There are only a few vodka cocktails important enough that every bartender should know how to make them. The Kangaroo leads the list (usually under its street name, “Vodka Martini.”) Next in line is the Cosmopolitan.

The Cosmo is a very young cocktail, as classics go. Its status is partly due to fame and celebrity, partly due to flavor and good crafting. There are competing tales of its creation, ranging back through the ’80s to the mid-’70s. It rocketed to favor in the late 1990s as the charmingly pink fashion accessory of the heroines of Sex and the City and remains one of the “I want that” cocktails to this day.

It provides an easy transition to more sophisticated recipes for people who are new to cocktail menus, which helped make it one of the youngest creations on Imbibe’s “25 Most Influential Cocktails” list. Celebrity is important—I suspect we wouldn’t be talking about the Cosmopolitan today if our television heroines had chosen something else, say the Manhattan, for their forays in drinking society. (That would have been impressive.) But they didn’t do that. They chose the relatively obscure Cosmopolitan, and its future was made.

The Cosmopolitan, photo © 2011 Douglas M. Ford. All rights reserved.
The Cosmopolitan

The Cosmo can be a very good drink, but of all the vodka cocktails, it is probably the most challenging to prepare properly. The drink is classically designed, a New Orleans-style sour (or arguably, a daisy), with elements of strong, sweet, sour, and bitter; but without a flavorful base spirit to channel and blend the other elements, the business of properly balancing the remaining sour, sweet, and bitter is a tightrope act.

The Cosmopolitan Cocktail

  • 1½ oz citrus vodka (Absolut Citron)
  • ¾ oz cranberry juice (Ocean Spray)
  • ½ oz triple sec (Cointreau)
  • ½ oz fresh lime juice

Shake with ice until very cold; double strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish with lime wedge or twist.

In the Cosmo, the lime presents a dominating sour flavor, the Cointreau presents sweetness and a light orange flavor, the cranberry presents tartness and its own light flavor element, and the vodka works to dilute the other flavors. Each drinker will be looking for a different blend of sweet, tart and sour, and there is a very delicate blend going on in this drink.

A quick scan of respectable cocktail books indicates that the sweet-sour ratios are all over the map. So, too, is the proportion of bitter cranberry, reflecting the difficulty in making this very popular cocktail for both experienced cocktailians and new drinkers just coming into the cocktail marketplace.

The booby trap in this recipe is that while too much sweetener makes the Cosmo undrinkable, too much lime will overrun  the cranberry; successful recipes keep the cranberry proportion relatively high compared to the rest of the drink. I believe there is a tendency for bartenders to make these drinks too sweet precisely because there is so much danger of lime making it too sour or cranberry making it too tart for younger drinkers. Too sweet seems the least of the failures.

That cranberry juice should be the readily available grocery store cranberry cocktail type of product. (In the USA, that would be Ocean Spray Cranberry Cocktail.) It’s unlikely that the original versions of this drink were made with anything else, but I experimented with some Cosmos using “real” cranberry juice—the stuff that costs more than a bottle of premium vodka. It’s very difficult to balance the concentrated bitterness of that straight juice—you end up with proportions that bear no resemblance to the familiar recipes—and the color starts to drift away from that charming, familiar, translucent pink.

(Gary Regan, in his 2003 Joy of Mixology, recommends only one or two dashes of cranberry juice, “for color” as he puts it. Regan is usually right on the mark, but such a light hand with “pink” seems too subtle for the Cosmo. Perhaps he has the “real” juice in hand as he makes the Cosmo; if you choose to try straight juice, his recipe might make a good starting point—it works much more like standard bitters than cranberry cocktail.)