The Birth of the Cosmopolitan
Being the Whole and True Story, or Stories, Behind the Creation of the Last True Classic Cocktail to Be Born in the Twentieth Century
Cointreau made her up. That was my conclusion when, after years of trying to track down the mysterious Cheryl Cook, supposed creator of the Cosmopolitan cocktail, I came up empty handed. I believe it was William Grimes, of the New York Times, who first mentioned Cook’s name to me, and the good folk at Cointreau agreed. “She’s somewhere in Miami,” they told me. This all took place in the mid-1990s, hen e-mail was, to me at least, in its infancy, so all of my tracking had to be done via phone, and by snail mail. How very tedious.
Cointreau was probably the chief beneficiary of the Cosmo explosion, although many versions were made with generic triple sec. Those in the know, however, usually went the Cointreau route, loving the liqueur for it’s dry sophistication, as well as its intense orange zest flavors. And Absolut Citron probably fared well too because of this, now classic, cocktail, but many other citrus-flavored vodkas appeared on the heels of the Absolut bottling, so it probably had to share the jackpot with the rest of the products that threw their figurative hats into the ring.
It seemed to make sense to me, though, that the drink was created by the marketing department at Cointreau, and omeone there invented a fictitious bartender who they touted as having created the drink. That would add legitimacy to the cocktail, right? I thought that Cointreau was behind this for many a year.
Various other people were credited with having invented the Cosmo along the way, though the two people who were cited feat most often both vigorously denied that they were the ones to first mix the pink drink. Dale DeGroff, King Cocktail himself, claimed that he first sampled Cosmopolitans at the Fog City Diner in San Francisco, and again at New York’s Odeon, and in both cases they were made with Absolut Citron, Rose’s Lime Juice, and cranberry juice. Dale simply added Cointreau to the mix, and used fresh lime juice instead of Rose’s, when he introduced the drink to his customers at the Rainbow Room in 1996.
Toby Cecchini, in his book, Cosmopolitan: A Bartender’s Life, says that he first encountered Cosmos at the Odeon when they were introduced to him, circa 1987, by his co-worker, Melissa Huffsmith, aka Mesa. Mesa had worked at the Life Café in San Francisco, and the drink that she knew as the Cosmopolitan, as served at Life, was made with plain old vodka, Rose’s, and grenadine. Uuurgh. Cecchini didn’t much care for the drink, but he did sort of go for the pink, so he re-invented it using Citron vodka, Cointreau, fresh lime juice, and cranberry juice.
When I read about this in Cecchini’s book, I thought to myself, Goddammit, man, you did, too, invent the Cosmopolitan. Why so shy? And I wrote as much for Cheers magazine in 2005 when they asked me to pen a piece about the origins of various drinks. Although I’d met him only once, in early 2004, I had a soft spot for Toby. I should fill you in.
In September, 2004, I published a review of Cecchini’s book in our e-mail newsletter, Ardent Spirits. Here’s an excerpt from the review:
“Cecchini’s denial of responsibility for the Cosmo isn’t the only thing that’s annoying about this book, but we’re still recommending that you run out and buy Cosmopolitan, the book, immediately. Why? Because Cecchini, love him or hate him, has the soul of a true bartender, and it fair shines from the pages of this book.
“Toby has an annoying habit of using words that are not only too long for a bartender to know, but also too obscure for most people to understand. He does the same with foreign phrases, too, but once we got over being really tee-ed off with him for being so obviously over-educated, I was enthralled with his book.”
I got hold of Toby’s e-mail address, and as soon as the review was published I sent him a link. If you’re going to insult someone publicly, I thought, you should be the first person to break it to them. Cecchini replied promptly:
“Gary, I just read the review; love it: guilty as charged. If there are two things I want my customers/readers to take away from a brush with me, they are arrogance and annoyance–provided they like whatever else they’re imbibing . . . Thanks for the lovely review.”
Now I loved the man.
A few months later I found myself on a press junket to the Cognac region of France with Toby, and various and sundry other scribes, so I posed the question:
“Why do you keep denying having invented the Cosmo?”
“Because nobody ever believed me when I laid claim to the drink,” he told me. Fair enough, I thought.
It’s important, at this part of the story, for you to know the tale of the birth of another drink, the Kamikaze. And it’s also important that you understand that this story is strictly as I lived it, not necessarily the whole truth of the matter.
In the 1970s I was tending bar at Drake’s Drum, an earthy joint on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Dave Ridings, an old friend from England who took me in when I arrived on these shores, had gotten me the gig, and it was a job I adored. The same Dave Ridings introduced me to Kamikazes, telling me that Scott Lamb, then a bartender at Botany Bay on East 86th Street, had been the guy who first poured the drink for him. It was made with Stolichnaya vodka, and a few drops of Rose’s lime juice. Just a few drops, mind you. Stirred over ice, the Kamikaze was strained, normally into a rocks glass, and it was a shooter. A drink to get you drunk. Ridings asked Lamb what the difference was supposed to be between the Kamikaze, and a very dry Vodka Gimlet. “You don’t want to commit suicide after a Vodka Gimlet,” said Lamb.
Kamikazes ruled on the Upper East Side for many a year. I was there. I witnessed this. Any time there was a lull in the conversation, someone would order up a round of Kamis, and we’d get back on track. Looking for fun in all the wrong places. Kamikazes were magic pills. Guaranteed to get the party going again. And that decade was one, very long, very drunken, and often drug-filled party. It wasn’t until years later that I heard about Kamikazes being made with Cointreau and fresh lime juice. Being sipped, instead of gulped. From Martini glasses, no less, instead of rocks glasses. How the hell did that happen, I wondered.
