People have been coming into the bar of late shouting for Red Bull—some kind of heavily marketed natural stimulant drink—and apple martinis. What’s wrong with a gin martini? “Martinelli’s apple cider?!” I like to bellow back at them disingenuously. I mean, I saw the article in the food section of the Times a month or two back about the Now Cocktail, the apple martini. I don’t remember what was in it, exactly, I just knew I didn’t want to make it. Is it the panting expectation in these people’s entreaties that puts me off, or is it possibly just their nouveau-nerd eyewear?
Actually, I can’t pretend not to know how these things get started. Just last week I fielded a call from an assistant editor at GQ wanting to interview me about my role in “Inventing the Cosmo.” This seems to come about, cicada-like, every few years. I have pointed out clearly to every journalist I’ve spoken to over the years that I did not, in fact, invent the drink, but it seems to dampen no one’s enthusiasm. I did, with my friend Melissa, cobble together the version everyone drinks now, or perhaps reinvent the drink. That seems to suffice insofar as celebrity status demands.
The story, as I told the guy from GQ, is simple. I’ve worked as a bartender in New York for 13 years. My first job here was at the Odeon, which had been this happening place for most of the ‘80s but was in a slump of sorts by ‘87 when I got there. I worked Friday nights behind the bar for years with this great girl, Melissa, whom we called Mesa. She was very sweet but had an imposing mien; she was a tall rocker chick, had been through rehab, loved guitars, and played in an all-girl group. People thought we looked alike, so our surprisingly effective ruse to get rid of annoying people hitting on us was to pretend to be each other’s disapproving or jealous sibling. I was always doing this stupid thing to her, because the Odeon was such a celeb hole: When some shlub would walk in with a fedora on, I’d whisper urgently, “Check it out, it’s Frank Sinatra!” Or when an actual minor celebrity came in, say Stephen Sprouse or Mark Kostabi, I’d say, “Check it out, it’s Iggy Pop!” One night I served a Maker’s Mark to a tall, skinny faux-cowboy dude and as I was ringing it up I said to her, “Check it out, it’s Sam Shepard!” Instead of rolling her eyes she nonchalantly replied, “I know, I saw when he came in.”
We were constantly messing about with drinks, partly to kill time and partly to quench the insatiable alcoholic thirst of the wait staff, who in turn were drinking to kill time. One night Mesa showed me this drink some girl from San Francisco had made for her at Life Café, where Mesa had worked before. It was called the cosmopolitan, and she made it with vodka, Rose’s lime, and grenadine. It looked pretty but tasted awful: jarring and artificially sweet and just wrong. I liked the presentation, though, up in a martini glass, so I decided we could take this and make it much better. Absolut had just come out with Citron, so we wanted to use that. We substituted fresh lime juice for the Rose’s and put Cointreau in it to soften the citric bite. We added just enough cranberry juice to give it a demure pink blush. We decided it had to be shaken extra hard and long, to make it frothy and opaque, and garnished it with a lemon twist for color and flourish. We thought it was pretty good, like a high-end, girlish kamikaze. The wait staff went nuts for our concoction and started soaking up dozens during their after-hours binges. For a few months the reconceived cosmo was just our private staff drink. But soon enough the staff started raving about them to their friends and some of their favorite regulars, and from there the floodgates opened. Our pride at having fashioned a slick drink that people seemed to adore was quickly pushed aside by the annoyance of having to sling a couple hundred of these labor-intensive pink monstrosities in a night. They became the bane of our existence. Ghoulish people dispensing air kisses at the door would breeze in and bark out that they wanted rounds of them for all their friends. We’d look at each other in puzzlement: “Who the hell is that? How do they know about cosmos?” When I left in 1991 to open the bar at Kin Khao in Soho, we pushed the price of them up to $8—which is now a bargain but at the time seemed like a slap in the face—just to try to stanch the flow. It made no difference.
Friends began reporting they’d seen other bartenders making cosmos, as though I should do something about it. Customers at my new bar were asking if I’d ever heard of a drink called the cosmetologian. Others tried to take me to task. “People say you’re supposed to have invented the cosmo? I was drinking cosmos in San Francisco in nineteen-aught-zero!” After awhile I would just sigh and raise my eyebrows (though I’ll admit to a bit of proprietary grumbling when I go out and see some sloppy bartender flashily setting up limp, inferior imitations). Funnily enough, in the 12 years I’ve been making them, during which I’ve easily churned out well over a hundred thousand, I don’t think I’ve tasted any since that first year. I don’t know if I’ve ever had a whole one.
The other day, walking down Seventh Avenue, a friend of mine nudged me, grinning, and pointed up at a billboard. It was an ad for Grand Marnier, which is, by the way, repulsively cloying in a cosmopolitan. The tagline read, “The Grand Marnier Cosmopolitan: official drink of the beautiful people.” Right. If you ask me, they can go put Grand Marnier in that apple martini—or maybe it’s already in there.
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