Here’s a fact to make you feel ancient: Sex and the City turns 20 this month. That’s right, the show that once taught us everything we needed to know about dating, friendship, and designer footwear is one year away from legal drinking age. And we all know what she’d be drinking on her birthday, too. Because more than any of the myriad things that became iconic by association during the franchise’s tenure – more than Manolos or Magnolia Bakery cupcakes or enormous flower pins – the Cosmo is practically synonymous with the Fab Four.
“I don’t know if there’s any other drink or even food that I could think of that is so closely associated with a show,” Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, author of a new book on the show titled Sex and the City and Us, tells Refinery29. “I think whatever you think of as the caricature of SATC, the Cosmo goes with it.”
The first time the Cosmo shows up on SATC is in the second episode of season two (in 1999), titled “The Awful Truth”. During a group dinner in honour of Carrie’s birthday, it quietly glistens from the table spaces next to Samantha and Sanford. Charlotte’s sipping Champagne, while Carrie’s swilling double vodkas on the rocks. The Cosmopolitan clearly hadn’t yet been established as A Thing within the show’s universe. It’s a subtle debut, which may be why so many people seem to remember the drink’s first appearance happening later in the season, in episode 7, “The Chicken Dance”, when the gang attends the wedding of Miranda’s interior decorator to her longtime crush. “Another Cosmopolitan, please,” Samantha says to the bartender, upset that she accidentally fucked the same guy she’d already hooked up with years before.
Despite its humble beginnings on the show, the drink is now so inextricably linked to it that asking why the Cosmo became such a phenomenon is a bit like asking why the show itself found its level of success. It’s pretty, it’s pink, it’s glamorous – all while maintaining an air of being just out of reach, and therefore maybe still worth striving for. And it’s important to remember that even as recently as the late ‘90s, the notion of successful, unattached, thirty-something women running around the city sipping cocktails and doing whatever they wanted was revolutionary. Think about all the things you imagined about adulthood – and then perhaps later decided to actually strive for – that were essentially whipped up by Candace Bushnell, Michael Patrick King, and the rest of the creative forces behind SATC. The apartments! The clothes! The freedom! The elaborate-seeming drinks in glasses as thin-stemmed and polished as your designer stilettos. None of that existed as part of the collective consciousness before, which is hard to imagine, given just how much it does now.
“There’s certain things on the show that you couldn’t do, because the costs were prohibitive, but something like a cupcake or a Cosmo was something you could afford,” hypothesises Armstrong of the Cosmo fixation. “Even if it was an outrageously priced Cosmo, even if it was a $20 Cosmo, it’s still better than $500 Manolos. So you get a little piece of that, you get a little taste of it without having to take out a second mortgage or something in order to pay for it.”
Lauren Garroni, who co-runs the popular Instagram account Every Outfit on SATC, meanwhile, has a slightly different theory. She tells Refinery29: “For a show that was about sexuality and power, I think the Cosmopolitan was the female stand-in for a Martini. The Martini is so synonymous with James Bond and the alpha-male persona, that by having the girls favor [the] Cosmo, it felt like establishing these women as alphas in their world. Also it showed that these girls liked to the drink, which I appreciated.”
What many people don’t realise is that the cocktail enjoyed a sweet life before the show – and may even be poised to have one long after it. Like so many great things, the Cosmopolitan was invented in New York. But not New York as it is today. This was gritty, crime-ridden, ’80s New York. A time when almost nobody had cell phones and you could be a struggling whatever and still afford to live in Manhattan and people like Madonna and Andy Warhol hung out together at the Odeon in Tribeca. In 1988, Toby Cecchini was in his first year of bartending at the downtown hotspot, and he was always experimenting with new drinks to feed to the waitresses and other staff.
He heard from a bartender friend about a cocktail they were making at the gay bars in San Francisco. It consisted of rail vodka, Rose’s lime juice, and Rose’s grenadine. It was, Cecchini tells Refinery29, “pretty but disgusting.” But he really liked the way that pink looked, so he came up with his own version, which had fresh lime juice, Cointreau, Absolut Citron – which had just debuted – and cranberry juice. It was good, but he didn’t think too much of it initially.
“Then the staff went nuts [for it] and it became kind of our staff drink,” he says. “And then some of the girls started introducing it to our regulars, but, you know, our regulars were everybody – Madonna, Sandra Bernhard, it was Lou Reed’s hangout, it was Basquiat and Warhol, it was Sam Shepard. It was everybody, everybody you’ve ever heard of.”
Everybody you’ve ever heard of, drinking Cosmos at the Odeon. Within months, Cecchini began seeing the drink – a dangerously quaffable sweet and sour concoction – at other downtown bars and restaurants. Within a year or two, he recalls, he was seeing it on billboards, advertised with Grand Marnier. Friends advised him to sue somebody, anybody, but it turns out, you can’t really patent a drink. What bothered him the most was that people weren’t – and still aren’t – even making it correctly, putting a half-ounce of lime juice and an orange twist with way too much cranberry juice.