(That’s Dave Ridings in yellow. He and I were playing at silly buggers, circa 1974)
But that’s how it goes with cocktails. Someone invents a drink. Perhaps two or three or seven people invent the same drink at the same time–this often happens when new products hit the shelves, and cocktailian bartenders don their creative hats to figure out how to use the new bottling. The drink spreads its wings and flies from place to place—or or it simply dies on the spot—and every bartender who gets his or her hands on the recipe tweaks it a little. The drink changes. Or it doesn’t. Perhaps the name changes. There’s just no way to figure out exactly what will happen to any given formula once it makes the round of America’s bars. Now let’s get back to the Cosmopolitan.
On Sunday, September 25, 2005, at 11:24 p.m. E.S.T., a certain someone in Florida clicked on the “send” button, and transmitted an e-mail to Mardee Haidin Regan and me:
Hello Mr. & Mrs. Regan! I was recently made aware of various article written about me and the Cosmopolitan. I have also recently purchased your book, ‘New Classic Cocktails.’
My name is Cheryl Cook. I was a bartender from 1985-2000 on South Beach. I was commonly refereed to as “The Martini Queen of South Beach. I have spent the past several years working as a Producer & Technical Director in the Event Industry. I also have traveled with a Dance Company around the World for many years. During this period I was out of the ‘Bar’ loop.
The story goes like this….. A friend, actually the first person I served a Cosmopolitan to, (who also witnessed 15 years of South Beach being “crazy” for Cosmopolitans), found an article a couple of weeks ago giving me credit for the Cosmopolitan and called me.
I served my first Cosmopolitan to Christina Solopuerto the night we received the ‘First’ bottle of Absolut Citron. Christina was sitting at my bar, at’ The Strand on South Beach,’ in 1985. The Strand was under the original ownership of Gary Farmer, Irene Gersing and Mark Benck. Within 30 minutes the entire bar had a Cosmo in front of them. Within 45 minutes the entire restaurant had one. I had already emptied the ‘one and only’ bottle of Absolut Citron, so I had to squeeze lemons into the regular Absolut.
Regarding ‘Sex And The City’ popularizing this drink; Patricia & Rebeca Fields, the Costume Designers (Mother & Daughter Team) for the entire run of ‘Sex And The City,’ were customers of mine for 15 years. They sat at every bar I ever worked and watched, first hand, the sheer onslaught of South Beach Cosmo drinkers.
By the way, I even named my cat Cosmo!
Any way, thank you for the acknowledgment. I have always kicked myself for not seeing to some kind of recognition. [so] thanks for my 15 minutes!
Call or write if you would like. Cheryl Cook
Cheryl Cook, circa 1985
My God! Cheryl Cook exists. This e-mail made my day. Now I had to try to verify who she was, and whether or not she really did invent the Cosmopolitan. Bear in mind that I don’t consider myself to be an investigative reporter. I’m not even a journalist in my eyes. I’m a writer. I write from my point of view. And of course, I’m a bartender, too, which helps me get to the bottom of some cocktail-related stuff, simply because I know how bartenders’ minds work. I fired a few questions to Cheryl to see how she would respond. Here’s how that went:
1. What was the original recipe?
Absolut Citron a splash of triple sec a drop of roses lime juice and just enough cranberry to make it “Oh so pretty in pink” and topped with a curled lemon twist.
2. How did you come up with the recipe? What made you put those specific ingredients together?
The Martini had just made its come back. Women were ordering them just for the glass but many could not drink them because they were too strong. My idea was to create a “pretty” cocktail that they could drink and serve it in a Martini glass.
3. How did you come up with the name?
Cosmopolitan Magazine had done a several page spread on female Maitre d’s and Nathalie Thomas from the Strand was one of the featured Maitre d’s. She had that issue with her daily!
I was sold at this point. This woman obviously created the drink. But I pressed further. I wanted more evidence. Here’s an excerpt from another e-mail from Cheryl:
I believe it was Southern Wine and Spirits that was handling the Absolut products at the time . . . I was the Head Bartender of the Strand on Washington Avenue . . . My Southern Wine and Spirits rep brought me a new Absolut product, “Absolut Citron.” He said, create something Cheryl. I love a challenge and I had wanted to create a new drink for the Martini glass so..….The ingredients, as I always phrased it, “Absolut Citron, a splash of triple sec, a drop of roses lime and just enough cranberry to make it oh so pretty in pink,” fell in suit. Basically this recipe is a no brainier, mixing wise. Merely a Kamikaze with Absolut Citron and a splash of cranberry juice. My objective was also a “design” task. To create a visually stunning cocktail in a beautiful glass. Pretty and pretty tasty too. Not so much trying to reinvent the wheel, just bringing it up to speed.
For me, this is the sentence clinched it: Merely a Kamikaze with Absolut Citron and a splash of cranberry juice. That’s exactly what the drink is. Cheryl merely took a tried and true recipe and tweaked it a little. She wasn’t boasting about her creativity, she was telling it like it was. And Cheryl gives way too many details for this story not to be true. The way in which she came up with the name, for instance, is at once believable. Cheryl Cook is the real deal as far as I’m concerned. God bless her little pink heart!
So the drink made its way across the country, landing in San Francisco, then New York, and along the way, the recipe was butchered. Typical, huh? But just as the drink that I first knew as the Kamikaze, made with only vodka and Rose’s, ended up as a cocktail containing Cointreau and fresh lime juice, the bastardized version of Cheryl’s original formula fell into the hands of a couple of cocktailian bartenders in the Big Apple who nurtured it, and kissed it back to life. God blessToby Cecchini’s heart, and God bless Dale DeGroff’s heart, too.