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How many cocktails can you create with just three spirits and a limited array of mixers? Dozens, but here are our stellar six.


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For newcomers building a spirits collection, the liquor store can seem like a daunting place. And even hard-bitten cocktailians who plan a holiday party are faced with budgetary and logistical issues. How many bottles does one really need to shine as a mixology maestro? So many spirits and brands beckon—is it possible to pare down the list to a carefully chosen few?

We tried an experiment: With three basic spirits, how many cocktails could be made? This question was posed to Damon Boelte, head bartender at Prime Meats in Brooklyn, New York, and host of “The Speakeasy” podcast on Heritage Radio Network. The challenge: with access to just three spirits bottles, suggest six great drinks.

Boelte gave us 20.

Given free reign to choose the spirits, Boelte selected Bourbon, gin and Campari. Why? In a word, versatility. “It’s cool how many things you can do with just the essentials,” Boelte says.

To these three spirits, he experimented with sweeteners; acids like citrus; bitters; and elements like carbonation and infusions to change up textures and flavors. Vermouth (fortified wine, not technically a spirit) was allowed, as were sparkling wines.

To illustrate what can be done with a limited spirits palette, Boelte wrote down his three spirit choices and started to jot down drink names. “See, a Negroni is made with gin and Campari,” he says, drawing a line from the drink name to each of the spirits it contains. “The Old Pal uses Bourbon and Campari.” He dashed two more lines. Within minutes, a complex crosshatch of lines spiderwebbed the page, like a demented family tree.

If you don’t have these spirits on hand, don’t despair. Instead of Bourbon, try another brown spirit, like rye whiskey or even brandy. In the gin family, experiment with crisp London Dry and sweeter Old Tom styles, or genever. In a pinch, a citrusy vodka can be used, too. And while the bitter flavor of Campari stands out, consider swapping in the gentler bittersweet notes of Aperol or even the floral St-Germain liqueur. What you’ll get may not be a classic cocktail, but you may be pleasantly surprised by the drink in hand nevertheless.

The drinks on the following pages are intended as templates for creating drinks, not hard-and-fast rules. Simple variations on some recipes have been suggested. Renegade recipe tweaking is thoroughly encouraged.

For example, in place of sugar, consider simple syrups (sugar and water, boiled until reduced to a viscous consistency), honey, agave nectar, maple syrup, jams and jellies, sweet liqueurs like triple sec, various fruit juice, purées, sweetened sodas and mixers, even sugar substitutes like Truvia. All can be used to provide sweetness to a drink.

Similarly, citrus, particularly lemon and lime, are noted for their tart, sour and acidic properties. They balance out sweetness and can add flavor of their own. Other acids include vinegars and gastriques. Even white wines like Sauvignon Blanc can be used.

“A lot of people don’t realize what they have in their pantry,” Boelte says. “They’ve stared at it a billion times, but don’t think of it as something to mix in a drink.”

Effervescent elements are a perfect example. Boelte ticks off on his fingers various bubblies to mix with any of his three chosen spirits: soda, tonic, ginger ale and ginger beer. “Ginger beer plus Bourbon and lemon—that’s a Horse’s Neck,” he says, referring to the classic cocktail distinguished by a long, elegant peel of lemon that’s draped over the edge of the glass, resembling the curve of a horse’s neck.
However, even Boelte has his limits. “No Coke, please.”

The Bottles:

Bourbon: Although the versatile and reasonably priced Buffalo Trace is an excellent choice for blending into cocktails, consider how you want to use it in drinks. For example, rye heavy Bulleit Bourbon works well for classic cocktails that usually feature rye.

Gin: Crisp London Dry gin is the standard for most drinks, such as those made by Bombay, Tanqueray or Beefeater. But the softer Plymouth or sweeter Old Tom style gin (such as Hayman’s Old Tom, relatively new to the market) can also yield pleasing results. It’s all a matter of personal taste.

Campari: There’s no exact substitute for this bitter, brightly hued apéritif. However, try experimenting with other Italian liqueurs with a similarly bitter profile, like the grapefruit-like Aperol or the floral St-Germain.

The Drinks:

Old Pal

This classic cocktail is traditionally made with rye whiskey, though a rye-heavy Bourbon, such as Bulleit or Elijah Craig, provides an equally pleasing effect.