The drink’s sudden, soaring popularity also drew the ire of his fellow bartenders, who quickly grew sick of making them. “The early ‘90s were just a blur of Cosmopolitans,” Cecchini remembers. “In New York City, the thing flamed brightly and then burned out. And then literally ten years later was when SATC picked up on it.”
That’s right, by the time Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker) and company began regularly sipping pink booze on TV screens around the country, their home city had already moved on. The rest of America, however, was very intrigued by what was going on in those tall, sloshy martini glasses.
“The show felt like dispatches from the epicentre of cool. Whatever the show decided to feature, from Magnolia Bakery to Cosmos, felt like the creators were co-signing on what was hip in New York at the moment,” Garroni recalls.
As SATC reached peak popularity, directly emulating the characters no longer became something cool women did, if it ever really was. Around the time the first movie debuted, in 2008, the whole SATC caricature was so overblown and cliche that even many the show’s original superfans felt the need to distance themselves from it. But then, thanks to HBO reruns, it was suddenly at the fingertips of a whole new generation of women, many of whom were still kids when it first debuted.
“The Cosmopolitan has become the unofficial drink of what I will lovingly refer to as ‘the basic bitch,’” says Chelsea Fairless, Garroni’s partner in SATC-outfit cataloging. “Even though SATC was a very smart show, it became an integral part of basic culture.” It’s worth noting that Fairless is not the only person who mentioned the phrase “basic bitch” in connection with Cosmos when being interviewed for this story.
While bartenders may not have loved making countless Cosmos, the drink had a lasting impact on the industry that reached far beyond itself. According to New York-based drinks expert and educator Tess Rose Lampert, even after the Cosmo went the way of all good things, it helped usher in an era of specialty cocktails. “It became less about ordering that specific cocktail and more about just getting a good product all around,” she tells Refinery29.
Lampert says there were four main drinks that helped fill the Cosmo-shaped void in the hearts of the kind of striving career women whose intense jobs and dramatic personal lives often necessitate a serious happy hour. She points to margaritas and mojitos as classic girls night out fodder. “It’s not necessarily the same glamorous effect, but it has become a drink of choice for sure… especially with maybe like a fruit flavour,” she says. For those in the mood for something simpler, there’s the vodka soda or its sophisticated cousin, the Martini.
There’s also, of course, rosé, which has been growing in popularity since being christened by The New York Times in 2006 as “the summer drink to be seen with.” These days, however, it’s feeling dangerously close to the kind of overexposure that put the Cosmo into extinction.
And yet, ten years after the first movie hit cinemas (eight after its very lacklustre follow-up and less than one after the public blow-up between Sarah Jessica Parker and Kim Cattrall over a proposed third), the Cosmo may be poised for a comeback. After all, everything old is eventually new again. Just look at the scrunchie: After being famously maligned by Carrie in 2003, it can now be found on the heads of everyone from Jennifer Lopez to Bella Hadid. Balenciaga makes one, for crying out loud. So why not a Cosmo renaissance?
Cecchini, who now owns and tends bar at the historic Long Island Bar in Brooklyn (which, it should come as no surprise, makes what New York Magazine has dubbed the very best Cosmo in town), says he has recently seen an uptick in Cosmo orders, and not just from folks who happen to know he’s the drink’s inventor.
“[It was] always just a few people coming in, asking for a Cosmopolitan. Suddenly now, I'm seeing like 20, 30+ orders a week for a Cosmopolitan,” Cecchini says. “I've definitely noticed more and more people are ordering them. And not just women.”
Armstrong, too, says she’s noticed people ordering them more, though she concedes it’s still the type of drink order one feels compelled to defend or shrug off. “I’ve seen a number of younger friends, in fact, people in their 20s and 30s [order it]. They still sort of apologie for it, like, ‘I’m sorry, I’m just getting one of these.’ They’re acknowledging the association but also just being like it’s refreshing and pretty and nice and this is what I want on a summer day.”
Perhaps the biggest sign of a Cosmo comeback, however, is the fact that trendy drink companies like Joia are making them in cans alongside classics like the Greyhound and the Moscow Mule. These days, as much as it would probably shock Carrie and Charlotte, the fact is that there’s nothing cooler than booze in a can.
The Cosmo may never again be as zeitgeisty as it was in the late ‘80s or as popular as it was in the early aughts. These days, it’s really more of an ironic drink order. Like asking for a PBR or a Jagerbomb, when you roll up to a bar and order a Cosmo, you’re telling the world that you’re well aware of the stereotypes associated with your beverage of choice and you simply don’t care. In that hipster-y way, the Cosmo may actually be one of the cooler things a person can request from the bar. And hey, even if it’s not, it’s still way less obvious than ordering a glass of rosé.