Explorations in Mixology Cocktails Drinking

Cosmopolitan – Seriously.

Not everyone who reads Summit Sips will understand the implications of posting the Cosmopolitan as our Drink of the Week. In cocktail geek circles, the Cosmo is the quintessential “bad drink” of the late 1980’s and 90s. Some craft cocktail bars even banish them (along with with Budweiser, cell phones, etc.) as a House Rule “no-no”. It’s just over two decades old placing the origin during a time before the current cocktail renaissance, but is it that hard to imagine how we might appreciate these ingredients if it were invented today? We think it’s time to set aside pretentious attitudes and recognize that although it’s possible to perpetuate everything that can be wrong with a Cosmopolitan, if you know what you are doing it can be delicious drink. We’d be lying by omission if we didn’t admit that it happens to be one of our own guilty pleasures.

The Bad?
What can be so wrong with one of the most popular drinks ever created? Some might argue that in most examples, the Cosmopolitan is basically an unremarkable, often over-sweetened alcohol delivery system designed to mask the flavor of vodka. Such judgement is hardly offensive since vodka is supposed to be flavor-neutral in the first place, and many classics were designed as creative solutions to hide the taste of bathtub gin. We need to dig deeper.

Let’s start with the base spirit. Vodka alone can sometimes be enough to fuel disdain. For the pretentious mixologist there seems to be a fog of negativity that follows neutral alcohol as if to suggest that the drinker isn’t really interested in enjoying the cocktail. If they were, they’d order whiskey, or gin—something that actually brings flavor to the glass. The argument ends with the notion that Cosmo drinkers could care less about quality spirits and are interested in one thing only: getting drunk. That’s a harsh argument that doesn’t explain why other vodka drinks such as the Moscow Mule get plenty of respect. Although it may be true that as one’s appreciation for spirits grows it may diminish the inclination to order something with a flavor-neutral base, it does not mean that vodka recipes are without merit.

Looks Good Enough to Drink
Popular culture can have a profound effect on the success or failure of just about anything. The Cosmopolitan was apparently invented by a South Beach bartender named Cheryl Cook, experimenting with Absolut Citron during its pre-launch test in 1988. That could have been the end of it—another concoction here one day and gone the next, shrouded in relative obscurity. Then, Dale DeGroff of the Rainbow Room in New York tweaked the recipe and added it to the drink menu. Someone spotted Madonna drinking one and before long, it was like a fifth major character on HBO’s Sex and the City. “And the rest is history,” as people are fond of saying, only the rest of this story includes a lot of poorly-executed Cosmopolitans.

There’s something to be said about holding a cold, v-shaped cocktail glass, beaded with sweat and filled with a gorgeous pink elixir. Few cocktails look so fashionable, but more important than how it looks is how it tastes. It’s easy to make this drink taste really good, and even easier to mess it up.

1.5 oz Absolut Citron Vodka
.75 oz Cointreau
.25 oz fresh lime juice
1 oz cranberry juice

Shake ingredients with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass and garnish with a flamed orange peel.

The Dos and Don’ts
Forget what you have seen on HBO. Huge cocktail glasses filled with pink is not the goal here. A properly made Cosmopolitan isn’t going to photograph as nicely as you remember from watching those ladies on TV. Although they would probably agree with one thing—size matters. If you plan to make Cosmos and serve them in giant (8 ounces or more) cocktail glasses, it’s time to rethink your glassware situation. Classic proportions are never designed to fill a glass that big for several reasons. First, it’s too much booze. If you want to have more than one cocktail, drinks this big will be a problem. Second, the glass and the contents needed to fill it will quickly loose their cool, and so will you when you are holding a warm drink. Get yourself a proper cocktail glass and eliminate the first problem you might encounter with this drink.

Third, don’t use bottled lime juice. This is one of the improvements Dale DeGroff insisted upon. Early recipes may have suggested Rose’s Lime Cordial, but don’t do it. It has to be freshly-squeezed lime juice. Think about it for a moment. Limes are everywhere, so why would you need to use a preserved and sweetened substitute? Go out and get some limes at your local supermarket. If you aren’t using fresh lime juice in your cocktails, why are you reading this?

Next, one of the subtle hints of flavor in this recipe is the citrus present in the Citron vodka. Can you substitute another product? Maybe so. Could you infuse your own spirit by soaking lemon peels in vodka? Absolut-ly. You could also add to your shaker a nice fat oily twist of lemon peel and use whatever regular vodka you may have on hand. It may seem like an unnecessary step, but if we respect the recipe and go for the best possible flavor profile, we can’t overlook the lemon citrus flavored vodka.

Balance is achieved in this drink with a combination of the lime juice and the orange liqueur. We’d like to say that any triple sec will do, but Cointreau tastes better. You can be the judge of this and adjust according to your budget and taste, but keep your eye on the goal—we are making the best Cosmopolitan we can.

Finally, there is cranberry juice. We must insist on measuring all of the ingredients, and this applies to the cranberry. Some recipes specify Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice Cocktail. Just remember, color isn’t flavor, and with a mere ounce of cranberry, sadly, you won’t get that deep fuchsia, fandango, rose—you’ll be lucky if your Cosmo even looks pink. But, don’t worry. It will taste good. Please, resist the temptation to add more cranberry juice. Don’t let your guest tell you how “pink” to make it. Just follow the recipe and let their tastebuds decide.

You could add a dash or two of orange bitters, but the real spark comes quite literally from the garnish. Slice a disc of fresh orange peel from a firm piece of fruit. Light a match and hold the peel near the flame with your other hand. Aim the peel through the flame and over the rim of the glass and give it a snap. If you do this correctly, it will spray and ignite, showering the surface with caramelized orange oil. Wipe the oily peel around the rim of the glass and drop it in (orange side up). If you don’t have an orange for the garnish, a lime wheel is a popular alternative.

Made as described above, the Cosmopolitan is a drink worthy of your effort, and if you’ve never tried one over the past 20 years or so, it might be time to give it a go. Request one at a bar or restaurant at your own risk. Like a Tom Collins, just about everyone knows how to make a bad one, but very few know how to make it properly. Once you do, you won’t want to have it any other way.

Notify of

1 Comment
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
10 years ago

for what it’s worth, at home, we make a “cosmo” with Bombay Sapphire, Cointreau, lime juice and Knudsen’s cranberry nectar – unsweetened cranberry juice, plus a bit of simple syrup – all to taste. haven’t made these in a while, but, thinking about a version using cranberry bitters.