1½ ounces rye-heavy Bourbon, such as Bulleit Bourbon
¾ ounce dry vermouth
¾ ounce Campari

In a mixing glass, stir together all ingredients with ice. Strain into a coupe glass.


Negroni

According to legend, this classic apéritif cocktail was created in 1919 when Italian Count Camillo Negroni asked a Florence bartender to add gin to his Americano. Opt for a London Dry gin, such as Beefeater.

¾ ounce London Dry gin, such as Beefeater 24
¾ ounce Campari
¾ ounce sweet or dry vermouth
Cold club soda (optional)
Lemon twist, for garnish

Stir gin, Campari and vermouth with ice. Strain into a cocktail glass. Alternatively, this drink can be built in an Old Fashioned glass with ice cubes and served on the rocks. Garnish with a lemon twist.


Tom Collins

Cool and crisp, Tom is the most popular member of the Collins family, dating back to the 19th century. Old Tom gin is the traditional choice, but until recently it was hard to find, so this drink is frequently made with London Dry gin. Adding lime in place of lemon creates a Gin Rickey. Alternatively, Bourbon can be substituted in for gin to create a Bourbon Collins.

2 ounces gin, such as Hayman’s Old Tom gin
1 ounce fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon superfine sugar
Cold club soda
Lemon wheel, to garnish
Maraschino cherry, to garnish

In a Collins glass, combine the gin, lemon juice, sugar and cracked ice. Stir briefly and top with club soda. Garnish with lemon wheel and cherry. Serve with a stirrer or a straw.


Gimlet

Calling all Mad Men fanatics! This simple, yet elegant British classic enjoyed a mid-century revival in America. The colder it’s served, the better. If a half-ounce of dry vermouth is used in place of the cordial, that’s a classic dry martini. Add a cocktail onion as garnish and presto, you now have a Gibson.

2 ounces London Dry gin, such as Bombay Sapphire
2/3 ounce Rose’s lime juice cordial

In a cocktail shaker, combine ingredients with ice. Shake vigorously and strain into a martini glass.


Strawberry Smash
 

An original recipe by Damon Boelte, with roots in the Bourbon Smash, a classic cocktail.

2 lumps of sugar
1 strawberry
3-4 lemon wedges
5 mint leaves
2 ounces Bourbon, such as Buffalo Trace
2 dashes Fee Brothers whiskey barrel-aged bitters
1 lemon wedge, for garnish
Mint sprig, for garnish

Muddle sugar, strawberry, lemon wedges and mint leaves in a rocks glass. Add ice, Bourbon and bitters—either toss or stir all ingredients. Garnish with lemon wedge and mint sprig.


100 Years

This original recipe from Damon Boelte riffs on the classic combination of chamomile tea with honey.

1½ ounces chamomile tea-infused Bourbon*
½ ounce honey
5 dashes Bitter Truth lemon bitters
5 dashes Angostura bitters
Champagne

Stir all ingredients with ice except Champagne. Strain into a flute glass, top with Champagne and garnish with lemon twist.
The fastest way to infuse Bourbon: Dunk a teabag in hot water for about 10 seconds, squeeze off any excess water, then set the teabag in 1 cup of Bourbon for a few minutes. Remove the teabag and discard.


Party Time:

Experimenting with drinks for just a couple of people is one thing. But for entertaining on a larger scale, a little advance planning means you can enjoy the party, too.

Consider batching together ingredients ahead of time (everything but ice, which will water down drinks). When guests have arrived, that’s the time for showing off your skills with the cocktail shaker, chilling drinks to instant perfection.

Fancy ice can be made days, even weeks, ahead of a party. Invest in silicone ice molds to freeze perfect spheres or other shapes. You can also fill a standard ice tray halfway with water, and after it freezes, lay a clean flower petal, mint leaf or piece of fruit on top. Then add more water and freeze again for a beautiful effect. Or consider making flavored and colored ice with fruit juice or Peychaud’s bitters mixed with water.

Don’t skip the wow factor of garnishes. Wind long strips of lemon peel around toothpicks for graceful spirals later; spear olives for martinis or fruit for tropical tipples; cut sprigs of mint or other herbs, and store them upright in water like a bouquet.

For more cocktail ideas using these three bottles, click here.

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