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22 Mar 2019

On Cocktails: It's Worth Getting to Know These Classic Drinks That All Use Equal Parts of Four Ingredients

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The Last Word. The Last Word. Kevin Carlow

Four is a magic number …

OK, I know that isn’t how the song goes, but when it comes to cocktails, some of the most popular drinks use equal parts of four ingredients. When using the right ingredients, the resulting drink can be well-balanced like a properly made table, while using the wrong ones will give you a figurative pile of lumber.

It’s important to have a few of these in your cocktail portfolio, to experiment with and maybe even make into your own modern classic! So just in time for the fourth month of the year, here are some of the most popular classics and modern classics using four ingredients in equal measure.

While its name suggests I should end with it, I will start with the Last Word, since in the early days of my discovering well-made cocktails, it was a favorite. It’s a bit of a tell that someone is sticking their toes in the world of craft for the first time, so to speak, if they order a Last Word. This isn’t to suggest it’s a beginners’ cocktail, though. The unlikely combination of gin, green Chartreuse, Luxardo maraschino liqueur and lime juice is a bold and funky mix of aggressive flavors. According to David Wondrich in Imbibe!, the recipe shows up in 1915 on the menu of the Detroit Athletic Club, and is attributed to monologist and vaudevillian Frank Farrell. This blast from the past is a pricey home cocktail to make, though; expect the ingredients to run just less than $150 total—and your guests will certainly drink you out of them once they get a taste!

  • 1 ounce of gin
  • 1 ounce of Chartreuse, green
  • 1 ounce of Luxardo maraschino
  • 1 ounce of lime juice

Shake with ice and strain into a chilled cocktail glass; garnish with a cherry if desired.

Another classic that uses four equal parts of ingredients (plus a dash of absinthe, but who’s counting?) is the ever-popular Corpse Reviver No. 2 from The Savoy Cocktail Book. Inventor Harry Craddock states that “four of these in swift succession will unrevive the corpse again!” True. Bear in mind the Kina Lillet in the recipe would have been more bitter than Lillet Blanc that most people now use in it, so you can use Kina L’Aero D’Or or Cocchi Americano instead for a more accurate reproduction. Feel free to use Curacao instead of the triple sec for a richer drink.

  • 1 ounce of dry gin
  • 1 ounce of triple sec (Craddock used Cointreau)
  • 1 ounce of Kina Lillet (see above)
  • 1 ounce of lemon juice

Shake; strain into a cocktail glass that has been rinsed or spritzed with absinthe, lightly. No garnish needed, but some people like a cherry or lemon zest.

Another cocktail with which I was enamored in my early days of drinking, and which has undergone many strange and complicated iterations over the years, is the Singapore Sling. While the Raffles Hotel in Singapore gets the attention for this one, Wondrich points out in Imbibe! that the drink was ubiquitous in Singapore years before the hotel claims it was created there. Ignore all the other recipes you see in cocktail books; the real McCoy is equal parts of the four ingredients. Feel free to adjust the proportions to your preferences as you go, of course.

  • 1 ounce of gin
  • 1 ounce of Cherry Heering
  • 1 ounce of Benedictine
  • 1 ounce of lime juice

Build this one in a tall glass; add soda or mineral water, and stir gently.

Being a sling, it’s going to need some bitters as well; I like four to six dashes of Angostura. No garnish needed, but a cherry flag is fun, and traditionalists like a spiral cut lime zest.

Now onto a couple of “modern classics” that I frequently make behind the bar, starting with the Paper Plane. Sam Ross invented this one just more than 10 years ago in New York, and it quickly became a “must-know” drink if your establishment attracts cocktail nerds.

  • 1 ounce of bourbon
  • 1 ounce of Amaro Nonino
  • 1 ounce of Aperol
  • 1 ounce of lemon juice

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass; no garnish is necessary, but I usually use an orange zest. Don’t skimp on the expensive Nonino! Although this drink can be made with, say, Averna, it won’t be the same.

You can see the pattern developing here: one part of a strong spirit, two parts of liqueur, and one part of citrus. This becomes a template for creative substitution, or in bartender parlance, “Mr. Potato Head” cocktails.

Next up is the Naked and Famous. Joaquin Simó, who came up with this one while at New York’s Death and Co., calls it “the bastard child of a classic Last Word and a Paper Plane, conceived in the mountains of Oaxaca,” according to a feature online in Imbibe magazine.

  • 1 ounce of mezcal
  • 1 ounce of Chartreuse, yellow
  • 1 ounce of Aperol
  • 1 ounce of lime

This one can also be made as a mezcal Paper Plane just by subbing the spirits, but the lime and yellow Chartreuse pair better with mezcal, so it’s worth doing it this way. Although Simó made it with Del Maguey Single Village Chichicapa mezcal, that’s a pricey ingredient that’s better enjoyed neat, in my opinion. Any decent mezcal will do.

This little list is by no means exhaustive, and I know I am leaving some people’s favorites out (looking at you, Blood and Sand!), but I chose these ones specifically for their particular balance and widespread appeal. They are also the drinks that people like the most at cocktail parties in my experience, especially the Corpse Reviver No. 2 and the Paper Plane. As a bonus, the recipes are easy to remember and measure. You don’t even need a jigger, really—just a small shot glass or anything like it will do in a pinch!

So, yes, four is a magic number—when it comes to cocktails, at least.

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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