The Gnostic Gospels: The Cosmopolitan

The Gnostic Gospels: The Cosmopolitan

I’ve written before of the four bedrock drinks of cocktailia. Each based on one of the four foundation spirits of classic cocktailia, gin, bourbon, rum, and brandy, I refer to these cocktails as The Four Gospels. There are other great and/or popular spirits that people mix with, of course. And there is for most of them an emblematic cocktail as well. I’ll refer to these drinks as the Gnostic Gospels, since the spirits they use aren’t quite canonical for one reason or another.

We shall discuss today the (Gnostic) Gospel of Vodka: The Cosmopolitan.

The Cosmo is the new kid on the block among the power cocktails, which among other reasons means it gets less respect than it should. I’ll get to those reasons in a bit, but I’ll lead with why the Cosmopolitan deserves to be considered one of the Gospels.

Firstly, the drink is very popular. I challenge you to find a bartender in America (biker bars probably excluded) who isn’t called on to make them often. While it is no longer so omnipresent as it was a few years ago, that is actually a testament to its importance and influence. So many people who were attracted to the Cosmo learned that there was a world of cocktails to explore beyond it.

And influential the Cosmo is, like all the Gospels. The Manhattan was the first gospel, the Martini defines cocktails as elegance, the Daiquiri and its progeny kept hope alive down in Cuba during Prohibition, and the Sidecar is the iconic Europeans contribution.
The Cosmo was the light that brought classic cocktails back out of the wilderness.


Zut alors!



Yes, it did, oh snooty drink purists. Please remember the state of cocktails when the Cosmo was born. The drinking world was a vast wasteland of shots, and slushies, and sour mix. (Oh My!) Even the mighty Martini had devolved into a glass of cold vodka, drunk only by old men and paleo-hipsters.

Then the Cosmopolitan burst onto the bar scene. The cocktail glass became cool again, as did drinks in it. Because most bars had become places that had neither the inventory nor staff to produce drinks like a decent Cosmo, fashionable patrons sought out Martini Bars, where they could get one without a fuss. Over time, you could once again find measurable numbers of bartenders who stood out because of their mixing skills, instead of just their sympathetic ear or appearance (or cleavage). I’m not saying that the Cosmo sparked the craft bar renascence of today, but I’m sure it provided several critical items of support.

  • It provided cash flow for a (still to this day) niche market.
  • It spiked demand in the mainstream for Martini-style mixology.
  • It convinced a hell of a lot of young women to put down the wine bottle and pick up the cocktail glass.

To be a Gospel, a cocktail must also be the perfect vessel for its base spirit. I contend that the Cosmo is the perfect embodiment of what you can do well with vodka. Vodka provides no distinctive character of its own to a drink, nor
color, or aroma. Instead it provides a simple, smooth kick. When you mix with vodka, your drink has cocktail potency, but you can decide on whatever flavors you need, without having to subjugate them to a dominant spirit. The delicious, well-balanced mixture of flavors from the the other ingredients in a Cosmo won’t work without the vodka. I’ve tried. Interestingly, it is the addition of a large amount of 80 proof liquor that actually makes the drink smooth and drinkable.

Of course, the mere use of vodka is why many in the Church of the Cocktail would relegate this gospel to gnostic or “also ran” status. Vodka has a very short history in cocktails, and not a particularly distinguished one. Most of its oeuvre consists of either simply dull concoctions, or dumbed down versions of superior gin drinks.
The Cosmo is different in that when made well with good ingredients, it is an interesting, balanced cocktail. Further, the ground is littered with the bodies of cocktailians who tried to turn the Cosmopolitan into a decent gin cocktail. The fabled Metropolitan heresy has wasted more good gin on bad results than you can imagine. (For the record, my attempt can be found here. I cheated and it is still only OK.)

There is more to be said about the history and culture of the Cosmo, but I’ve gone too far into the post already without giving a recipe. Here is Dale DeGroff’s Rainbow Room recipe:

  • 1 1/2 oz. vodka
  • 1 oz. Cointreau
  • 1 oz. cranberry
  • 3/4 oz. fresh lime juice

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a twist of flamed orange peel.

For the record, I actually think Dale’s recipe is too sweet. (Ducks head to check for lightning) My preferred recipe is this, the Dry Cosmopolitan, if you will.

