New York Times cocktail writer Robert Simonson's book, A Proper Drink, looks at the origins of the ongoing cocktail renaissance and the bartenders who rescued classic drinks from obscurity. He tells The Splendid Table's Joe Yonan about the lost ingredients (and supermodels) that inspired them, and why the cosmopolitan is so controversial.
Joe Yonan: You have written this book about cocktails, the stories behind them, and the cocktail renaissance, but I want to start by talking to you about a cocktail that everybody loves to hate, which is the cosmopolitan.
Robert Simonson (Photo: Daniel Krieger)
Robert Simonson: It's a good place to start.
JY: How did it come about? Who invented the cosmo?
RS: That's a difficult question to answer. You would think in our day and age, where everything we do is thoroughly accounted for in a million mediums, that we would know exactly who invented the cosmopolitan. For some time now, there have been at least three claimants to this drink, and people continue to argue about it to this day.
I did thorough research into the cosmopolitan because I felt it was an important drink. It's like a proto-modern classic, one that preceded all the other modern classic cocktails that followed it. I interviewed all the people who said they invented it, and I took a stand: I said that a man named Toby Cecchini invented the cosmopolitan in 1988 at The Odeon in New York.
This has emerged as the initial controversy coming out of the book because there are some people who say it was invented by a woman named Cheryl Cook, who is a bartender down in Miami. The thing is, it has to date from 1988 because that's when Absolut Vodka introduced Absolut Citron to the market. You can't make the drink without Absolut Citron. That was one of the first flavored vodkas.
JY: Why do modern bartenders hate it so much?
RS: There are a trio of reasons. There's a natural hatred bartenders have for a drink they have to make a million times. They get really sick of that. Another reason is when the modern mixology trend began in the late '90s and early 2000s, one of their badges of honor was using quality ingredients, and they wanted to use fresh juice instead of sour mix. They wanted to use good quality liquor.
The cosmopolitan called for a couple things that they were against. One was flavored vodka, which they considered artificial, and the second was cranberry juice cocktail, which they also considered an artificial ingredient. The more principled bars in the early years would not even carry cranberry juice behind the bar, so they had an excuse they could give to the customers when they ordered a cosmopolitan. They could say, "I'm sorry we can't make that."
JY: Even the fact that it's based on vodka is a problem for them, right?
RS: Yes. In the early years, vodka was the enemy. You have to remember that vodka is the number one spirit in America. More people drink vodka than anything else. That's still true today and it certainly was true in the '80s and '90s. These bartenders were trying to get customers to broaden their palate, try some bourbon, try some rye, tequila, mezcal, these other things that were out there.
JY: Another vodka drink that you write about in the book that has an interesting story is the vodka espresso, which some of us think of as an espresso martini.
RS: Almost everyone calls it an espresso martini.
JY: I'm not sure I've ever had a good one.
RS: That is a drink you can get all over the world. It's fresh espresso, vodka, and coffee liqueur. It was invented by a guy named Dick Bradsell, who was the leader of the London cocktail revival. He inspired everybody he trained, hundreds of bartenders, and he invented this cocktail in the '80s. He worked in a lot of private clubs that were frequented by celebrities, including supermodels, and this drink was created on the request of a supermodel that he never identified. Some people speculate it was Kate Moss, but she would've been 13 at the time.
JY: Linda Evangelista?
RS: That's a good choice. The model said she wanted a drink that would first wake her up, and then screw her up, although she didn't use those exact words. That's what Dick Bradsell came up with.
JY: One of the things these bartenders have done is re-introduce us to some lost cocktails, and some of them have become pretty popular. One of my favorites is an aviation: gin, lemon, maraschino, crème de violette. That was a pre-Prohibition gin drink, right? How did it come to be revived, and how did it get to be hip?
RS: The aviation was one of the early poster-child cocktails of the mixology movement. There were a few of these. That drink was known, but it wasn't completely understood until somebody uncovered a cocktail book that was published right before Prohibition. It included a recipe for the aviation, and it had that critical, missing ingredient, the crème de violette, which gives the drink a purple hue.
It's a gin cocktail, and in the early days of the mixology movement they were trying to get everyone to drink gin instead of vodka, so that's one of the reasons why it started appearing on menus. Bartenders started pushing it. It became a trendy drink, and now I think it's safely thought of as a classic. If you go into a good bar, you can order it and be safe in the idea that the bartender knows how to make it.
JY: One thing that struck me as I was reading about all the drinks that spread from bartender to bartender and bar to bar, and in the conflicting accounts of who invented them, was that none of them seem to be considered the property of those bartenders. I suppose there's no copyrighting a cocktail?
RS: No, you cannot copyright a recipe.
JY: Right. It seems like the inventors of the drinks don't seem to be all that proprietary about them. Is it just camaraderie in the bartending world?
RS: They are proprietary; they want to be credited correctly. If you created the cocktail and the cocktail appears on another menu somewhere else, it's supposed to be common courtesy that you put the name of the bartender under it, so people know where that drink came from. They are very good at sharing the recipes, and I think they've learned their lessons from the past.
There was a whole section of cocktail history, the Tiki movement, that was almost lost because the bartenders kept their recipes secret. A historian named Jeff Barry had to dig and dig and dig for years to find out how to properly make a zombie because nobody knew anymore. Bartenders today are very good at sharing cocktails. If I was a bartender, and I went into a bar and tasted this great drink and thought, "This is fantastic," I would just go to the bartender and say, "I would love to put this on my menu, I'll give you credit. Do you mind sharing the recipe?" I'm sure they would. I've never heard that they don't.