In Search of the Ultimate Cosmo

We asked 10 of America's best bartenders to submit their finest recipe for the Cosmopolitan—and then blind-tasted them all to find the best of the best.

The Cosmopolitan has been with us Americans for a long time. Once the bright new pink thing on the block, the drink—sometimes celebrated, sometimes reviled—has remained stubbornly popular. It is by now so familiar and so entrenched in our culture as to rank as an institution and, like many American institutions (tailgating, pumpkin spice), it is comforting and embarrassing in equal measures. In fact, it has recently become, quite improbably, newly relevant, once again finding territory on cocktail menus, and is frequently ordered without a hint of irony. 

The Cosmopolitan’s recent resurgence is the latest chapter in the roller coaster history of the modern classic. The Cosmo emerged, by most accounts, at The Odeon restaurant in Manhattan in the late 1980s. (The drink’s definitive origins, as is typical in cocktail history, are not without some disagreement.)

After a period as a relatively obscure but popular local favorite, the Cosmo burst into international notoriety as the poison of choice for the four female stars in the television series Sex and the City, which aired from 1998 to 2004 and lives on in syndication infamy. So ubiquitous was the drink that it later became a natural whipping boy for the bright young bartenders of the cocktail revival of the aughts. It was disdained for its use of flavored vodka and cranberry juice cocktail. Many craft cocktail bars, beginning with the influential Milk & Honey, refused to serve it on principle.

Having won their revolution, these barroom zealots have loosened up over the years and are now content to give customers what they want without judgment. This means, if you order a Cosmo in an upscale bar these days, it likely will come with a smile, not a smirk.

With this new Cosmo-friendly backdrop in mind, PUNCH recently held a blind tasting of 10 versions of the cocktail, collected from bartenders from Brooklyn to Portland, Oregon.

This competition differed from previous “Ultimate” tastings in one significant respect. With the dozens of contests that preceded it, the creator of the drink in question (when such a person’s identity was actually known with any certainty) was long dead. But bartender Toby Cecchini—widely regarded as the inventor of the Cosmo—is very much with us, working daily in Brooklyn as an owner of The Long Island Bar and The Rockwell Place.

With that in mind, it was decided that Cecchini, knowing the drink so intimately and for so long, would prove more valuable as a judge of the various Cosmos rather than as a competitor. Joining him at the judges’ table was Joaquín Simó, owner of Pouring Ribbons in New York, and PUNCH senior editor Chloe Frechette.

At Pouring Ribbons, Simó explained, he requires his bartenders-in-training to know 16 classic and popular drinks by heart, and that the Cosmopolitan is one of them. “If you don’t know how to make this drink, fuck you, you’re not a bartender,” he said. “To deny it because it’s a vodka drink is ridiculous. When made correctly, it’s a delicious drink.”

For Cecchini, making the drink correctly means 1 ½ ounces of Absolut Citron vodka, and ¾ ounce each of Cointreau, lime juice and Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice Cocktail, topped with a lemon twist. The vodka and commercial cranberry juice were once insurmountable sticking points for doctrinaire cocktail bartenders, and Cecchini admitted that he has tried in the past to reimagine the cocktail “in contemporary terms”—that is, with ingredients perceived as having more integrity or artisanal credibility. “But,” he concluded, “it’s just not as good.”

Cecchini sticks to his guns on the other ingredients as well. The orange liqueur should not be any brand other than Cointreau, which he finds “far and away the best triple sec. It’s super clean. It’s so representative. The nose is amazing. The palate is there.”

Simó was in agreement on that, as well as a supporter of Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice Cocktail. “Don’t give me fancy cranberry juice; don’t give me cranberry liqueur or jellies. There is a perfect balance to Cranberry Juice Cocktail. You can add it to any drink and it will not throw it off, because it’s already balanced.”

The most common failing of many Cosmos, Cecchini felt, is a paucity of lime, resulting in a flabby cocktail with an insufficient acid component. More than any other fault, competing drinks were dismissed for containing too little citrus.

So what should an ideal Cosmo taste like? “The most crushable version of citrus you can imagine,” said Simó, bringing a bouquet of lime, orange and lemon to the palate, with the flavor of cranberry bringing up the rear. “If you taste cranberry mainly, you’re doing it wrong,” added Cecchini. “It should be citrus, a tiny bit of sweet and then gone.” The perfect Cosmo, they agreed, is an evanescent pleasure.

The panel didn’t find many of those ideal expressions in the tasting. But a few did stand out. The top three vote-getters ran neck and neck, with the version by Sarah Morrissey, of Ernesto’s in Manhattan, prevailing. It called for 1 ½ ounces of Stolichnaya lemon vodka, 1 ounce Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice Cocktail, ¾ ounce Cointreau, and ½ ounce lime juice, finished off with an orange twist (discarded) and a lime wedge. While Simó found it slightly uninspiring, the other judges thought the drink textbook.

Coming in second, appropriately enough, was the Cosmo served today at The Odeon, where Cecchini invented the cocktail. It contained 1 ½ ounces Absolut Citron, ¾ ounce Cointreau, ½ ounce lime juice and ½ ounce Ocean Spray, garnished with a thin, twirling lime peel.

Taking third place was the recipe of Christine Wiseman, of the Broken Shaker in Los Angeles. It was the most unorthodox of the top three, asking for 1 ½ ounces of Absolut Lime (not Citron), ½ ounce of Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, 1 ounce Ocean Spray, ½ ounce lime juice, and ¼ ounce simple syrup. The mix was shaken with a lime peel and garnished with a grapefruit twist. While the panel thought the grapefruit flavor took over the drink a bit, they otherwise found it balanced and enjoyable.

While Cecchini seemed pleased overall with the results, he remained a bit wistful.

“I’m a little sorry I recused myself,” he said. “I think I would have won.”

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