In its relatively short history, the Cosmo has lived many lives: from 1980s relic to Sex and the City darling to modern-classic staple. Just when it seems like the cocktail might be doomed to irrelevance, the pink drink finds fresh direction.
In the early aughts, not long into the modern cocktail revival, bartenders began to explore ways to revamp the Vodka Sour. At first, the emphasis was on improving the ingredients to elevate the drink to “craft” status, like employing high-quality vodka, or rejiggering the cranberry component to avoid using Ocean Spray—and the attendant stigma of store-bought ingredients.
Now, the drink is in its third wave, being refracted through the perspective of bartenders for whom the Cosmo has never been anything other than a classic, an unequivocal part of the cocktail canon. And they don’t want to merely upgrade it, they want to re-engineer it from top to bottom.
“A Cosmo is one of the first drinks I made as a super-young bartender,” says Chris Arial, owner and creative director of South Austin’s Elementary, which opened in July. (He’s now 27, he volunteers, and “all of our staff is within the 22- to 29-year-old range.”) He recalls making the drink at family gatherings, where he would craft creative riffs on the drink for an aunt. At Elementary, a cocktail bar that marries ’90s childhood nostalgia with “elevated technique and conceptual ideas,” the Cosmo is reborn as the Kool-Aid Cosmo. The drink is made with house-fermented mead—honey wine made with local Texas honey and cherry Kool-Aid—for a “bready, complex, fun, funky” core, mixed with vodka, Cointreau and acid-adjusted lemon “super juice.”
Using Kool-Aid was a natural fit for the bar’s after-school-special vibe (other drinks channel Eggo waffles or Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal), while the fermentation approach is true to Arial’s personal passion: He’s a fermentation enthusiast who started a kombucha business in college. In fact, an early version of his Cosmo riff employed beet kvass (another fermented beverage) before he veered toward fermented Kool-Aid. For Arial, the impetus behind the recipe was “trying to create something that’s unexpected within the familiar.” That meant keeping the hallmarks of the original—pink, acidic, fun—while offering something new. “Nostalgia can be re-created and be exciting and experimental... Everyone’s had Kool-Aid, but not necessarily in a Cosmo,” he says.
Elsewhere, at Portland, Maine’s Room for Improvement, where the focus is on recalibrated “household name” cocktails, co-owner and bar manager Arvid Brown updates the drink with “cranpari.” The bespoke cordial combines Campari with cranberries blended with sugar and water, which is then combined with St. George California Citrus Vodka, a house blend of orange liqueurs, lime juice and saline. “I forget who said ‘Cranpari,’” recalls Brown, but uttering it inspired the ingredient. “A name like that, it’s so good you have to breathe it into existence.” It became the key ingredient the drink was built around.
Yet, even those who find no flaws with the original Cosmo are still finding ways to iterate on the drink using of-the-moment methods. “I like the cocktail just as it’s written,” says Orlando Franklin McCray, bar director at Nightmoves in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood. But, referencing his Sparkling Cosmo, he adds, “bubbles make everything better.” His recipe, however, is no mere royale. Rather, McCray’s variation mixes vodka, Cointreau, cranberry liqueur and Martinique cane syrup, plus Lolo’s Mix, his own clarified, acidified substitute for citrus juice. It’s then force-carbonated and served on draft at the bar, yielding a drink that’s “playful but not pretentious... It’s the sign of a good time.”
The simplicity of the original is one reason it has spawned so many variations, McCray says. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: “Everyone has the opportunity to make drinks a little bit better.”
Yet, there’s one aspect of the Cosmo that isn’t up for reinvention: It needs to be pink. The Cosmo’s visual appeal is part of its draw—no matter how many times it’s revamped, it must still be recognizable on sight. “It’s a really aesthetic cocktail,” says Brown. In any form, “it’s a light, refreshing pink drink that tastes pretty good.”