The following is an excerpt from A Proper Drink: The Untold Story of How a Band of Bartenders Saved the Civilized Drinking World, a new book by Robert Simonson that will be published this week by Ten Speed Press.
All the bars that tried on the cocktail thing in the 1990s, in both New York and London, relied heavily on two drinks. The first was the Martini, the one drink that everybody, however ignorant of American drinking history, recognized as the epitome of a cocktail.
The other drink order that New York cocktail bartenders of the 1990s could be assured of fielding on each shift was of more recent vintage.
The Cosmopolitan is a simple drink. It is basically a variation on the Kamikaze, made of Absolut Citron (which was released the same year the drink was created, 1988), fresh lime juice, Cointreau, and cranberry juice cocktail—the thing that gives the drink its famous pink color.
It became internationally famous for a variety of reasons, not least of which was that it served as the primary form of sustenance for the four female characters on the HBO series Sex and the City.
But the real importance of the Cosmopolitan is not how it became famous and popular, but that it did become famous and popular. It is the only cocktail of its era that succeeded in becoming an international household word. The Martini was retro; however popular the drink was in the 1990s, the name was a throwback, a reminder that cocktail culture’s heyday was in the past. The Cosmopolitan alone illustrated that the cocktail could be a thing of today.
It’s amusing, then, that the drink’s most convincing claim of ownership belongs to a contrarian who for many years refused credit.
Toby Cecchini is a querulous skeptic who likes to downplay his profession any chance he gets. He remained happily ignorant of the leaps mixology made during his first two decades as a bartender, from the mid-’80s to the mid-’00s. Rip Van Winkle-like, he woke up to the revolution he had helped set in motion only when his bar Passerby closed in 2008, and some of his younger colleagues dragged him out of the shadows and set him up as an idol and forefather.
Cecchini’s post-Passerby role in the brave new cocktail world was complicated. Young bartenders respected his veteran status and his writings (including the memoir Cosmopolitan). But they hated the drink he created — on principle. Struck by some Oedipal urge, they sought to kill the thing on which many of their careers had been built.
Cecchini remembered, “Years and years of bartenders saying: ‘You! You invented the Cosmopolitan, you fuck!’ And I’d be like, ‘I’m sorry, man.’”
Bartenders’ rage toward the drink didn’t stem entirely from a cool kid’s knee-jerk urge to knock the trendy and popular, or from the natural hatred all bartenders feel toward any drink they’re forced to make countless times. It was more that the drink required two artificial ingredients — flavored vodka and cranberry juice cocktail — that they, as artisans, had foresworn. Fake wasn’t in the modern mixologist’s toolkit. Many cocktail bars didn’t carry cranberry juice cocktail just so they wouldn’t be able to make Cosmopolitans.
It was a hard thing to own such a hated drink. So for many years Cecchini shirked his connection to it, developing the kind of cranky attitude toward his early work that Orson Welles had for Citizen Kane late in his career. That changed, though, as bartenders’ attitude toward the cocktail began to relax, and as the number of credit hogs rose.
Cecchini still stands by the story of the drink’s birth that he laid down in Cosmopolitan. A fellow bartender at Odeon had friends from San Francisco who introduced her to a Bay Area drink called the Cosmopolitan. She told Toby about the cocktail. “The Cosmopolitan was a kind of drink made of rail vodka, Rose’s lime juice, and Rose’s grenadine that was making the rounds of gay bars in San Francisco in the early ’80s,” he said. He didn’t think much of it, and began tinkering. “I simply gave it the same treatment we were giving our Margaritas at the time, with is using fresh lime juice and Cointreau, and I swapped out the grenadine for a little Ocean Spray cranberry juice cocktail, which is what we were using in Cape Codders. And it became the staff drink. I remember being puzzled when the customers began to order one. How do you know about our staff drink? And I became really puzzled as I visited other bars and noticed this small diaspora around downtown New York and seeing people make it wrong and badly.”
The final irony of the Cosmopolitan is that it was invented in pre-cocktail-revival days, when no one was looking for a new classic cocktail. And today’s revivalists, who so desperately want to create new classics, have so far failed to put out anything even approaching the Cosmo in notoriety.
“I’m not sure we’ll ever have a Cosmopolitan again,” said Philip Duff, an international cocktail consultant and authority who has seen thirty years of cocktail trends come and go. “It was beautifully seeded by that television series, and we were all so hungry for it.”