The Definitive History of the Cosmopolitan

Quibbling over who invented it is only half the tale. Here's how the pink drink went from a Cleveland gay bar to Madonna's call drink to SATC, according to the people responsible for it.

There are few cocktails more immediately recognizable than a Cosmopolitan. The blush-pink, sweet-tart formula—a blend of vodka, triple sec, cranberry juice and lime—was nothing if not a child of its time. Born at the cusp of the Gay Rights movement and before the dawn of the cocktail renaissance, the Cosmo, in its tippy 10-ounce Martini glass, was a show-stealer that went on to become a modern classic. The extent of the Cosmopolitan’s reach was unlike that of any other drink created during the 20th century, its zeitgeist sweeping and total. There’s a longstanding debate over who actually created the cocktail—but what’s even more interesting is the cast of characters and fairytale circumstances that popularized it.

The most obvious source of its cultural dissemination was Sex and the City, where it was Carrie Bradshaw’s signature cocktail—the dainty, stiletto-like glass a perpetual fixture of her social outings. But before it hit HBO, it cycled through many iterations and social circles, from the gay community in Provincetown to the celebrity regulars at the Odeon, the buzzy restaurant responsible for its proliferation throughout lower Manhattan. Eventually, it caught the attention of the liquor companies and leapt onto the small screen, reigniting its popularity.

Ultimately, the Cosmopolitan’s audience extended far beyond those engaged in the great Aidan v. Mr. Big debate. It became a fixture on menus, was adapted and gussied up by four-star restaurants and Applebee’s alike. And though its territory is, these days, more suburban, the Cosmo still lingers in the wings—a nostalgic, rose-tinted totem of another age.

A (Controversial) Cocktail Is Born 

John Caine (bartender in San Francisco, widely credited with popularizing the Cosmopolitan): This drink predates World War II. It was initially called the Vodka Gimlet. A Gimlet was made because you needed to add something to well vodka or gin, because the well liquors were made so poorly. Then after World War II, people discovered Cointreau from France and that drink became a Kamikaze (vodka, triple sec, lime juice). In the ’80s, they added cranberry juice to that basic Kamikaze to make it this pretty drink and you have a Cosmopolitan. That is the bare bones of it.

Miranda Dickson (global brand director of Absolut Elyx): In the late ’80s and the early ’90s, you see the emergence of these freak flavor martinis, like the Espresso Martini. That’s where you start to see the Cosmopolitan.

Caine: I started bartending in 1980. I ran into the drink in Cleveland at the Rusty Scupper, a restaurant. It was very, very popular. It was the gay community that brought it from Provincetown, which is where the cranberries were growing. The drink had vodka, triple sec, Rose’s lime juice and a splash of Ocean Spray cranberry juice. I moved to San Francisco in 1987 and started working at Julie’s Supper Club, a yuppy supper club. I introduced it there. We started making them in 10-ounce Martini glasses. We got known as the place for the Cosmopolitan. The Cosmopolitan fit perfectly into that scene. We sold tons of them. I made 60 a night, probably 70. It was light, clean, fast to make, pretty and cheap. It was the kind of drink where you could always guarantee a second drink sale because it had less booze per ounce than a Martini because of the juice. People said I invented the Cosmo. I just transported it.

Toby Cecchini (owner of Long Island Bar in New York, widely credited with inventing the modern-day Cosmopolitan): What we think of as the Cosmopolitan is actually my drink that I created at the Odeon in New York. There was a terrible drink called the Cosmopolitan making the rounds at gay bars in San Francisco in the mid ’80s—it was rail vodka, Rose’s lime juice, Rose’s grenadine, and it went in a Martini glass with a twist. In 1988, a girl who worked with me had friends from San Francisco visiting New York and they showed her this drink. It was gross, but it looked pretty. I went about reconstructing it, using what we were using at the time to make Margaritas—fresh lime juice and Cointreau. Also, Absolut had just come out with Citron, a lemon-flavored vodka. So I took the Cointreau, fresh lime juice and the Citron, and to approximate the Rose’s Grenadine I grabbed cranberry juice that was on hand from Cape Codders. We were always making drinks for the staff, so I started serving it to the waitresses. They were crazy about it. It became our staff drink, and soon the staff started turning the regulars onto it. Then people I didn’t recognize were coming up and ordering it. The Odeon at the time was a stronghold of names—Madonna and Sandra Bernhard were there every day. I was 25 and they would be like, “Boyfriend! Give us more of that pink drink!” The drink was disseminated into lower Manhattan within a year.

