Even if you're not a huge fan of vodka, this classic drink is worth considering for summer parties. It's a cool and crisp combo of the vodka and fresh lime, sweetened and spiced with a long pour of ginger beer. Copper mugs are the standard serving vessel, but we won't judge if you use one half of your cocktail shaker (or a regular glass.)
Why are Margaritas—just sours made with tequila, Cointreau, and lime—so much more popular than Sidecars, which are the same thing, except with cognac and lemon? We're not sure, but if you like a good Margarita, we urge you to give the brandy version a try. It's warm and mellow and delicious, especially if you use a nice cognac.
You may have heard that cognac is on the rise in the cocktail world today, but this drink is no newbie. (You could read about it back in 1862 when Jerry Thomas wrote his guide for bartenders.) The drink is rich and nutty, thanks to the mix of smooth cognac and orgeat (a tasty almond syrup), plus bitters. If you can't find orgeat near you, you can order it online or make your own at home.
Aperitifs, Amari, Sparkling Wine, and More...
Sometimes it feels like every cocktail is just a tiny variation on another. But then you come across a drink like this one, from Boston bar star Jackson Cannon, and it's like having a new category of cocktail for the very first time. Amaro Montenegro and Aperol provide a bittersweet core that extends the flavors of fresh orange juice; it's the perfect pre-dinner drink to get your appetite going. Since this isn't too high in alcohol, you might want to mix up a pitcherful.
This slightly beefier version of an Aperol Spritz is meant to be served with appetizers like cured meats and olives—so it's no surprise that an olive garnish tastes delicious between sips. Warning: this drink may leave you pining for a vacation in Italy.
Courting Two Sisters Cocktail
If you're making this drink, step one starts by examining your bottles of vermouth. If they've been around since your birthday party two years ago, step two involves dumping the contents down the drain. In a three-ingredient cocktail, you want the good, fresh stuff. (Check out this piece to find out the best way to store vermouth.) Then it all comes together: juicier red and crisper blanc vermouth, plus a touch of anise from the absinthe, mingled together and stirred till refreshingly cold. This is a great pre-dinner drink.
Sparkling Suze Cocktail
When you're trying out a new cocktail ingredient, it's nice to keep it simple so you can really get a sense of what the stuff tastes like. Suze, a bittersweet, slightly vegetal French aperitif, is practically a cocktail in a bottle, so it doesn't need much. St Germain elderflower liqueur highlights the apertif's floral side, and Cava adds a little fruity fizz.
Grapefruit and Ginger Sparkler
Hosting brunch? You could always make mimosas but this easy combo is a little more fun, doctoring up affordable bubbly (cheap-ish Prosecco, Cava, or Cremant is fine) with Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur. Fresh grapefruit juice puts its bright and bitter talents to work, preventing the balance from tipping too sweet.
Maybe you've heard the story—this drink's a bungled version of the classic, made with bittersweet Campari, rich sweet vermouth, and whoops! Prosecco instead of the gin. It's perfect for a day when you're not quite ready for stiffer spirits.
Do you like your drinks a little bitter? Then you should probably have Cynar in your home bar. You can start by subbing it into any drink that calls for Campari, or give this easy brunch drink a try. It's bright like a classic orange juice mimosa, but instead of being sweet and fruity, grapefruit and Cynar give the cocktail brightness, bitterness, and a touch of mystery.