Monday, May 31, 2010

Revisiting the Cosmopolitan

The Cosmopolitan looks fabulous against a city skyline.

Although we are the first to admit that we do not drink them very often, Cosmopolitans are here to stay. If you don’t know what a Cosmopolitan is, you are either under ten years old or you eschew all forms of media, in which case you wouldn’t be reading this now. (And if you are under ten, please stop reading this and go pour yourself a glass of organic, farmers-market milk.)

The Cosmopolitan, that pink-hued slightly sweet, slightly tart cocktail, started popping up in bars on the Coasts in the late 80s, gained momentum in the early 90s, and skyrocketed to cocktail hall of fame in the late 90s. Made superfamous by Carrie, Amanda, Charlotte, and Samantha (if you don’t know who they are, then you are lost), it became the drink in the early 00s, at least until the Mojito came along to usurp that title. As with all trendy things, like Merlot and leg warmers, the Cosmopolitan would peak, then become the butt of jokes. Those hangers on who don’t follow trends would have to take their Cosmopolitan tippling to the closet. But don’t hate on the Cosmopolitan. It’s actually a perfectly balanced drink, when made properly, and is light and refreshing—ideal for a late spring night on the terrace. It won’t get you stupid (unless you keep drinking them, of course).

Prompted by a recent night out with our friends Daniel and Matt during which Daniel ordered a Cosmopolitan and drank it with un-ironic gusto, we decided to reinvestigate the rise and fall and nascent comeback of the drink that defined an era. When researching trends, it’s important to understand the current zeitgeist, which right now seems to be channeling the 90s, so the Cosmo is the ideal drink to vet at the moment. (You know a cocktail has reached international status when its name has a shortening.) Who better than to know a thing or two about a Cosmopolitan than Dale DeGroff, one of the most celebrated bartenders of our age. We consulted his Craft of the Cocktail and read the recipe. We didn’t have the traditional citron lemony-flavored vodka that most recipes deem necessary; instead, we substituted Stoli Oranj (we used that for a signature-cocktail commission so we had a lot left) figuring orange-flavored vodka would be close enough. We always have some Cointreau on our shelves, which is traditional, well-balanced in terms of sweet and bitter, and preferred by DeGroff.* The other two key ingredients in the Cosmopolitan are cranberry and lime juices. We always have fresh limes on hand, but what about cranberry juice? This is a common enough juice, but which one should you get? Instead of sugar-added or high-fructose corn syrup–fueled cranberry juice, we always opt for those that are made “with no sugar added,” which is plenty sweet for this drink if you ask us.** We shook it all up and after sipping them from cocktail glasses decided we would bump up the lime juice and Cointreau to provide more sweet-and-sour flavors. This would stand up to any food we would decide to pair them with at a later date.

The funny thing about experiments, usually someone else has detected shifts in the zeitgeist and is performing the same experiment as well. Take the morning after our Cosmopolitan. We received an e-mail from Rachel Van Dolsen, with Nike Communications, imploring us to make one of these pink beauties. After all, Dale DeGroff made these in the early 90s for Madonna and her entourage at the Rainbow Room. Well, how coincidental was that? But reading her e-mail further, we noticed that Dale’s recipe for the Cosmopolitan differed from the one we imbibed the night before. A quick e-mail to Rachel and a just-as-quick reply revealed that the recipe in the book was in fact Dale’s original recipe. But like all evolved and evolving artists, Dale changed his recipe, adjusting his ratios to perhaps satisfy his ever-evolving palate. Or maybe to adjust to current, more discerning tastes? Perhaps he felt this shift in the air and needed to appease the crowds who were growing weary of Cosmos night after night.

