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The Great Cosmo Revival

August 17, 2021

Story: Punch Staff

photo: Lizzie Munro

The Great Cosmo Revival

August 17, 2021

Story: Punch Staff

photo: Lizzie Munro

There’s never been a better time to rediscover what makes this modern classic more than a nostalgic footnote.

Sign up your bar or restaurant for Cosmos for a Cause—a charitable program by Cointreau that encourages consumers to raise a cocktail in support of the bar and restaurant community. Registrations close September 2nd. 

Even the Cosmo would blush from all the attention it has cycled through since its late ’80s debut. Over the span of three decades, the cocktail went from becoming the bold-faced darling of the New York bar scene to facing an inevitable backlash and retreat, to eventually returning for a star-studded second act as a certified modern classic.

And this year, Cointreau is partnering with the Independent Restaurant Coalition to support the still-recovering bar and restaurant community. From October 15th to December 31st, Cointreau will donate a portion of sales, up to $100,000, to the Independent Restaurant Coalition for every order of a Cosmopolitan cocktail at participating restaurants and bars, and for every Instagram post tagging both #Cosmosforacause and @cointreau_us.

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Bartender Toby Cecchini first created what we now know as the Cosmopolitan in 1988 at The Odeon, a late-night Tribeca restaurant with a clientele of notable celebrities. After hearing about a drink making the rounds of San Francisco gay bars, a Kamikaze-like concoction of rail vodka, artificial lime juice and grenadine called the Cosmopolitan, Cecchini turned out his own version using Cointreau, fresh lime juice, cranberry juice cocktail and citron-flavored vodka. “I literally just remade it in the manner we were making Margaritas at the time at Odeon, with Cointreau and fresh lime, and incorporated lemon vodka. It was a total one-off. I took the template and thought it was terrible and was like, come on, let’s make a real drink,” recalls Cecchini. “And then I never thought about it again until it blew up and took over the world.”

At first, Cecchini was only making this new-look Cosmopolitan for the waitstaff, but in-the-know guests were soon asking for the distinctive pink drink. Before long the cocktail had become a must-order in the New York City bar scene. “That drink took over our lives,” says Cecchini. “I was literally making over 200 of these a night at Odeon. People gave me grief for this drink. I felt it, and it was my drink, so I can only imagine what other bartenders were putting up with.”

The Cosmo drifted slightly out of the limelight but re-emerged in the summer of 1999 with a cameo in Sex and the City. “We can’t ignore the influence of Sex and the City for the popularity of this cocktail,” says Kristina Magro, the general manager for a Chicago tavern. “I love this cocktail because, for many, this was a gateway into the craft cocktail world. You dipped your toe in with a crowd-pleasing Cosmo, and then hopefully that [gained] your trust to try other cocktails as well.”

Cut to 2020, when months of COVID-related lockdowns inspired many to try making drinks at home, and the Cosmopolitan started to make yet another revival. “We all wanted something easy and consistent to make,” says Kevin Nguyen, head bartender of a Los Angeles craft cocktail bar. Nguyen points to the drink’s accessible ingredient list, its comforting nostalgia factor and its inherent playfulness for sparking the resurgence: “[It] gives off this energy of being extremely inviting, fresh, fun.”

He also credits bestselling cookbook author and television host Ina Garten, “the Queen of the Cosmopolitan,” who, in the early days of the pandemic, was a ray of benevolent pink light when she shared a quarantine video (which has now received over 1.7 billion impressions) of herself shaking up an over-the-top Cosmo poured into a comically oversized cocktail glass. “It’s always cocktail hour in a crisis!” she says.

“Coming out of this pandemic, the guest wants something familiar. I have definitely noticed the resurgence of ’90s cocktails,” says Magro. “It helps that the Cosmo is a citrus-forward, fairly crushable cocktail that can be enjoyed almost any time of the year—not to mention the presentation is always gorgeous. Who doesn’t love a pink drink?”

Though variations inspired by the famous blueprint have proliferated (with one notable Manhattan cocktail bar even launching an entire menu of Cosmos riffs this summer), many bartenders feel an essential ingredient in any Cosmopolitan is Cointreau, the French orange liqueur that dates to 1849. “Cointreau is the benchmark orange liqueur. There isn’t really a substitute,” says Gabe Sanchez, general manager of a Dallas cocktail bar. “It’s the backbone. You can’t have a Cosmo without it.” Christine Wiseman, the beverage director of a group of high-volume tropical bars, likes how Cointreau helps equalize the tartness of the Cosmopolitan with its round notes of orange and spice. “Cointreau is really the star of the show,” she says.

“Cointreau is very well-balanced. It’s dry, but not completely absent of sugar,” says Nguyen. “It doesn’t completely take over as the predominant flavor and acts as more of a [complement] and helps create nuance and subtlety. … This foundation of sweet and bitter [orange peels] produces a much more complex and interesting drink.”

With Cointreau’s initiative, perhaps there’s never been a better time to rediscover what makes the classic cocktail more than a nostalgic footnote, all while helping the bar community. Though it may be too soon to call this the Summer of the Cosmopolitan, Cecchini himself is making around 20 off-menu Cosmos a night at his Brooklyn bar, The Long Island Bar. He’s also offering a frozen variation on the menu that some regulars call the Frosmopolitan. “I was hoping it wouldn’t detract—‘Oh, please, you and the Cosmo.’ It was … a cheeky thing in the middle of the pandemic. Like, OK, here it is. I waved the flag,” he says. “Everyone loves it.”

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Cointreau Cosmos for a Cause

Learn more and sign up for Cosmos for a Cause—a charitable program by Cointreau that encourages consumers to raise a cocktail in support of the bar and restaurant community.