In 2021, the Cosmopolitan Makes an Unexpected ComebackVinePair
There came a moment during a February 2020 bar crawl that a few colleagues and I abandoned the task at hand — tasting and ranking Cosmopolitans at feted New York establishments — to ponder some pertinent questions: If “Sex and the City” (SATC) debuted in 2020 rather than the late ‘90s, would Carrie Bradshaw smoke a Juul pen instead of her beloved Marlboro Lights? And might the show’s 30-something protagonist now swap the Upper East Side for the East Village, or perhaps (gasp!) somewhere in Brooklyn? Most pressing of all: Would she even drink Cosmos?
At the time, the answer to the final question was an almost certain “no” — 2020 Carrie Bradshaw would surely instead quaff rosé, Aperol Spritzes, and maybe even the occasional White Claw, we figured. But 15 months on, during which about a dozen lifetimes have passed, things seem decidedly different.
Where it then felt intentionally ironic to dive around New York ordering Cosmopolitans (all in the name of journalism), today that very same cocktail is à la mode. Arriving pretty in pink and wearing the iconic V-shaped Martini glass, the Cosmopolitan fulfills the same yearning for nostalgia that fueled what we ate and drank in the pandemic. While a “trend” this factor doth not make, one of New York’s hottest bars also just launched an entire menu paying homage to the Cosmo and its various riffs. And did you hear? “Sex and the City” is set for a comeback.
Who am I kidding? Of course you heard.
Life Before Carrie & Co.
With the risk of coming across as immediately hypocritical, I’d say too much attention gets paid to “Sex and the City” when exploring the Cosmopolitan’s history. Beyond the fact that the drink features no more prominently in the series than Vodka Martinis garnished with juicy green olives, the Cosmo also had a separate, notably profound impact on cocktail culture that’s worthy of examination.
It’s no exaggeration to state that since its inception in the ‘80s — which predated the show by at least a decade — no other “modern classic” has cemented itself in the mainstream to the extent that the Cosmopolitan has. For this I like to use the extremely unscientific “has my mother heard of it?” test. While she’s partial to the odd Pornstar Martini, my mom certainly could not distinguish a Penicillin from a Paper Plane — but she could absolutely pick a Cosmopolitan out of a cocktail lineup.
Again, “Sex and the City” certainly played a role in this, but the cocktail had a good 10-year run before hitting the small screen. Cosmo drinkers have Toby Cecchini, co-owner of New York’s Long Island Bar and Rockwell Place, to thank for its birth, though others have tried to stake a claim along the way.
Cecchini devised the Cosmo while tending bar at the Tribeca brasserie the Odeon. He took inspiration from another cocktail called the Cosmopolitan, which was then popular in San Francisco gay bars and introduced to Cecchini via a colleague, who in turn learned of it from West Coast friends. Cecchini switched out the original’s rail vodka for newly introduced Absolut Citron, and swapped its Rose’s Lime Juice and Grenadine for fresh citrus and cranberry juice. The final inclusion of Cointreau brought a subtle, rounding sweetness. In the end, the two drinks remained the same in name and color only.
“It would have otherwise died the natural death that all such sh*tty drinks do,” Cecchini says. “Somebody gave it a name beforehand. I gave it a life.”
‘Frickin’ Lousy’ or Cocktail Influencer?
The details of the Cosmopolitan’s debut are fairly inconsequential in its subsequent rise, especially on an international scale. But it feels important to mention them because no other individual has had to answer more for the life the Cosmo took on than its creator.
As the Cosmopolitan spread from staple among the staff at the Odeon to catching fire across Manhattan, Cecchini soon felt the ire of the city’s bartenders. “Oh, you’re the f*cker who made that drink,” they would tell him, now tasked with shaking up hundreds on any given night. “It was this thing that I had to live down for 20 years,” Cecchini recalls.
Whether a result of fatigue, disdain, or just a symbol of the general quality of mixology at the time, the Cosmo’s ubiquity only ended up hampering its reputation. That’s mainly due to most bartenders focusing on nailing its aesthetics rather than pursuing balance or using good ingredients.
“When I was coming up in New York City in the mid-’90s, it was an absolute Cosmo celebration,” says Birch Shambaugh, a former bartender and tech industry veteran who now co-owns Woodford Food & Beverage in Portland, Maine. “Everybody was doing Cosmos. Most of them were frickin’ lousy.”
While it’s difficult to definitively prove, there exists a logical school of thought that says the Cosmo did play an important, unlikely role in the great cocktail renaissance. Though conceived to use thoughtful ingredients in balanced proportions, Cosmos from this era are remembered for being harsh on the eyes and even more offensive to the palate — two facets of mixology that bartenders like Dale DeGroff, Julie Reiner, and Sasha Petraske aimed to outlaw.
