John deBary is a New York City bartender, writer and consultant with more than a decade of experience working in award-winning bars and restaurants. He is the CEO and founder of Proteau, a line of zero-proof botanical drinks, and is also the co-founder and board president of Restaurant Workers’ Community Foundation, an advocacy and grantmaking organization dedicated to improving quality of life for workers in the hospitality industry. He published his first book, "Drink What You Want: The Subjective Guide to Objectively Delicious Cocktails" in 2020.
As a bartender, I’ve always believed in the nobility of restraint. Allow a drink’s constituent parts to speak for themselves, and more often than not, the result is something streamlined and beautiful. Get buried beneath a blizzard of baroque ingredients, and chances are your creation will be more cartoon than cocktail.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. There has been a quiet shift in the last couple of years away from over-the-top drink making. Author Robert Simonson’s latest book, “3-Ingredient Cocktails,” provides a thoughtful argument for the beauty of simplicity: “One ingredient, you’ve got a nice dram. Two, you’ve got a highball. Get three things to marry together, you’ve likely got a cocktail on your hands. More than three, and you’ve got a more complicated cocktail, not necessarily a better one.”
Cocktails with more than five ingredients, argues Simonson, are generally the result of the creator hoping to cover up something that’s lacking in the drink’s original concept or component liquids.
But if a cocktail has three ingredients, or 12, what does that really matter in the ultimate quest for deliciousness? As I dive deeper into my own thinking on the issue, a few key questions emerge:
Is Simplicity a Smokescreen for Laziness?
I totally agree with Simonson’s assertion that more ingredients usually signal a lack of focus and overreliance on Band-Aids. I like to think of myself as a proponent of minimalism, but I sometimes worry whether I’ve used it as a substitute for lack of vision. I wonder how many times I’ve created a drink that relies on a simple structure and familiar ingredients, declared it “fine” and moved on with my life.
Perhaps my most famous drink is the Shark, and it has more than nine ingredients, including buttered rum, cream, blue curaçao and Frangelico. It came about because I wanted to make a nutty, gonzo Tiki drink for PDT’s fall menu in NYC. It took weeks of R&D and countless iterations—a painstaking process of making sure that each ingredient, down to the umbrella-on-a-lemon-wheel garnish, was vital.
What Does Less Really Mean?
A lot of drinks fail because they’re overloaded with ideas more than ingredients. I want to make a variation on a Daiquiri mixed with a Manhattan that reminds me of summer camp is a terrible idea for a cocktail. But I want to make a drink that tastes like the beach is elegant and workable, even though it may evoke a large, perhaps infinite, number of flavors.
If someone comes to me with a drink concept that isn’t working, I usually diagnose the problem as having too many competing ideas crammed into one glass. I work with the bartender in identifying the most conceptually robust theme, and it’s from there that we build the cocktail. Just because a drink has a simple recipe doesn’t mean the ideas behind it are simplistic. Successful cocktails are usually so because of the clarity of their concept, not necessarily their ingredient count.
How Should We Define “Ingredient”?
Example: A Negroni made with Monkey 47 gin, with its eponymous 47 botanicals, does not have more ingredients than a Negroni made with Tanqueray, which has four. But why not? In cocktailing, we often choose certain building blocks over others because of their own subingredients.
In making a smoky Rob Roy, I’d reach reach for an Islay scotch over something unpeated. I’d probably get weird looks if I tried to claim that the Islay-based Rob Roy had more ingredients than another, though there’s something added there—I’ve increased the conceptual complexity while the structural simplicity of the Rob Roy remains unchanged. So are ingredient counts an arbitrary restriction reserved for, as cocktail historian David Wondrich explained to me on Twitter, the occasional competition or impromptu challenge, or do they help us foster creativity within boundaries?
As you can see, these questions are frustratingly complex, if not unanswerable. With this in mind, I conducted an unscientific poll of my fellow bar industry professionals. The results were far from definitive, with a gentle consensus that less is certainly more—unless it’s not.
Matthew Belanger, the head bartender at Death & Co in New York City, says, “Less is definitely more.” He observes a trend toward doubling down on ingredient counts, which he attributes in part to Tiki’s influence on the broader cocktail scene. “Some folks are able to balance these types of drinks, but the end result is always muddy and indeterminate.
“Thankfully, it seems like this trend is rolling back a bit as people check in with their palates and realize that simpler, more artful flavor combinations beat out throwing a dozen slightly related ingredients together for the sake of complexity,” adds Belanger.
Austin Hennelly, the head bartender at Majordomo in Los Angeles, has a more nuanced perspective. When concepting a cocktail, he asks himself: What’s the point of this drink? He then makes sure every ingredient is subordinate to that. “This usually means less is more,” he says. “But sometimes that extra ingredient brings the subject into sharper focus.”
Gabriella Mlynarczyk, the head bartender at Los Angeles’ Accomplice, author of “Clean + Dirty Drinking” and blogger of Loving Cup, also tailors her approach to the individual needs of the drink. “If the cocktail I’m making has delicate flavors, I try to edit down rather than make a grand statement,” she says. “I go the opposite route if I’m making a fun Tiki-style drink, though. You can get away with “more is more” and play with irony.
Speaking of irony, I was assigned this story at 600 words. Yet here we are, cresting at the 1,000-word mark, and I’m no closer to finding an answer: Are simple cocktails better?
One thing I do know is that we don’t always have the luxury of concision when pursuing our passions. The journey can be sprawling and messy, the results imperfect. And just because something is simple doesn’t mean it can’t possess layers of complexity, each subject to its own interpretation. Simplicity for simplicity’s sake is dogma. But simplicity in the pursuit of something elegant, something clean—now that I can sip on.