The Basics History & Trends

The History and Secrets of the Cosmopolitan

Cosmopolitan illustration

Justin Shiels

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For such a pretty little drink, the Cosmopolitan has become the most maligned millennial of its generation—ubiquitous, utterly uninteresting and possessing a beauty that originates in part from the belly of a plastic bottle. Or so some say.

But the Cosmo still burns bright with the drinking public. So maybe it’s not such a bad drink after all. At its heart, it’s a perfectly respectable sour, and yet the Cosmopolitan teeters on its precarious tall stem between modern classic of the cocktail canon and pink pariah of certain bartending brethren.

“Bartenders meet me and are like, ‘Oh, you’re the guy I’ve wanted to kill for 30 years. I used to have to make millions of those!’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m that guy,’” deadpans Toby Cecchini, unironically sipping a glass of sunset-pink rosé at his much beloved Brooklyn cocktail establishment The Long Island Bar, where he still stocks Ocean Spray for the occasional Cosmo request.

In case you’ve been living under a mountain of discarded Carrie Bradshaw costumes in Patricia Field’s closet, Cecchini is the unequivocal inventor of the Cosmopolitan as we know it today, made with Absolut Citron vodka, Cointreau, Ocean Spray cranberry juice cocktail, fresh lime juice and a lemon twist—a combo he came to in the autumn of 1988 when working behind the bar at Keith McNally’s famed Odeon, the bustling, neon-lit Tribeca hangout where arty celebs were as regular a sight as plates full of steak frites.

“Absolut came out with Citron, and we were absolutely amazed,” says Cecchini. “We were like, The flavorit’s in the vodka! It’s so silly to think about that now, but it begat the entire ’90s, which were about infusing stuff into vodka.”

Cosmopolitan ingredients illustration
Justin Shiels 

During one shift, a waiter, Melissa Huffsmith, told Cecchini about a drink introduced to her by some visiting San Francisco friends. It consisted of vodka, Rose’s sweetened lime juice and Rose’s grenadine, and it was called the Cosmopolitan. “I thought that was ghastly,” says Cecchini.

He’d been making a lot of Margaritas at the time, swapping out well triple sec and sour mix for fresh lime juice and Cointreau, the up-step order of the day. It gave him an idea and a perfect place to play with that new citrus-infused vodka behind the bar.

“It was a really short leap,” he says. “I basically did the same thing we were doing with a Margarita.” His creation started as the unofficial staff drink but quickly spread to the paying customers.

“Madonna was drinking them all the time. She was having lunch constantly there with actress Sandra Bernhard,” says Cecchini. “They were older than me and called me boyfriend. ‘Boyfriend! Two more of those pink drinks!’” By the late ’90s, after the launch of HBO’s “Sex and the City,” in which the drink was nearly a fifth lead character on the show, the Cosmopolitan was the most famous cocktail in America.

It was also Cecchini’s personal albatross for a solid decade of his career, with every thirsty Candace Bushnell heat-seeking spectator gulping the drink like it was the only potable beverage in town. But then something started to shift. Quietly and without the thrust of a wildly popular cable television series, the blush on the Cosmo began to once again deepen. Perhaps it never actually went away.

“Are there current bartenders who hate the Cosmo? I’d say they hated it from 1998 to maybe 2014,” says Cheryl Charming, the bar director at Bourbon “O” Bar in New Orleans. “But a lot of things are like that. Sometimes you get tired of hearing a popular song, but let 15 or 20 years go by, and it’s different.”

Charming has been painstakingly at work on an epic 40-chapter book due out later this year that takes a deep dive into classic cocktails, the Cosmopolitan being one. The Cosmo chapter was a rabbit hole that dragged Charming all the way back to the 1970s, tracing the rosy trail of its timeline to find other versions and possible inventors of them.

Perhaps the first true postmodern Cosmo shift occurred when then head bartender of Daniel Xavier Herit put his elegant white Cosmopolitan on the bespoke menu at the well-heeled Upper East Side spot in 2007. In it, he switched out the triple sec with St-Germain elderflower liqueur, which had recently debuted in the States, and red cranberry juice for white.