So, what turned people off of the Cosmo? Perhaps it was the ubiquity. Carrie Bradshaw (the Carrie from the first paragraph) in Sex and the City (the movie) stopped drinking them “because everyone else started,” suggesting that once New Yorkers witness the viral spread of their trends, they seek something else to bewitch them. Another reason may be its association with the female sex. After all, Carrie and her playmates ordered them for six seasons on Sex and the City, but I can’t remember any straight man ordering one on that show. This can definitely turn off a lot of guys who aren’t comfortable with their own sexuality or secure in their masculinity. So you can see why ordering a pink drink would certainly send these gentlemen into fits of self-doubt, as if Delilah came along and snipped the locks from Samson’s head, or Superman encountered some Kryptonite while trying to pick up a coworker from the Daily Planet on an after-work happy hour. But New York is now populated by guys and gals who are redefining society, in which gender and sexuality are more fluid, less reliant on labels. Pink is just a color instead of a marker.

The history of the Cosmopolitan is legendary, shrouded in controversy regarding its provenance. Is it possible that bartenders across the country in such disparate locations as Provincetown, Minneapolis, San Francisco, and South Beach created the progenitor Cosmo in vacuums, independently of one another? If we scour the Internet and read cocktail-history books, we discover that men and women behind the stick began experimenting with 1986’s new crop of citrus-flavored vodka, creating drinks that immediately piqued the palates of bar crawlers across this land. It was bound to happen. Just imagine being a bartender and all anyone asks you for is a vodka tonic or a shot that taste like Mom’s apple pie and is sickeningly sweet. As far as we’re concerned a shot’s good for one thing: getting you drunk. So if you’re a creative person and your creativity is only coming out in the form of one-gulp shots with inappropriate names, you might satisfy your yen for mixology by shaking up a new cocktail with those flavored vodkas on hand.

Regardless of these seemingly independent mixologists, we like to think that Toby Cecchini, while tending bar at Manhattan’s Odeon in the late 80s, felt the tremors of the mixological zeitgeist and crystallized the drink into what we know today. To us, evolution seems to be the winning ticket in explaining the genesis of the Cosmo. As in life, evolution is a natural progression, and the Cosmopolitan survives to this day because it is in fact one of the fittest drinks around. It appeals to our innate need for balance: the lime juice is sour, the Cointreau sweet, the cranberry juice adds sweet and tart. It’s as if spring and the coming warmer months kiss your lips with each sip.

So regardless of your gender and sexuality, or how close you follow trends, come out and enjoy the sensations of the drink that defined a decade. The Cosmopolitan. We’re certain you’ll rediscover its positive attributes. And it goes with just about every little salty noshy nibbly you can imagine. Can that be a bad thing?

(adapted by Cocktail Buzz)

1 1/2 ounces citrus vodka in any combination
3/4 ounce Cointreau (preferred, but you can try another triple sec)*
1/2 ounce fresh lime juice
1 ounce cranberry juice (with no sugar added, preferably)**
orange peel, as garnish (or orange wheel or lime wheel, whatever you’re craving)

Shake in ice for 15 seconds. Strain into chilled cocktail glass. Add garnish. Remember now why you drank them?

photos © Steve Schul, Cocktail Buzz

* Orange liqueurs are numerous and they all have unique flavor profiles. If you don’t have any Cointreau (40% abv [alcohol by volume]), which is a truly incredible product that beautifuly balances the bitterness and sweetness inherent in oranges, you can try substituting other triple secs such as Combier Liqueur d’Orange (a brighter orange flavor at 40% abv) or, say, an inexpensive one such as Hiram Walker (lighter—you can even choose the proof of this triple sec—they have one at 30% abv and one at 15%).

** No sugar added implies that the cranberry juice with be extremely tart, but this is not the case because most cranberry juices have other naturally sweet fruit juices added, such as pear, white grape, and apple, or a combination thereof.


  1. The pre-Prohibition Cosmopolitan is also worth a try (its in a book of recipes collected between 1903 and 1933, so it could be Prohibition but made in Europe). Gin instead of citron vodka, raspberry syrup instead of cranberry juice for color, and lemon instead of lime (Cointreau is the 4th ingredient in both drinks).

  2. Thanks for the info and the link, Frederic. We'll give it a go! Cheers!


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