Dale DeGroff (author, Craft of the Cocktail, former head bartender at the Rainbow Room, New York): New York Magazine said I invented it. I did not invent it. There’s this mysterious woman named Cheryl Cook who supposedly invented the drink in Miami, but it was a cross between a Lemon Drop and a Kamikaze. It didn’t have fresh lime juice. That’s the version I encountered when I was out in San Francisco in the early ’90s. It was just awful. But everyone thought it was a hot-shit drink. So I added it to the menu, but with fresh lime juice, Cointreau and Absolut Citron. What I really did to change the game with Cosmopolitans was an orange peel on top. No one else had done that.

Cecchini: Citron actually sent an English journalist to America to find out who invented the Cosmopolitan and interview everyone who claimed to have invented the drink. They sent this guy to interview me, I sent them the dates, I told them the whole story, and in a number of weeks they were like, “Congrats. Out of 12 people you are the only one who seems to be telling the truth.” They said, “There is this woman in Florida who maintains she invented it and you ripped her off but she is backtracking all over the place.”

How the Cosmo Built Cocktail Culture 

Cecchini: Cocktail menus weren’t a thing back then. There were the basic cocktails and you made whatever else you conjured up. But because the Cosmopolitan was so popular, people were putting it on their menus.

Pierre Siue (general manager, Daniel, New York): Around 2005, Xavier Herit joined the team at Daniel and we decided we wanted a bar program. We went to PDT, which had just opened, and we thought we’d create a similar upscale cocktail program. Back then, no one knew about bartenders. Bar programs weren’t sophisticated. People wanted gin Martinis, vodka Martinis, vodka sodas. The White Cosmopolitan was one of the first drinks we put on the menu—the Cosmopolitan was a very popular cocktail on the Upper East Side, and we were trying to reinvent classics. Our version has vodka, white cranberry juice, St-Germain and lime juice, and we do the presentation tableside. Instead of serving it in a glass, we serve it in a carafe, with an orchid suspended in an ice cube. When you put the cocktail with the orchid ice cube in the Martini glass it becomes slightly clear but not fully… It is very attractive. It was a success right away. 

Caine: When I opened Café Mars in 1994, here in San Francisco, Finlandia vodka came out with Finlandia Cranberry. It was cranberry-colored vodka and it was 70 proof. We created a Martini version of the Cosmopolitan with a dried cranberry. That was very popular.

Cecchini: In the early ’90s I saw a Grand Marnier ad on a billboard advertising the Cosmopolitan. I was becoming, among bartenders, known as “the asshole who invented that pink drink that we are now enslaved by.” I understood the sentiment. That thing just caught fire. I literally was slinging hundreds of them a night. It was deplorable.

DeGroff: I brought the drink to Europe in 1997, when I was a judge at an Absolut event. I started the seminar by serving 200 Cosmopolitans with flaming orange peels using cloudberry juice because they didn’t have cranberry juice. I ended up getting hired by Ocean Spray to do the release of red and white cranberry juice in the U.K. We wanted to put it on tap at all the pubs.

Dickson: Citron was definitely helped by the global popularity of the Cosmopolitan. We weren’t even incorporating the Cosmopolitan into consumer marketing. It was just growing.

Kate Krader (food editor at Bloomberg News): In 2005, when I was at Food & Wine, we started doing cocktail books. We did one where we picked 50 classic cocktails and had bartenders do a riff or two off each one. The Cosmopolitan was one of those classics.