  • 2 oz. vodka
  • 1/2 oz. Cointreau
  • 1 oz. cranberry
  • 3/4 oz. fresh lime juice

Shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with a wheel of lime.

I use a lime wheel because I seldom have oranges around, and I’m tired of burning my fingers learning how to flame the peels anyway.
When you are learning to mix your own Cosmopolitans, the cranberry you use will dramatically affect the final product. The omnipresent brand in America is Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice Cocktail. That is what my ratios are designed for. Other brands vary in sweetness. You can also find pure cranberry juice, but please be aware that it is seriously tart. You’ll need to add simple, more Cointreau, or less cranberry to make the drink work. Frankly I see no benefit.
Ocean Spray isn’t really a juice in cocktail mixer terms, but a cordial, like Rose’s Lime. Use accordingly.

Another issue worth discussing with Cosmos is the Cointreau. Use it. Any decent vodka will do fine in a Cosmopolitan, but if you skimp and use cheap triple sec, the quality will suffer. And using most other orange liqueurs is a heresy, as the darker color will throw off the pristine pink shade of the cocktail.

The Cosmo, at its Miami nativity, used citrus-infused vodka. You can experiment with this if you like, but employing such vodka so you can omit the lime is a heresy. And using Rose’s in your Gospel of Vodka will surely as the Sun shall rise bring a visit from these guys…

I’ll wind things up with some discussion of the history and cultural impact of the Cosmopolitan. While DeGroff is widely and persistently credited with inventing the Cosmo, to his credit he has just as persistently refused to take credit. Cheryl Cook, a South Beach bartender, first made a “Cranberry Kamikaze” with this famous moniker. DeGroff adopted and improved the recipe as a signature drink for the rebooted Rainbow Room in New York.
The Cosmo’s first big splash with the general public came when Madonna visited the Rainbow Room after the Grammys in the early 1990’s. A NewYorker photographer snapped a picture of her enjoying a Cosmopolitan and it created a sensation around New York’s bar scene.

Then Carrie, Samantha, Charlotte, and Miranda made the Cosmo their cup of communion on HBO’s Sex and the City, and the cranberries really hit the fan.

The show never suited my taste, so I watched only a few episodes. But it’s clear to anyone why it sparked such a sensation in the cocktail world. The four fabulous women of SatC led thrilling lives, attend fabulous Manhattan events, wear incredible (and incredibly over the top) outfits, have wild, varied sex, and drink exotic Cosmopolitans. The largely female audience which made the show popular wanted that life. But they mostly didn’t live in Manhattan, didn’t have the money for designer clothes, and wanted that sex to be with men other than those available.
All that and six bucks would get you a Cosmopolitan. See the effects on the cocktail world, as postulated above.

With the arrival of the latest installment of the Sex and the City saga in theaters, expect another run on this drink, as well as other means of spicing up marriages. Carrie and Big are apparently getting bored with each other, and such dodges as wearing identical men’s tuxedos out for a night on the town don’t seem to work. The ladies therefore take the only logical step, which is to jet off to a Muslim nation to ogle men and drink heavily. (?!?!) To paraphrase the movie’s trailer, It’s like Aladdin? Yes, but with Cosmopolitans.

Thus endeth Cosmopolitan, The Book of Vodka.
Here are the posts detailing the Four True Gospels of the Cocktail:
The Daiquiri, The Book of Rum
The Sidecar, The Book of Brandy
The Manhattan, The Book of Whiskey
The Martini, The Book of Gin


  1. Julie

    19 May

    This is terrific! The Cosmo, while not my drink of choice, is a darn good drink when made correctly. So many bars get it wrong– but a really good one makes me have hope for the future of drinking. Fantastic series.

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  2. Matt R.

    19 May

    You put me in your COSMO post? I thought we were friends, Doug.

      (Quote)  (Reply)

  3. Doug

    19 May

    What’s your problem? I portrayed you as the reactionary, hidebound purist you are! If I photoshopped a Cosmo into your hands, then you’d have a beef.

    (BTW, that’s a thinly-veiled threat, so watch yourself!)

      (Quote)  (Reply)


      (Quote)  (Reply)

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