Life is complicated. Cocktails don’t have to be.
At Chicago’s Charcoal Bar, Matthew Lipsky practices the kind of precise, method-driven cocktail-making refined by bartenders in Japan. Having created a drinks selection that leans toward the complex—a recent menu included cocktails flavored with smoked sugar, arctic cloudberries and nigori saké—Lipsky might seem an unlikely candidate for an exercise in simplicity, but he was eager to participate. “I love making the classics correctly—these drinks have been around for 150 years for a reason,” he says. Lipsky says simple drinks offer the potential for a kind of austere excellence, and creating a well-honed cocktail with minimal ingredients requires a focus on precision. “The quality is in the details,” he says. “For a simple drink with few ingredients, you have to be very detail-oriented to get it to come out better than average.”
Tools: shaker, strainer, fine strainer
Combine ingredients in a shaker and fill with ice cubes. Shake until chilled, about 10 seconds; fine-strain into a chilled coupe.
A veteran of the San Francisco cocktail bastions Bourbon & Branch and Rickhouse, Erick Castro recently relocated to San Diego to open Polite Provisions, a bar that celebrates cocktail culture along with the classic soda fountain experience. Though accustomed to working in some of the country’s more adventurous bars, Castro says he’s an advocate of keeping drinks simple. “I’m a believer that the more ingredients you add to a cocktail, the more likely it’ll be good, but the less likely it’ll be great,” he says, noting that complicated drinks are easier to craft than simple cocktails, as additional ingredients can cover up mistakes. “You need to keep the drinks simple, where all the ingredients are allowed to shine,” he says.
Tools: shaker, muddler, strainer, fine strainer
Place the orange slices in the shaker and gently mash with a muddler or wooden spoon. Add the remaining ingredients and fill with ice cubes; shake until chilled, about 10 seconds. Fine-strain into a rocks glass filled with fresh ice; garnish.
Australian barman Naren Young is an increasingly familiar presence at craft bars across the country. He oversees the cocktail program at New York’s Saxon & Parole, Madam Geneva, The Daily and Public, as well as Napa, California's The Thomas. Young is comfortable working with a mighty inventory of bespoke and boutique ingredients, making cocktails with as many as eight elements, and he admits that designing a simple, original drink can be daunting. “It’s often harder to think about what to leave out of a drink than what to put in,” he says. For the High Noon, he selected four ingredients that have a natural affinity for each other and mixed them into a bold-flavored combination. The peppery snap of blanco tequila is soothed by the sweetness of triple sec, while Campari gives the drink a brusque bitterness, and pink grapefruit brightens the mix.
Tools: shaker, strainer, fine strainer
Combine ingredients in a shaker and fill with ice cubes; shake until chilled, about 10 seconds. Fine-strain into a chilled coupe; garnish.
Unlike the drinks on the menu at Teardrop Lounge, Daniel Shoemaker’s mixological powerhouse in Portland, our list of permitted ingredients did not include small-batch cordials, fig-balsamic gastrique or caraway-black pepper shrub. But despite his tendencies to use such distinctive ingredients to create ambitious flavor combinations, Shoemaker was undeterred by our request for something simple. He selected Italian vermouth and orange liqueur for their sweet richness, and a blended scotch (Shoemaker recommends Famous Grouse) for smoky complexity; tonic water performs a double role as both bittering agent and brightener. It’s an unlikely combination, but Shoemaker specializes in unpredictable deliciousness. “The drink is easy, straightforward, and what I like to call eminently quaffable,” he says.
Fill a rocks glass with ice cubes and add the first three ingredients; stir to combine. Add the tonic water and lightly stir again; garnish.