Discovering the real Cosmopolitan
For much of the last week, I have been reading Cosmopolitan by Toby Cecchini. Subtitled A Bartender’s Life, it tries to do for the bar business what Anthony Bourdain did to the restaurant trade with Kitchen Confidential. Except of course that Cecchini does not write as well as Bourdain and his experiences have been less varied so the book can be heavy going.
Cecchini’s claim to fame is that he invented – or re-invented – the Cosmopolitan, the archetypal 1990s drink that became as much a part of the Sex And The City lifestyle as Jimmy Choo sling backs, Mr Big and the designer vibrator. (I’m sorry if I’ve got the details wrong. Sex And The City is too girlie-girlie a show for me. Show me a man who watches Sex And The City and I will show you a poofter.)
According to Cecchini’s account, he was the bartender at the once trendy Odeon restaurant in New York where one of the waitresses told him about a drink called the Cosmopolitan that somebody from San Francisco had made. The original Cosmopolitan was vodka, lime cordial and grenadine. “It looked pretty but tasted awful: jarring, artificially sweet and just wrong”, Cecchini writes.
He re-invented it using Absolut Citron (“no particular reason other than it was the new, cool thing at the moment”), fresh lime juice (rather than the cordial) and added Cointreau ‘to soften the citric bite’. He didn’t like the taste of grenadine (“artificially sweet”) but needed a bit of colour so he added just a dash of cranberry juice “to give it a demure pink blush.”
The Cosmopolitan did not feature on the Odeon menu but became the secret staff drink. There’s nothing New Yorkers like more than a drink that’s secret, exclusive or off-the-menu and so naturally it became the thing to order at Odeon.
In no time at all, other bars got in on the act and started claiming that it was one of their specialities. And then the booze companies began to push it. Flavoured vodka was still just about to take off in the US so Absolut liked the idea that its Citron was the prime ingredient in the trendy drink of the day.
In my experience, you can substitute a good Triple Sec for Cointreau in most cocktails (such as the Margarita) but because the original Cosmopolitan used Cointreau, this became a means of pushing the clear orange liqueur. Even Grand Marnier (orange flavoured brandy) got in on the craze and put up billboards reading “The Grand Marnier Cosmopolitan: official drink of the beautiful people.” (Says Cecchini, “Grand Marnier is repulsively cloying in a Cosmopolitan.”)
By the mid-1990s, the Cosmopolitan had travelled the world. It was being regularly ordered at London’s Met Bar and early in this century, Rick’s at the Delhi Taj bragged about the quality of its Cosmopolitans. (Too much cranberry juice for me, though.) It works best, says Cecchini, when barmen recognise that all great cocktails rely on a triangulation of flavours. A Cosmopolitan should taste of vodka, lemon juice and Cointreau. The cranberry juice is just window dressing, meant for the colour alone. Judging by Cecchini’s book there are many kinds of barmen. There’s the basic barman, the sort of fellow you judge by his ability to handle the classic cocktails. (Cecchini says he uses the martini as his test of a good barman.) There’s the slightly adventurous barman, the sort of the chap who’ll understand the science and logic behind the classic and will use these principles to make up new drinks (such as the Cosmopolitan). Then there are the showmen who will fling bottles around like Tom Cruise in Cocktail but will know damn-all about actually making a good drink. And finally, there are the chef-bartenders who pride themselves on the exotic nature of the drinks they have invented: a vodka crème brulee for instance.
Cecchini has understandable reservations about the bottle-flingers. What is the man supposed to be doing? Making you a drink or demonstrating his jugglery skills? I loathe barmen who try and impress you with these tricks almost as much as I loathe theme restaurants where the waiters clutch each other’s assess and perform assembly-line dance steps to entertain those guests who are not throwing up because of the quality of the food. Whenever I did have to go to the truly execrable TGIF, the chefless restaurant at Delhi’s Priya Cinema complex (if you have to go, then eat only the ribs), I found the spectacle of waiters wearing silly badges and shouting football-style cheers too embarrassing to behold.
I’m not sure that I share Cecchini’s contempt for chef-bartenders. But some of the points he makes are valid. To make a proper Mojito, he says, you need to mull “fresh mint and allow it to macerate in the rum while I squeeze fresh limes and mix the juice with just the proper amount of sugar, stirring it until nothing granular remains before combining the two to shake, pouring over fresh ice, and garnishing with the mint blossoms and lime wheels – you are looking at 15 minutes for one drink.”
Which bartender actually has enough time to devote 15 minutes to a single cocktail?
So, most bartenders cheat. They substitute the sugar with syrup. They use frozen lime juice. They keep their mint presoaked in rum. All this gives you a perfectly acceptable Mojito but it is to the real drink what a Big Mac is to a real hamburger.
On the other hand, if you didn’t have chef-bartenders willing to experiment with kitchen ingredients (vanilla, berries, chocolate etc.) you’d end up with many different variations of the Whisky Sour or the Gin Martini. You need somebody who is willing to think outside the box.
Cecchini, of course, does not agree. He is scathing about the current trend of describing short drinks as Martinis: “inane, candy-flavoured concoctions catering to the post-teen drinker looking to have her dangerously adult edge by imbibing some fortified Kool-Aid out of a stem glass. I’ve noticed that the spate of Apple Martinis, Chocolate Martinis, Passion Fruit and Vanilla Martinis has so broadened the spectrum that even chefs have jumped on to the perilously overloaded Martini bandwagon... It won’t be long before one can hopscotch through an entire seven-course Martini meal from aperitif to dessert.”
His kind of Martini, of course, is the traditional American one. You chill the glasses first. Then, in a cocktail shaker, filled with cracked ice, you pour a little dry vermouth. Swirl the vermouth around the ice and then strain it off. Then, pour two ounce neat gin for every Martini you intend to make and shake like crazy. To triangulate the taste, top with a good olive.
Obviously Cecchini is a bit of an outsider in the world of nouvelle cocktails (though Bourdain was less rigid in his attitude to food) and he also operates on the principle that all bars are crowded and all barmen are incredibly busy: which, for instance, is why they won’t make a proper Mojito for you.
Well, perhaps he’s right about a certain kind of New York bar. But here in India there are lots of barmen with lots of time. They have two problems. The first is that absurd licensing regulations often deny them all the ingredients they need. And the other is that there’s nobody to teach them how to stay one step ahead in the cocktail world. Rick’s had a cocktail consultant but most other bars simply make it up as they go along (have you ever managed to get a good Cosmopolitan in India?)
On airlines the situation is even worse because the crew are supplied prepackaged Bloody Mary mix, for instance, and told to just add vodka. (One of my duties on PM’s flights is to make real cocktails for members of the press party.) As a general rule, never order a cocktail on an airplane, stick to spirits with a mix or – if you are not flying Air India – to the wine and champagne
But as for the Cosmopolitan, here, at last, is the recipe by the man who re-invented it (see box).