What flavor is your Cosmopolitan?

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.)

18 thoughts on “What flavor is your Cosmopolitan?

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  1. For me, it’s still all about the 1933 Cosmopolitan — gin, Cointreau, lemon, and raspberry syrup.

    I’m not sure I’ve seen a Cosmo being made with anything other than sweetened cranberry juice (a/k/a cocktail). We’ve made in it home years ago with unsweetened organic stuff and it had a crisper, more lively feel to it (unsweetened is inaccurate — not high fructose corn syrupped away but mellowed with other juices I believe). But most Cosmo drinkers want something on the sweeter side. And given Absolut’s marketing here in Boston (they take out ads putting two bartenders and their recipes head to head in a competition), they seem to prefer sweeter drinks as well.

    1. It’s hard to figure out if that gin version is a precursor, or just another thing called Cosmopolitan. It seems to be in the same vein as the modern incarnation, yet there are so many substitutions… I struggled with that, and finally cut the whole history mess out of this article for being long on maybes and short on facts. By the time I was done, it was ten miles of bad road to nowhere. That’s why they invented delete keys, I guess.

      But your note reminds me—I do want to try that 1933 gin version. How did you make the raspberry syrup?

      That’s interesting, about Absolut’s marketing campaigns. I haven’t seen anything like that here.

      1. I highly doubt that the person who crafted the 1985 Cosmo had a copy of Mixing in Elite Bars: 1903-1933, and honestly there are 4 other drinks that are called the Cosmopolitan (or have it in the name) in that 5-volume book alone (all pretty different). The similarities of a white spirit, pink, fruit flavored Sour with the same name is curious though.

        For raspberry syrup, I used a modification of a recipe I found in the NY Times: http://cocktailvirgin.blogspot.com/2009/12/knickerbocker.html. Unless the berries are in season, frozen is your best bet since they were picked (and frozen) while ripe, and not picked pre-ripened for cross country shipment. And once you heat things, the processing won’t matter. With the vodka added as a preservative, my batch has lasted a year and a half without a contamination issue.

  2. For me, of all the ingredients for a good Cosmo, the cranberry juice is least important. I hardly ever order one in a restaurant/bar, but when I or my friends do, my quick judgment is based on how pink/red the drink is when it arrives. A light pink = good, red = bad/too sweet. It’s unfortunate that the proper color of a Cosmopolitan is of a shade typically associated with femininity, because overall, a properly made Cosmo is one hell of a good-tasting drink.

    1. Yes, I agree about the pink connotations, and it is very unfortunate.

      It sounds like you’re in Gary Regan’s “one or two dashes cranberry juice, for color” camp.

  3. See, I’ve never wanted to try a Cosmo because of it’s obvious pink = girly aspect of the drink and I don’t want to be so obvious. Granted, I am a girl, but it reminds me of the classic Shirly Temple for an underage girl. It sounds quite delightful, though. I may have to either order it or make it myself some time. As I don’t happen to have citrus vodka on hand, it might be a while.
    I suppose if I order one, I should have this recipe in my purse so they make it correctly. :)

    1. I’d say go ahead and make it with your favorite vodka, citrus or not. Though legend has it that the drink really started to become popular as part of an Absolut Citron promo campaign, switching out the Citron for “regular” vodka doesn’t seem to harm the drink.

  4. I love playing with the Cosmopolitan. For me, Lime Juice and Cranberry Juice are a match made in heaven, and it need not be Vodka that we use as the base. I make a version with Tequila (usually a highland silver) which I call, Metro Mexico:

    1 1/2 ounces Blanco Tequila
    3/4 ounce Grand Marnier
    1 ounce Cranberry juice
    1/2 ounce Lime Juice
    Teasspoon of sugar syrup (optional)

    I have a couple rum variations, a few gin variations, and even a whisky variation (using an aged white whisky) that are for me simply fantastic cocktails to serve when I have friends over. I will say though, that a teaspoon of sweetener (usually grenadine) always seems to make the cocktail more appealing to a wider range of guests. As you say in the posting, it is better to err on the side of the sweet, than on the side of the tart and sour.

    Great Posting Dave!

    1. I hadn’t put much thought into variants that switch the base spirit. Your tequila “Metro” sounds intriguing, and the rum version seems a natural. I’ll look forward to trying them out. Thanks!

      1. Please let me know how you like them.

        Red Sky at Night
        a cocktail by Chip Dykstra (Aka Arctic Wolf)

        2 oz Premium White rum
        1 oz Cointreau
        1 oz lime juice
        1 oz Red Cranberry juice
        1/2 oz Grenadine
        Lime slice for garnish

        Shake all the ingredients over ice
        Strain into a cocktail glass
        Garnish with a small slice of Lime

  5. Umm, this might seem silly and trivial but the cosmopolitan can’t have been made popular in the ’80s by sex and the city, since the show only began in ’98. It’s a great drink, but there’s no need to make up its rise to popularity. I’ve never seen the show but knew it wasn’t thirty years old.

    1. Good catch, Scrumpet, that should absolutely be late ’90s, not late ’80s, for Sex in the City’s influence. I’ll fix that. Thanks for bringing it to my attention, and thanks for reading Cold Glass.

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