(Like Carrie Bradshaw sat in front of an early MacBook, I wonder: Is it more than a mere coincidence that Petraske’s own Milk & Honey — one of the most influential bars in the movement’s history — opened just two years after “Sex and the City” debuted in 1998?)
All of which is a roundabout way of saying the Cosmopolitan has long deserved more credit than most bartenders and enthusiasts tend to give it. But this recognition only leads to more pressing questions, namely: Why is 2021 more ripe for a Cosmo comeback than any year since its ‘90s heyday?
The Cosmo’s Second Third Coming
While I hasten to lead with this, there is the SATC factor to consider.
“I think the resurgence of the show is on everyone’s mind,” says Melissa Stokoski, a New York-based actor, comedian, and podcast host who also leads private “Sex and the City” tours and who joined us for the February 2020 Cosmo crawl. “We’re getting pictures on Instagram of the girls about to start shooting this show, and everyone is on the edge of their seats to see how disastrous or great it may be.”
Beyond that, though, Stokoski says the Cosmo “matches the vibe” of life right now — the fervor to let our hair down after a year like no other. “We’ve been set free from this year-long prison of no nightlife — no nothing — so I think everyone feels ready to let loose,” she says. “Drinking Cosmos is a little bit cheesy, but no one cares. It shows that you’re ready to have a good time.”
It probably doesn’t even matter that most of those now running around in “good vibes only” T-shirts, living their best lives, and ordering Cosmos, weren’t around for the drink’s first spin. Things that were once old have a habit of becoming new again. That very principle forms the foundations of cocktail culture, as well as fashion in general. It’s the reason you can currently pick up a revamped “smart” Motorola Razr for $1,200.
When Shambaugh upped sticks from New York in 2009, then opened Woodford in Portland in 2016, nostalgia was the driving force behind the venue’s menu creation. Along with wife and business partner Fayth Preyer, the pair opened a bar and restaurant that distilled their favorite experiences from their time in New York. With Preyer having worked as a bar manager at the Odeon, the Cosmo naturally worked its way onto the classics section of their cocktail menu, where it’s remained ever since.
The contrasting reactions of local bartenders and the drink’s reception from diners — to my mind — capture the essence of the Cosmopolitan’s plight. “When we trotted it out, there were some arched eyebrows in the bar community. People were like, ‘You’re gonna put a Cosmo on the menu?!’” he says. “But it is, without question, one of our most popular cocktails — people come back time and time and again to have it.”
London transplant Chris Moore also leans into the notion of nostalgia when describing the motivation for designing a Cosmopolitan tribute menu at New York’s Dante West Village (DWV), where he works as bar director. “It’s iconic to New York cocktail culture, so we wanted to bring that back,” he says.
Having only moved to New York last September, Moore’s perspective on the Cosmo differs slightly from others. In London, it never reached the status of being a drink that bartenders didn’t want to make or didn’t like, he says. “It just kind of had its moments and then faded away slowly over time.” Still, he also recalls, with somewhat mixed emotions, how in its heyday his fingers would be blackened at the end of each shift from garnishing scores of Cosmos with flamed orange peels.
In terms of capturing the cocktail zeitgeist, Dante’s bar team previously brought New York drinkers dedicated Negroni and Martini menus, as well as a longtime roster of spritzes. Whether this new menu is a sign of an established trend or a case of preempting one could be debated, though it should be noted that DWV does not currently list a bonafide version of the Cosmo on its menu. “[We didn’t include] a Cosmopolitan because I felt like the people that pioneered it in New York are still around — they’re still part of the industry,” Moore explains (though patrons can still order an off-menu classic if they’re interested).
Of course, when discussing “trends” we should briefly also recognize that most of the drinking in 2020 did not take place in bars. But this is an arena in which the Cosmo once again shines in fabulous pink.
While bars and restaurants have previously been incubators for food and drink fashion, social media proved to be that catalyst last year. And on TikTok — the world’s fastest-growing social media network — there was but one winner where cocktails were concerned last year: bright, luminous creations. Lest we also forget the undisputed MVP of pandemic drinking videos: Ina Garten and her fabulous, fish tank-sized quarantine Cosmo.
So if 2021 is to be the year the Cosmo makes a full-blown comeback, I wondered how the drink’s creator felt about the prospect. Given all the derision it’s received over the years, surely it can’t be fun to learn that the Cosmopolitan is now “cool” again?
“People are always very tenuous when they ask me if I’d make them a Cosmo, but I long ago made my peace with it,” Cecchini says. “Thirty years removed, I’m charmed by it.”
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