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The five-second cocktail: Put in glass, add ice

CLEAN, bright lemons and fat green olives rest in wooden bowls beside a paring knife and cutting board. A mixing glass and coupe have chilled for hours. There is an unlimited supply of fresh, unblemished ice. With an almost contemplative intensity of focus, I make myself a martini. Someone else will do the cleaning up.

Oh, please.

If the unexamined life is not worth living, the hyper-cultivated life is entirely worth living if only to give the rest of us something to roll our eyes at. I don't have an ice maker, or anyone to clean up after me, or, when I've come home after a long day's work, the commitment that it takes to make a "proper" cocktail - especially if I've spent that long day working behind a bar, making proper cocktails for other people.

This is no time to make a fuss. It's time to take it easy.

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This doesn't mean that when I get home, I down some whiskey straight from the bottle (except maybe after a rare, spectacularly wretched day). But when I'm decompressing and starting to make dinner, I do want something almost as simple as that. Somewhere between the rote mechanics of taking a shot or pouring a glass of wine, and the rigorous rituals of cocktail-making, there is a middle path.

That path stretches out from the Mediterranean and the blessedly relaxed tradition of aperitifs - in which vermouth, too often relegated elsewhere to a supporting role, is allowed to shine. Even the really good stuff (a few Spanish bottles top my list) is pretty inexpensive, and there's always a bottle or two of it in my fridge.

My favourite five-second drink to sip while prepping dinner is a spritzer - sweet vermouth topped up with seltzer - that tastes like the best soft drink ever.

Vermouth's alcohol content is low enough to let me concentrate on cooking, but it still takes the edge off. And vermouth is endlessly adaptable. It's delicious on the rocks, all by itself. Or with tonic. Sometimes I squeeze in some citrus juice - lemon or orange or grapefruit - or just let a chunky wedge of fruit sink into the glass. I might toss in a few green olives. It's fine to use tonic instead of seltzer - or, within reason, whatever weird flavour of LaCroix you've got.

If I want it stronger, I'll add gin. And if that's still not strong enough, I am content to be careless with a classic cocktail.

Easiest of all is the old-fashioned. Behind the bar I might make a great show of muddling and stirring. At home, I don't bother. Whiskey, bitters and sugar taste delicious together. I put them in a glass, with ice, and do nothing. This is the laziest old-fashioned I know, and I drink it with immense, indolent pleasure.

Lazy Old-Fashioned

1 scant teaspoon sugar (I like brown sugar, but use what you've got); a few dashes of Angostura or orange bitters;

2 ounces bourbon or rye whiskey.

Put the sugar in the bottom of an old-fashioned glass. Douse it with the bitters. Add ice and pour in the whiskey.

Vermouth Spritz

2 ounces sweet vermouth; 4 ounces soda water; wedge of citrus or olives, for garnish (optional).

Fill a highball or large wine glass with ice. Add the vermouth and top up with the soda water. Garnish, if desired, with a fat wedge of lemon or orange or grapefruit, and/or a nice olive or two. Want something stronger? Add a slug of gin. NYTIMES