But the main attraction was the visual. “I was freezing an orchid flower inside an ice ball, centered in a Martini glass. People were getting nuts when they were seeing it,” says Herit, now the food and beverage director at NoMo SoHo. “We would probably sell 50 white Cosmos on a Friday night!”

His Cosmo riff is not only still popular at Daniel Boulud’s flagship spot more than a decade later but graces the cocktail menu everywhere from Bar Boulud in London to Boulud Sud in Miami.

“I have three Cosmos on menus in two states. I love that drink,” says Will Benedetto, the beverage director for In Good Company Hospitality’s string of New York-based bars, as well as the co-owner and beverage director of The Fox Bar & Cocktail Club in Nashville.

What he finds is that each version needs tweaking based on that bar’s specific clientele—in New York, the “Sex and the City” standard for the tourists at Park Avenue Tavern, and a barrel-aged version with Botanist gin swapped out for vodka at the more adventurous Le Soleil hotel’s Trademark. At The Fox Bar, he plays around with a hint of swizzle influence, building around the main spirit ingredients of Cathead vodka and Grand Marnier.

He also tinkers with the trademark tart-sweet elements by boiling down whole cranberries with a little water until they’re the consistency of a syrup. While they cool, he adds equal part white caster sugar, lets it sit overnight and strains off the cranberries. Then citric and malic acids are added in measured weight proportions (1.5 and 1 percent, respectively) to bring just the right kind of tart to the table.

This is, of course, quite a bit more time consuming, expensive and complicated than popping open a drum of Ocean Spray. But it’s the integrity of that one ingredient that often seems to be why the Cosmo is viewed with narrowed eyes.

“I take issue with any juice in the bar that isn’t fresh-squeezed, but there’s usually some compromise that has to be made when you’re looking at cranberry,” says Matt Harwell, the general manager of Carson Kitchen in Las Vegas. “You lose the ‘fresh-squeezed’ but you gain consistency and cost control.” Here, clients clamor for the Mr. Big. Named for fictional Carrie Bradshaw’s on-again-off-again love interest, Harwell’s drink combines St. George California citrus vodka, Licor 43, fresh lemon juice, cranberry juice cocktail, spiced pear liqueur, The Bitter Truth celery bitters and Peychaud’s bitters.

“My only issue with it is if you’re going to a cocktail bar, we’re making the stuff for you,” says Benedetto. “You can open cranberry juice cocktail at home. Why pay me to do that? My job is to meticulously research ingredients.”

Benedetto isn’t alone in his Cosmo devotion. Some 30 years after its conception, and nearly 15 years after Bradshaw and pals hung up their Martini glasses, the hits keep coming.

In Portland, Ore., head bartender Bryan Galligos makes a cranberry, lime peel, peppercorn and cardamom shrub cooked down in sherry vinegar for his version. In New York City, Bar Belly’s Federico Avila makes his Cosmo Avila with cranberry-tarragon syrup, orange curaçao and Aperol. At Harlowe MXM in Dallas, bartender Alex Fletcher’s Salted Plum Cosmo teases out the sweet and tames the tart with a whisper of sea salt added to his black plum shrub, along with the traditional Cointreau, lime juice and vodka.

“It’s everywhere, and that’s the weird thing,” says Cecchini. “I first felt the ‘whoa’ thing when I was on a trip to Poland for Belvedere [vodka]. I got to Warsaw and sat down at a restaurant, and they had a huge cocktail list, and everything was attributed.” As he scanned the menu, he saw names like Jerry Thomas and other icons of cocktail culture. “And there it was: Toby Cecchini, The Odeon, 1988. I was like, Look at that! It was really heartening.”

Ask him to make you one at The Long Island Bar, and he will set to work, not an eye-roll or albatross in sight. Served in a sexy, swooping coupe, it’s frosty, a little frothy and perfectly, wonderfully pastel pink.

“It’s sort of funny when people say, ‘My mom lives on Cosmopolitans! Will you make her one?’ That’s pretty cute,” says Cecchini. “All kinds of people like that drink.”