Vodka-based drinks once ruled the cocktail kingdom. The spirit was always down to party and perfectly complemented the Technicolor cocktails that dominated the 20th century’s close. Nowhere is this bygone era of drinking better memorialized than in Sex and the City’s co-opting of the Cosmopolitan: “I’d like a cheeseburger, please, large fries, and a Cosmopolitan,” per Carrie Bradshaw’s McDonald's order.
“The Cosmopolitan is effectively just a very simple vodka sour,” veteran bartender and bar owner Toby Cecchini tells me over the phone, “But it has this tony name and it’s served in a tony glass.” Though cocktail origins are always tricky to pinpoint, many recognize Cecchini as the man behind the drink. In 1988, when Cecchini was a 25-year-old bartender at The Odeon, Absolut Citron—the vodka that sparked a revolution of DIY imitations—busted onto the market. “We’d never seen anything like it. We were like, ‘Oh my god, that’s sooo cool! The flavor is in the vodka!’ ” he recalls, imitating that bro-y naïveté exclusive to 20-somethings.
One day at work, Cecchini caught wind of a drink that was popular in San Francisco leather bars. Dubbed the Cosmopolitan, it was a pretty-vile-sounding mix of rail vodka, Rose’s grenadine, and lime cordial in a V-shaped glass. Cecchini revamped the cocktail using Citron, Cointreau, fresh lime, and Ocean Spray cranberry juice cocktail. What emerged was refreshingly tart, beautifully blush, and dressed with a lemon-peel garnish.
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The Cosmo quickly seduced Lower Manhattan. “We were chained to that drink. Every bartender in the city wanted to murder me and I wanted to murder me, too,” Cecchini says, flashing back to that era. A New York Times article from 1999 declares, “[B]y evening, New York has become a cocktail party of sexy, colorful fruit-filled drinks. Vacation-style drinks.”
SATC hit airwaves almost 20 years ago, and with it the Cosmopolitan escaped Manhattan’s confines. As a deprived child growing up in a cable-less Seattle home, friends’ houses were my refuge to gawk at the titillating existence portrayed in the show. The drink first appears early in the sophomore season. The gang is out celebrating Carrie’s birthday; elongated glasses rise from the table like tiny glass trees filled with alcohol, and there it stands: translucent, dusty rose, urbane. My 11-year-old mind assumed it tasted like the city-dwelling cousin of Hawaiian Punch, and therefore delicious. From that first cameo on, the Cosmo and the HBO series were inextricably linked.
“It had a whole like, girls’ night out, ‘Ooh, let’s have Cosmos!’ mentality,” bartending ace and cocktail consultant Lucy Brennan explains to me.
Anna Dunn, a Brooklyn-based bartender whose résumé includes hotspots Diner and Achilles Heel, delivers her take to me over email: “I suppose Sex and the City reglamorized the cocktail. Pink drink. Silky dress. Success!”
Prior to its big break, the Cosmopolitan drew New York City stars into its rosy fold. However, it was the show that transformed the Cosmo into a global celebrity in its own right, and made it into the drink that defined the aughts. But as SATC wound down and the cocktail renaissance sped up, the drink flatlined.
While well-versed bartenders respect the undeniable classic’s role in helping to catalyze a new age of cocktail drinking, it’s a rare ticket item today. “I mean, would you order a Slurpee? It just doesn’t appeal to people anymore,” Brennan remarks.
The craft cocktail boom—which rejected ingredients like flavored vodka in place of “authenticity”—seemed to doom the drink based on content alone. However, SATC caused it to plummet further; the former signifier of sophistication was irreparably time-pegged to a show that by today’s standards seems more of a parody than an aspiration.
I set out to familiarize myself with my subject, inviting a friend for Cosmos at Pépé le Moko, a subterranean Portland cocktail venue. Said friend doesn’t have high hopes: “The Cosmopolitan is what you used to drink to get wasted, with no calories, when you had a UTI.” Our waitress arrives and my order is met with a barely perceivable eyebrow raise.
When the drink arrives, it fills a coupe glass, garnet and garnished with orange peel; I suspect Cecchini’s specs are tweaked. I wince, bringing my lips to the brim of the glass nearly expecting to be poisoned. I take one sip, then another—and, hang on a minute, it’s actually delicious. My companion submits to a taste and begrudgingly agrees. It’s suddenly clear: The drink itself never changed—it remains a flirty refresher—rather we changed, outgrowing the now-vapid and unrelatable days of Sex and City that previously shaped our perception of the drink.
The Cosmopolitan is a scrunchie, it is the Rachel haircut, it is piercing your tongue: We rhapsodize nostalgically over its time in the spotlight but despite reports that it is on the rise, the drink has yet to make a comeback in earnest. At least not until entire generations of SATC viewers die off.