A simple vodka sour with a hell of a reputation. This week we made The Cosmopolitan.
The story of The Cosmopolitan cocktail is similar to many classic drinks. Nobody is quite sure who invented it. Nobody is quite sure who popularised it. Its had various incarnations through the ages and it can seriously divide opinion. The latter is particularly true of this technicolour treat, which has had its fair share of controversy over the years. But when made well is all kinds of delicious. Like pretty much all drinks, to be honest. And who doesn’t want to drink something very tasty?
While there’s no certainty over when The Cosmopolitan emerged, there are five very different serves all carrying the Cosmopolitan name to be found in Pioneers of Mixing at Elite Bars, a book that dates back to 1934. One recipe, a variation of a Daisy cocktail, has a familiar blend of berry, citrus and white spirit. Ocean Spray, the cranberry juice brand, also created a drink called the ‘Harpoon’ in the late 60s that combined cranberry juice with vodka or rum, lime cordial and soda in an effort to attract adults to drink their brand. But the debate over who came up with the classic recipe of vodka, cranberry, fresh lime and Cointreau and where the name originated still goes on.
One of the widely recognised theories is that Neal Murray, a bartender at the Cork & Cleaver steakhouse in Minneapolis made the drink in the autumn of 1975. Murray combined a Cape Cod and Kamikaze, adding triple sec from the Kamikaze to vodka with cranberry and lime. A regular supposedly remarked, “How cosmopolitan” when first tasting his creation and Murray carried a business card that claimed he invented The Cosmopolitan. Another story credits Cheryl Cook, head bartender at The Strand on Washington Avenue in Miami. Cook created a cocktail based on Absolut Citron vodka after it had just launched, adding a splash of triple sec, a dash of Rose’s lime and enough cranberry juice to create a distinctive pink hue. The name came from a March 1989 copy of Cosmopolitan Magazine which featured an article on The Strand and the hostess titled ‘The Maître d’ is a Ms.’ and it’s said that Sex and the City’s costume designers Patricia Field and Rebecca Weinburg were regulars of hers.
What makes the tale of The Cosmopolitan so complex it’s not just the creator that’s up for debate, but so is the bartender responsible for cementing the cocktail’s recognised recipe and establishing its immense popularity. John Caine is often said to be that person. He came across a version of The Cosmopolitan in Cleveland at a bar called the Rusty Scuppe which was influenced by a drink popular with the gay community in the 1970s in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where a huge amount of cranberries were grown. The drink consisted of vodka, triple sec, Rose’s lime juice and a splash of Ocean Spray cranberry juice and when Caine moved to San Francisco in 1987 to work at Julie’s Supper Club, he introduced it there, where they sold like hotcakes. Caine has remarked that “people said I invented the Cosmo. I just transported it”.
Others claim that the internationally recognized version of the cocktail was created by Toby Cecchini. Cheryl Charming, author of 16 books on cocktails and bartending, found in her research that Melissa Huffsmith-Roth also played a key role in this particular story. Huffsmith-Roth learned about the drink from Patrick ‘Paddy’ Mitten, who she worked with at Life Café, Manhattan. Mitten made an interpretation that was popular in San Francisco during the late 70s and early 80s and says he served Madonna and Sarah Jessica Parker. When Huffsmith then worked at The Odeon in Manhattan in the late eighties, it’s said she altered this version while feeling experimental and used Absolut Citron as a base, Cointreau, fresh lime juice, and cranberry juice. Things become cloudy again, though, as Cecchini says that it was he who reformulated the cocktail at The Odeon after he was introduced to a drink being made with rail vodka, Rose’s lime juice and Rose’s grenadine. He then made his own spin with Absolut Citron, which he combined with cranberry juice and Margarita ingredients.