The Cosmo Goes Hollywood

Krader: [The Cosmopolitan] came up in the late ’80s when you could see a lot of shoulder pads and big colors. It was after the financial crisis and things were coming back, and the Cosmopolitan was brightly colored and it got to call itself a Martini. It was big and splashy. If you held that at a party, you wanted attention.

Cindy Chupack (co-writer and director of Otherhood, writer on Sex and the City, Seasons 2 to 6): The Cosmopolitan got introduced by name in the first episode I wrote, “The Chicken Dance.” Samantha orders it. I feel almost certain that Michael Patrick King [director, writer, and executive producer of Sex and the City] or Darren Star [creator of Sex and the City] suggested it. Michael does not drink, but I remember he loved the look of the Cosmopolitan—this frothy, rose-colored version of the Martini, the neck of the glass resembling the stiletto of a Manolo Blahnik shoe. The women having cocktails was such a big part of the show, and the Cosmopolitan just became a part of the fabric. It wasn’t intentional. Sex and the City really celebrated this time in women’s lives that used to be a waiting period—you were waiting to find The One, and dating was a necessary evil. On the show, that was the best time of your life, filled with parties and friendships and clothes. Drinks were a big part of that. The Cosmopolitan fit well. It wasn’t hard alcohol. These women weren’t pounding beers. It was a fun, beautiful drink that matched the aesthetic of the show.

Cecchini: During the ’80s, it was a cooler, more local crowd ordering Cosmopolitans. By the early ’90s, the drink had died down. We had moved on. And then Sex and the City featured it 10 years later and my reaction was like, “Aren’t we done with that? Didn’t we go through that?” It just came roaring back. Everyone and their mom, tourists visiting, sorority girls, they wanted a Cosmopolitan. I mean, you could get them at bowling alleys. I would go to Paris and London and people were drinking Cosmopolitans.

Krader: Sex and the City gave [the Cosmopolitan] a cachet. It made you feel like you were part of a movement, like you were grown-up, sophisticated and of the moment. The exact same thing happened with Magnolia [Bakery’s] cupcakes.

Caine: People would come up to me and say, “What is that drink on that TV show?” It certainly helped with sales, and it validated what we had known about the drink for 10 years.

Chupack: It was a chicken-and-egg situation. Were we reflecting what women were already doing in New York, or were we starting the cycle of it? I am sure some women were drinking Cosmopolitans, but once it appeared on the show, I think it just became more prevalent. There is a line in the Sex and the City movie where Miranda asks Carrie, “Why did we ever stop drinking these?” [referring to Cosmopolitans] and Carrie says, “Because everyone else started.” 

A Rose-Tinted Legacy

Caine: Bartenders look down on [the Cosmopolitan]. Absolutely. There is a place here locally that just doesn’t make them.

DeGroff: For the 40 and above generation [the drink] is not passé at all. And you still see tons of orders for it in Middle America, and across the world, in places like South America. It is the first of the modern classic cocktails.

Cecchini: It is part of the lexicon of readily acknowledged cocktails. It isn’t a trend anymore. People still come into my bar and order it plenty of times. They will gingerly ask me, “Do you still make those? Is it a bad thing to ask you?” I was in Poland touring vodka distilleries and on a cocktail menu it listed drinks next to their supposed inventor and next to the Cosmopolitan it said, “Toby Cecchini, New York City, 1988.” That was so bizarre.

Siue: The White Cosmopolitan is still No. 1 for us, and we now have it as a signature cocktail in all of our restaurants—Montreal, Washington, London. We have seen people try to copy it at many other restaurants.

Krader: The thing that is awesome about cocktails right now is that anything goes. There have been redemptions of things like the Long Island Iced Tea because those spirits are also made so much better. It’s hard to think of a cocktail that you would order that doesn’t have a niche somewhere. Also, the Cosmopolitan is a good cocktail—it is tangy and sweet and delivers some alcohol. I wouldn’t say it is back in vogue, but I think everything is circular.

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Priya Krishna is a food writer who contributes to The New York Times, Bon Appétit and others. She is the author of the cookbook, Indian-ish.