When I started writing about booze in the mid-aughts, the cultural reference point for mixed drinks was Sex and the City and its ubiquitous Cosmopolitan. Since, at that time, I was a full-fledged member of a movement of insufferable cocktail nerds who were rediscovering pre-Prohibition recipes, frequenting speakeasies, committing molecular mixology, and disparaging vodka, I — of course — hated the Cosmo. Or at least that was the official word.
In reality, I always kinda enjoyed the Cosmo. I’d come of age in the late 1980s and early 1990s, also known as the Dark Age of Cocktails and the epoch of such concoctions as the Fuzzy Navel, the Slippery Nipple, and the Screaming Orgasm. Back then, cranberry juice was a staple in such infamous drinks as Sex on the Beach and the Redheaded Slut, generally mixed with something like peach schnapps or Jägermeister. I remember ordering a lot of “vodka cranberry” and Sea Breezes in my younger days.
The Cosmopolitan was invented in 1988, by Toby Cecchini at The Odeon in Tribeca (the same year as the movie Cocktail, with Tom Cruise), a blend of citrus vodka, Cointreau, lime juice, and Ocean Spray cranberry. It might be the only cocktail of that era that deserves to be called a “classic.” This time of year, when fresh cranberries appear in the market, it remains one of my go-to drinks.
A problem with many of those late 20th-century recipes (besides the horrific names and the awfulness of peach schnapps) is the use of “cranberry cocktail” rather than 100 percent cranberry juice. Not that there’s anything wrong with Ocean Spray, which pairs perfectly with longboarding and Fleetwood Mac. But spending a few extra minutes to whip up some fresh homemade cranberry juice in your blender will take a Cosmo to another level. (It’s so good, you don’t need to use it in a cocktail, and it’s perfect with a little sparkling water or club soda for guests that don’t drink.)
I took the simple recipe that I used from Todd Thrasher, who ran one of the first and most influential craft cocktail speakeasies, PX, in Alexandria, Virginia. All you do is mix the berries with sugar and water, blend the whole thing, and strain it. There’s no cooking: You don’t want to add any heat during this process because cranberries contain a lot of pectin, and the juice will gel when it’s heated. The only trick here is to strain thoroughly with a fine-mesh strainer, possibly a few times, just to remove the solids from the juice.
For the cocktail, I’ve always liked Thrasher’s take on the Cosmopolitan, the Provincial, the original of which calls for rhum Agricole instead of vodka, and has a homemade lime syrup recipe that stands in for Rose’s lime juice.
In my own version of the Provincial, I like to use fresh lime juice, as well as Cointreau, and I experiment with different types of white spirits — honestly, whatever I happen to have on hand. Rum is great, gin or aquavit is good, and blanco tequila…why not? Since I seem to have a lot of unaged fruit brandies around, I made an amazing one recently with pear eau de vie. My favorite might be with unaged apple brandy, particularly La Blanche by Calvados producer Christian Drouin. The result is maybe the best cran-apple drink you’ve ever tasted.
Many times, though, I’ll take my Cosmopolitan the old-fashioned way, the way it was intended: with vodka. Go ahead, call me a Charlotte. I don’t care.
Homemade Cranberry Juice
Makes: 2 quarts
Time: 15 minutes.
• 72 ounces (six 12-ounce bags) fresh cranberries, rinsed and stemmed
• 1 ½ cups sugar
• 6 cups water
Have a fine-mesh strainer or chinois at hand. Combine the cranberries, sugar, and water in a large bowl; toss to coat. Pour the mixture into a blender and liquefy, working in batches if necessary, then strain into a separate large bowl, pressing to extract as much juice as possible. Repeat to blend and strain all of the mixture, discarding the solids. The juice can be refrigerated for up to 3 days in an airtight container.
Makes: 1 drink
Time: 5 minutes.
1 ½ ounces white spirit such as rum, fruit brandy, vodka, gin, whatever.
3 ounces homemade cranberry juice
½ ounce Cointreau (or other orange liqueur)
½ ounce fresh-squeezed lime juice
Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Add spirit, cranberry juice, Cointreau, and lime juice. Shake vigorously, then strain into a glass (can be served up or on the rocks). Garnish with lime slice, if you want.