However, some credit bartender Dale DeGroff, who was described in The New York Times in 2015 as “one of the world’s foremost cocktail experts”. He came across the Cosmopolitan at the Fog City Diner in San Francisco in the early to mid-90s and created his own spin at the Rainbow Rooms, Manhattan, with the signature addition of a flamed orange twist garnish. Madonna was photographed with one there and DeGroff was mistakenly named as the man who invented the drink, despite never claiming to do so himself. In his 2002 book, The Craft of the Cocktail he clarified that he was not the inventor, but did say that he popularized a “definitive recipe that became widely accepted as the standard”. It’s very difficult to know where the credit should lie where The Cosmopolitan is concerned because there are so many competing stories, but I think it’s fair to say that most, if not all the people mentioned so far at least had some role in contributing to what the drink is today.
One thing that’s for sure, is that The Cosmopolitan’s popularity went to another level in 1998 when the HBO television series, Sex and the City debuted. It was based on the eponymous column written by Candace Bushnell in the New York Observer, who previously described Cosmopolitan as her ‘signature drink’. As Carrie Bradshaw was her alter-ego, it was only natural that she similarly imbibed. This effect propelled the Cosmopolitan to its own stardom parallel to the show and “let’s have Cosmos!” became the order of its heyday. This cultural dissemination meant the drink becoming a common sight in bars and it’s ascent coincided with the vodka-based domination of cocktail culture at the close of the 20th century.
But despite it playing its part in helping to catalyze a new age of cocktail drinking, in the new craft cocktail boom The Cosmopolitan became the kind of drink that a new wave of bartenders rallied against. Prohibition-era serves and spirit-forward drinks were preferred and pushed sweet, colourful and populist drinks to the side. The Cosmopolitan was too simple, too lacking in texture and flavour and fundamentally suffered from a lack of perceived ‘cool’ and authenticity. This was compounded by Sex and the City’s disastrous big-screen appearances. Cecchini describes becoming known among bartenders as “the asshole who invented that pink drink that we are now enslaved by”. The ‘Let’s have Cosmos’ line became a parody. Mad Men became the show to order cocktails from. Its bubblegum pop reputation has meant that The Cosmopolitan is no longer something that people order regularly, in the same way that people don’t wear double denim or listen to Billy Ray Cyrus without irony.
There’s now something of a notion that a self-respecting bartender won’t touch a Cosmopolitan. But we will. Because it’s an important part of cocktail history and a drink is ultimately about what’s in the glass. In the case of The Cosmopolitan, that’s a light, refreshing and fun serve that’s perfect right now if you want to feel a bit glamorous in the house. So, let’s make one.
The Cosmopolitan is often made with citrus vodka but I prefer using a regular vodka, which is also commonplace. When it comes to your choice of vodka, it’s worth noting that you don’t need to splash out, the trick is to economize while still using something quality. I chose Ephemeral Vodka because it’s got a clean flavour profile that’s ideal for mixing but is rich enough to still add weight and texture. I’ve also used Cointreau because there’s a reason the classics are classics, folks.
When it comes to cranberry juice, I recommend the unsweetened kind, (I’ve gone for Ocean Spray as a nod to its history with this cocktail), which makes it a slightly drier drink and the measurement provided gives the cocktail that elegant pale pink hue. If that’s not to your taste, adjust accordingly. The lime juice should be fresh, so get squeezin’. For the garnish, I just popped a lime wheel on the rim of my glass, but an orange peel or twist also works well, as does flaming them in the style of DeGroff. It’s worth filling your glass (typically a Martini glass, but you can also use a coupe or this delightful creation) with ice and water to chill it prior to making your cocktail.
If you want to experiment with different variations, you can use Absolut Citron Vodka as your base as many have before, or add some simple syrup if you’ve got a sweeter tooth (you shouldn’t need any more than 10ml). Equally, you can lengthen a Cosmo with 60ml of good Champagne and if you drop in a dash of Maraschino Liqueur to this recipe, you might just be the kind of maverick badass I can get along with. Enjoy!
45ml of Ephemeral Vodka
20ml of Cointreau
20ml of cranberry juice
20ml of fresh lime juice
Combine all ingredients in a cocktail shaker, add ice and shake until well-chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe or cocktail glass and garnish with a lime wheel.