The Cosmopolitan is a bright, easy-to-make cocktail with a bouquet of lime, orange, lemon, and cranberry. Neon pink, the “Cosmo” revivifies, refreshes, and rightfully earns its place beside the Margarita and Sidecar on your table.
The History of the Cosmopolitan
The Cosmopolitan is a vodka daisy, which is a sour made with fresh citrus and a liqueur like curacao. Where its siblings, the Margarita and the Sidecar, play it fairly straight, the Cosmopolitan’s nod to the cranberries of Cape Cod makes it an almost singular pleasure.
For such a relatively new drink, the Cosmopolitan’s origins have become as often (and hotly) debated as the classics of the late 19th Century. What we can say for sure is that the drink—a standard sour customized with cranberry juice—first found real popularity and recognition in the mid-1980s, just before Absolut Citron would launch and become its signature vodka.
Neal Murray, Cheryl Cook, Toby Cecchini, and others from South Beach to New York City to Minneapolis to San Francisco all have elaborate stories to support their claims of invention. But we can look back a little further to see the fingerprints of this drink in everything from Ocean Spray promotions from the 1950s through 1970s, to a handful of drinks from the 1930s bearing the same name (one of which featured gin in place of vodka, and raspberry syrup in place of cranberry juice).
Given its similarity to the combination of vodka, cranberry juice, and lime in the “Cape Codder” or “Harpoon”—both creations of Ocean Spray’s promotions department—that company might have the best claim. But its refinement at the hands of Cheryl Cook, Dale DeGroff, et al, and its posterizing by Sex and the City, made it the standard it is today.
What Is the Best Vodka for a Cosmo?
While purists will insist on a lemon-accented citron vodka such as Absolut Citron (and I recommend as much), there are more than a few ways to approach the Cosmopolitan. The citrus accents to the vodka are somewhat key, however, unless you want to add lemon juice on your own.
Stolichnaya Lemon is a common runner-up, while Absolut Lime would make for a complementary, semi-creative substitute. You’re only advised to avoid overly expensive “sipping” or prestige vodkas, whose more subtle qualities would likely be lost in the sour party that is a Cosmo.
Triple Sec or Cointreau
While somewhat interchangeable in most recipes, Cointreau is better balanced between bitter and sweet . It’s also typically of higher quality than your average triple sec or other curaçaos, has a better palate, and usually has a better nose. At 40% alcohol (against Triple Sec’s 15% - 30%), Cointreau will also make for a stronger or less-diluted drink, accentuating the orange without sapping the vodka’s quiet strength.
That said, Pierre Ferrand Dry Curaçao, an elegant, dry, bitter recipe crafted by Cognac Ferrand in consultation with cocktail historian David Wondrich and based on a 19th century recipe, would be a clever feather to stick in your Cosmopolitan’s cap.
100% Cranberry Juice or Cranberry Juice Cocktail?
The best bet is 100% cranberry juice (unsweetened). Resist the urge to go with a cranberry juice cocktail. Different cranberry cocktails can have a variable amount of sugar, and this would make it far too difficult to balance the drink.
Fresh, unsweetened cranberry juice is far too tart on its own—but with the perfect measure of simple syrup, it will come across as pleasant, if slightly cheeky, and add exactly the flavor, character, and sourness it was meant to. Also with cranberry juice, you can customize the sweetness and end up with far better color for your trouble.
If you want to forgo the simple syrup in the recipe, you can substitute Ocean Spray Cranberry Juice Cocktail for the unsweetened cranberry juice: You’ll still get the necessary sweetness to balance the drink, and have one fewer ingredient to measure out. Not the worst outcome!
Variations on the Cosmopolitan
- Watermelon Cosmo: 1.5 oz vodka, 1 oz triple sec, 0.5 oz fresh lime juice, 2 oz watermelon juice
- Cosmopolitan Strawberry: 2-4 fresh strawberries, 1 oz Cointreau, 0.25 oz fresh lime juice, 2 oz Absolut Citron (citrus vodka). Halve the strawberries (saving one half for garnish) and muddle the others with the Cointreau and lime juice. Add the vodka and ice, and shake well until cold to the touch. Strain into a martini glass and garnish with the reserved strawberry half.
- Rude Cosmopolitan: Substitute tequila for the vodka.
- Brazilian Cosmopolitan: Substitute cachaça for the vodka
- The 1934 Cosmopolitan: A dry gin in place of the vodka, a dash of Raspberry (framboise) sugar syrup in place of the cranberry juice
More Classic Cocktails
- French 75
- Classic Vodka Martini
- Gimlet Cocktail
- Manhattan Cocktail
- Old Fashioned Cocktail
- Negroni Cocktail
- 2 ounces Absolut Citron (citrus vodka)
- 3/4 ounce cranberry juice
- 3/4 ounce Cointreau
- 3/4 ounce lime juice
- 1/4 ounce simple syrup
Add all ingredients to a cocktail shaker filled with ice, and shake until cold to the touch.
Strain into a chilled martini glass.
Garnish with an orange twist.