Kelly Puleio

"Just as a plain baguette can signal the prowess of a baker, or an omelet the skill of a chef, simple cocktails leave a bartender with nowhere to hide."

Carey Jones
March 06, 2018

Some of the most celebrated cocktail books of the last few years have been the work of influential cocktail barsPDT, Death & Co., and The Dead Rabbit, just to name a few. 

Yet the average at-home bartender will never attempt a single concoction in their pages. Even an accomplished hobbyist is unlikely to have the necessary arsenal of bitters and modifiers on-hand — let alone the patience to create custom syrups when a recipe only calls for, say, half an ounce of them. 

Good thing many a recent cocktail book bucks this trend entirely. Rather than intricate mixologist creations, each one focuses on a simpler style of bartending — paring down ingredients, limiting complicated recipes, and, generally, attempting to meet the home bartender at his or her level. In a field with a reputation for being out of touch, the new wave of cocktail books welcoming simplicity is a welcome development.

“If you're just getting started stocking your bar, I don't want you to spend $100 on ingredients for a drink!” says Maggie Hoffman, author of The One-Bottle Cocktail: More than 80 Recipes with Fresh Ingredients and a Single Spirit, which comes out today. “I want people to be able to try making cocktails — real, complex-tasting cocktails — without having to spend a ton.” 

Each recipe in The One-Bottle Cocktail, drawn from professional mixologists around the country, uses only a single spirit — vodka, say, or gin or tequila — and grocery-store ingredients. No liqueurs, no supporting spirits. Whereas even a comparatively simple bar cocktail might contain spirits, vermouth, and bitters, such drinks are off-limits in Hoffman’s text: One bottle, that’s it. 

Kelly Puleio

The challenge is to create complex flavors without the usual roster of bitters and liqueurs to contribute depth and nuance — not just “spiked lemonade,” as Hoffman puts it. The book’s cocktails are unusual and compelling, with unexpected ingredients such as balsamic vinegar, Sichuan peppercorns, carrots, even radicchio making appearances. 

“I'll happily go out for a drink made with four different liqueurs and vermouth and sherry and Madeira and unusual tinctures and butterfly pea flower and smoke and fireworks,” Hoffman says. But such drinks should remain at the bar.

That’s a sentiment shared by Robert Simonson, author of 3-Ingredient Cocktails: An Opinionated Guide to the Most Enduring Drinks in the Cocktail Canon. 

“I own a great many beautiful-looking cocktail books from recent years,” he says. “They remain in relatively pristine condition, because I’ve attempted maybe three or four recipes from each. It’s the same with cookbooks from famous chefs and restaurants. They are nice documents, interesting to read and page through. But if I want those dishes and cocktails, I’ll go to the restaurant or bar in question.”

While Hoffman’s book highlights modern-day recipes, Simonson’s 3-Ingredient Cocktails serves as a reminder that most classics today’s bartenders venerate are, at heart, simple drinks. “If the original Manhattan had required seven ingredients,” he says, “it probably would have remained a quirkily regional drink favored by a few New York clubs and bars.”

Calling it “a good introductory book with a low intimidation factor,” Simonson includes many classics (Martinis, Sidecars, the Jack Rose) as well as more recent bartender inventions, which also abide by the three-ingredient formula. 

From the mixologist’s perspective, it can be far harder to invent a perfect three-ingredient cocktail than a more intricate one. Just as a plain baguette can signal the prowess of a baker, or an omelet the skill of a chef, simple cocktails leave a bartender with nowhere to hide. 

Still, from the perspective of the person actually making the drink, there’s less to buy, less to measure, less to worry about. “It lets home bartenders know that dozen of good cocktails are within their grasp,” says Simonson, “with only a few ingredients on hand, and an attainable level of mixing skill.”

Kara Newman has long emphasized accessibility in her cocktail books, including Shake. Stir. Sip.: More than 50 Effortless Cocktails Made in Equal Parts and the more recent Road Soda: Recipes and Techniques for Making Great Cocktails, Anywhere

In the former book, every recipe’s ingredients appear in equal parts, simplifying the measurements considerably.  “When I realized that equal-parts drinks existed,” she says, “like the Negroni, or the 50-50 Martini — and that so many of them existed — it was a revelation.”

“You almost don't even need a recipe. They're easy to remember, easy to make, easy to scale up when you're making more than one. The simplicity is definitely part of the appeal.” 

Road Soda is a fun, irreverent guide to on-the-road cocktails — with some drinks optimized for airplanes or hotel rooms, and all drinks sharing a stripped-down, dead-simple approach. There’s no room for unnecessary ingredients if you’re throwing together a quick drink on the road.   

Simpler cocktail books, Newman believes, aren’t just more accessible for the novice — they’re also more likely to get used by bartenders of any skill level. “The drinks you'll return to over and over again are the ones that are straightforward and work. At home, it's definitely about straightforward drinks — something fun but reliable to serve when you're entertaining, something not too taxing to make and enjoy at home after a long day.”  

A decade ago, mixology was still something of a niche interest. The same can hardly be said today, with impressive cocktail bars now established across the country, and new restaurants often creating ambitious cocktail lists themselves. 

The readers experimenting with cocktails at home, in turn, are no longer just the mixology obsessives. They’re everyday drinkers, of all ages, simply looking to craft a tasty drink, rather than emulate cutting-edge cocktail bar creations. 

“Consumers are more educated about drinks than ever before,” Newman says; they have high standards, even for comparatively simple drinks. '"Simple’ doesn't mean dumbed-down.”