Cosmopolitan cocktail history: the origins of a contemporary classic

Words by Simon Difford

The Cosmopolitan is one of those cocktails that has had various incarnations through the ages - some of them, quite probably, independent of one another. During the 1990s, the familiar blend of cranberry, citrus and vodka was one of the most popular cocktails in New York and London.

A Cosmopolitan cocktail first appears in the "Cocktails Round Town" chapter by Arthur Moss in Harry McElhone's 1927 Barflies and Cocktails.

Casting a glance at the meal-ticket, O. O. McIntyre concocts the "Cosmopolitan:" 1/6 Italian vermouth, 1/6 French vermouth, 1/6 Swedish punch, 1/6 Scotch whisky, 1/6 Irish whisky, 1/6 Russian vodka. And then the case containing the corpse is submitted to the League of Nations.

Arthur Moss, 1927

The 1934 book Pioneers of Mixing at Elite Bars: 1903-1933 features five very different cocktails named Cosmopolitan, but the following recipe, shown in the book as an example of a Daisy, includes triple sec and is very similar to today's Cosmopolitan, only with lemon in place of lime, gin in place of vodka and raspberry syrup in place of cranberry.

Jigger Gordon's Gin
2 Dashes Cointreau
Juice of One Lemon
Teaspoon Raspberry Syrup
Glass No.4 [3.5oz goblet] Shake and strain.

Pioneers of Mixing at Elite Bars, 1934

Interestingly, and perhaps tellingly, four of the five Cosmopolitans in Pioneers of Mixing have a red/pink appearance, the one above due to raspberry syrup. This 1934 pale pink Cosmopolitan is not a bad cocktail.

Another candidate as an ancestor of the modern-day Cosmopolitan is the Harpoon Cocktail, a drink promoted by Ocean Spray during the 1960s. A 1968 bottle label from Ocean Spray's archives lists the Harpoon as a "new cocktail" with a recipe specifying 2 ounces Ocean Spray cranberry and 1 ounce vodka or light rum served "over the rocks or tall with soda". Ocean Spray's recipe also suggests adding an optional splash of lime or lemon. In 1970, the company updated its recipe to also list gin as a possible base spirit.

Bartender and author Cheryl Charming (AKA Miss Charming), who has researched the origins of the Cosmopolitan, discounts both of the above in her 2018 The Cocktail Companion, asserting "that two bartenders, at two different times (fourteen years apart), in two different cities (1800 miles apart) created a cocktail with almost identical ingredients and both named their creation - Cosmopolitan. These bartenders are Neal Murray and Cheryl Cook.

Then, two New York City bartenders claim to be the first to have upgraded the Cosmopolitan recipe by using quality ingredients, however, only one of them has been credited. Their names are Melissa Huffsmith and Toby Cecchini.

And then, there's Dale "King Cocktail" DeGroff, who independently upgraded the Cosmopolitan."

Cheryl Cook

Cheryl Cook has a well-supported claim to have invented the Cosmopolitan Cocktail while head bartender at The Strand on Washington Avenue in South Beach, Miami. She based her cocktail on the newly available Absolut Citron vodka, which launched in 1988 and added a splash of triple sec, a dash of Rose's lime and, in her own words, "just enough cranberry to make it oh so pretty in pink". (A popular phrase at the time from the 1986 film Pretty in Pink.)

Cheryl, helped by The Strand's owner, Gary Farmer, named her new cocktail after a March 1989 copy of Cosmopolitan Magazine, which featured an article on The Strand and the hostess titled "The Maître d' is a Ms." The magazine had a pink cover, and the hostess proudly showed the issue to everyone who came into the restaurant.

To quote Miss Charming's book, Cook served many celebrities and had many stories. She vividly remembers serving Madonna and Sandra Bernhard-many times. When the Cosmopolitan went what today we would call "viral" from Sex and the City, Cook just assumed that the show's costume designers, Patricia Field and Rebecca Weinburg were responsible for introducing the cocktail to the writers because Field and Weinburg were regulars of hers.

Neal Murray

Encouraged by a couple of college mates, in 1975, while studying political science at the University of Minnesota, Neal Murray (then aged 24) took his first bartending position at the Cork 'n Cleaver Steakhouse in Golden Valley. After learning the key cocktail recipes of the day, he soon noticed a change in cocktail trends from gin to vodka – particularly as base spirits in the Gimlet and Kamikaze shooter. Hence, in Autumn 1975 he tried combining a Cape Cod and Kamikaze, adding Leroux triple sec from the Kamikaze to the Cape Codder's vodka (Gordons), cranberry (Ocean Spray) and lime (Rose's) to make a shaken drink which he strained in a cocktail glass.

Murray had initially been turned down from the job at the Steakhouse "because he was black," and this is key to the naming of his Cape Cod and Kamikaze riff. When he made the pink drink, a regular asked the name and Murray replied, [to quote Miss Charming's The Cocktail Companion] "I just thought it needed a little color," making a joke about how he was hired. The regular said, "How cosmopolitan!" and the Cosmopolitan was born.

In 1979, Murray moved to study psychology at San Francisco State University and, in 1981, after working at a couple of other establishments, started as a waiter at the Elite Café (2049 Fillmore Street). He taught the bartender there, Michael Brennan (now a noted artist), to make his Cosmopolitan cocktail and started recommending it to customers, and the drink became a hit. As part of her research, Miss Charming tracked down fellow workers and customers of Elite Café who attest to this.

In 1985, Murray was hired by impresario Douglas "BIX" Biederbeck as a bartender at San Francisco's famous Fog City Diner. Here switched the vodka in his Cosmo for Mt. Gay Rum to create a "Barbados Cosmopolitan". When Douglas opened his BIX restaurant in 1988, he put Neal's Barbados Cosmopolitan on the menu and in his 2008 book Boxology says "We were the first West Coast restaurant to re-spark the current Martini boom. It's a little hard to imagine that, only twenty years ago, the white-wine spritzer, gin and tonic, and occasional sweet drink were the calls of choice. The Cosmopolitan had only recently been invented, and there were about six vodkas known to man."

Melissa Huffsmith

Until Miss Charming's book, Melissa Huffsmith's place in the history of the Cosmopolitan was confined to merely being the co-worker Toby Cecchini mentions as being the person who told him about the pink San Francisco Cosmopolitan in his 2003 book Cosmopolitan: A Bartender's Life.

Melissa Huffsmith first learned of the Cosmopolitan from Patrick "Paddy" Mitten who she worked with at Life Café (343 E 10th St B in Alphabet City, Manhattan) where the Cosmopolitan was served for staff on-the-rocks in "milkshake to-go cups."

Miss Charming believes "Mitten is the bartender who brought the Cosmopolitan from San Francisco to New York City in October of 1987." Mitten, an Englishman who in 1985 went to work for the San Francisco Ballet, worked as a bartender at the Patio Café in San Francisco and it is here that he first learned of the Cosmopolitan cocktail. [To quote Miss Charming's book], Mitten remembers his manager, Alan Mary Kay, walking in one day saying, "I just tried a new cocktail, and it's pink! It's called a Cosmopolitan. It's a Kamikaze with cranberry, but served as a Martini."

After many of his friends and partner had died of AIDS, Mitten moved to New York City in October 1987 started as a bartender at Life Café where he taught Huffsmith and others how to make the pink Martini from San Francisco called a Cosmopolitan. Mitten claims to have served a Cosmo to Madonna and even Sarah Jessica Parker when they were filming the pilot of Sex and the City.

Huffsmith left Life Café to bartend at Manhattan's famous The Odeon in April 1989, where her manager was Paul Bacsik, and [according to Miss Charming's book], one night Bacsik was making her a shift drink and Huffsmith requested a Cosmopolitan. Bacsik didn't know what it was, so Huffsmith told him how to make it. She explained that it was vodka, triple sec, and Rose's lime with a splash of cranberry juice. When Bacsik asked her what kind of vodka to use, she felt experimental (because at Life Café they did not have upgraded brands), so she decided to try Absolut Citron since it was new, Cointreau, fresh lime juice, and cranberry juice. She said it was yummy. Huffsmith went on to say that the fresh lime juice gave the drink a beautiful, refreshing, cloudy light pink lemonade look, and all the bartenders started making them for the regulars.

Toby Cecchini

As stated above, the Cosmopolitan made the rounds of gay bars in San Francisco during the late 70s and early 80s. At that time, it consisted of rail vodka with Rose's Lime and Rose's Grenadine and it is this drink that Toby Cecchini says "came to New York and came to me through another bartender who worked at The Odeon called Melisa Huffsmith. It was a ghastly drink and I reformulated it using Citron, which Absolut had just come out with, cranberry juice, and the things we were using at the time to make fresh Margaritas. It was kind of a no brainer. I was 25 years old and I invented the drink to impress the waitresses. I invented the Cosmopolitan as it's known. (See " Toby Cecchini's Cosmopolitan original 1988 recipe).

Dale DeGroff

Bartending legend Dale "King Cocktail" DeGroff came across the Cosmopolitan at the Fog City Diner in San Francisco [see Neal Murray above] in the early to mid-1990s and back in Manhattan, started perfecting his own Cosmopolitan recipe at the Rainbow Rooms adding his now signature flamed orange zest twist garnish (borrowed from Peppe Ruiz's Flame of Love Martini).

During a Sony Grammy party at the Rainbow Room, The Associated Press photographed Madonna drinking Dale's Cosmopolitan and put it on wire with the caption, "Madonna drinking the Cosmopolitan at the world-famous Rainbow Room." New York Magazine credited Dale with the drink's invention, other publications followed, and he was asked to present it on several television stations. Dale's career took off, and due to this publicity, Dale continues to be identified with the Cosmopolitan Cocktail.

Dale has never claimed to have invented the Cosmopolitan, and in his own 2002 book, The Craft of the Cocktail, he explains that while he did not invent the Cosmopolitan, "What I did do was popularize a definitive recipe that became widely accepted as the standard."

Sex and the City

Based on the eponymous column written by Candace Bushnell in the New York Observer, the HBO television series Sex and the City debuted in 1998. Using an alter-ego with the same initials, Candace wrote about Carrie Bradshaw's fashionista Manhattan lifestyle and her friends Miranda, Charlotte and sexpot Samantha. The TV show frequently showed the characters sipping Cosmos, and when the series hit the big screen in 2008, the film closed with the girls questioning why they had ever stopped drinking them.

Miss Charming contacted Candace, who responded, "Hi Cheryl Charming-Thanks for writing to me. Back in the late eighties/early nineties 'designer' spirit brands like Absolut were making a big push for the club crowd. Bret Easton Ellis and I were going out every night and one night we started drinking them. We'd always drank vodkas with cranberry juice and the Cosmo, with the fresh lime juice, seemed like a good alternative. Once we had our first Cosmo, we couldn't stop drinking them. And I pretty much made everyone else drink them too. When Darren and I first met, in 1995, I took him out on the town and introduced him to the Cosmo. I think I may have even posed for photographs with a Cosmo. I suppose it was my signature drink, and because Carrie was my alter-ego, she naturally had to drink them as well!"

For more information on the Cosmopolitan, see Miss Charming's growing webpage MissCharming.com

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