The Original Cosmopolitan Cocktail
Once I found out that my name, Neal Murray, was listed in Wikipedia and knowing that my close friends have wanted me to write my story for a long time in my own words, I have now decided to share with you the true story of the birth of the Cosmopolitan Cocktail. I am the person who possesses all the answers to the unanswered questions about the cocktail and the one who created the original drink. I’ll try to clear up all of the misconceptions and rumors about the drink in the story that follows.
The story of the Cosmopolitan is not as much a story about the drink as it is a story about my life, and thus, it a story that I have been reluctant to share. Many people would like fame, but if you ask anyone with it, they will tell you it is not entirely what one desires. Even though I have been reluctant, I have been compelled by others to tell this story and I will let you judge it for yourself.
In the summer of 1975, my ex-college roommate called me and asked me if I wanted his job as a bartender in a restaurant in a small suburb west of Minneapolis. The name of the suburb was Golden Valley and the name of the restaurant was the Cork and Cleaver. I was excited about this opportunity because at the time, I was a student at the University of Minnesota. Tending bar in a restaurant seemed to be the perfect fit for my class schedule. I quickly agreed to come to the Cork and Cleaver for an interview.
On that day I was quite nervous, but I had done a lot of public speaking in High School, I was a student leader, and I was always confident of myself. I arrived at the restaurant at the appointed hour and was interviewed by the manager and the assistant manager. I thought that the interview went very well and I looked forward to the news about the job within the next week. A few days later my friend called me to tell me that I would not be getting the job. Wow! I was really crushed and asked my friend why. Then he said, “It’s because you are black”. Immediately my friend and I broke into laughter.
I had grown up in a suburb just like Golden Valley. It was called Roseville. In Roseville, I was the only black student in my school, and I had been so since I was in the fifth grade. My friend laughed because he never thought of me as being black, but just another upper middle class suburban kid. I laughed because even at my young age, I had experienced so much discrimination that I wasn’t surprised to face it again. Well, I thought that was the end of the story.
About a week later I was stunned to receive a phone call from the bookkeeper at the restaurant. She called to tell me that she was upset and embarrassed with the decision that the mangers had made. She told me that the two managers were going out of town for a wedding in Fargo, North Dakota. It was their hometown and they would be gone for four days. She explained that I had four days to become a good bartender. Did I want the job?
Well, I thought for less than a minute and said yes. I think that most of you who read this story will think that it would be crazy to take a job where you knew from the start that neither of your bosses wanted you there. But I had the courage to face this challenge, as I had done many times throughout my years in the suburbs. I thought that this would be no more difficult than any of the experiences I had had in my past.
In the three days I had before I went to work, I memorized nearly all of the most popular drinks in Mr. Boston Bartender’s Guide with the hope that I would not be stumped by any requests. Along with some coaching from my ex-roommate, I was confident of my beginning bartending knowledge. The drinks that are popular now are very different from those in 1975. Many people have come up with many new drinks over the last thirty-five years, yet it seems that the Cosmo has international recognition, something that to this day amazes me more than anyone else.
I got behind the bar and was greeted very kindly by the clientele and the staff. They found my character was not unlike my ex-roommate’s. But then came the fateful day when the managers returned. My schedule included some day shifts. I will never forget the look on the manager’s face when he came around the corner to see who the new bartender was and there I stood. He immediately turned around and went back to the office. I knew that the bookkeeper was catching hell for hiring me, but I went about preparing the bar for the lunch shift. The manager had come in late and we were just about to open. Well, that shift was just like the last two. The manager had nothing to say to me that day.
During my first shift I went through extensive training. The cash register was the biggest challenge. The cocktail waitresses were very happy to see that I knew the drinks they requested and the speed at which I could make them. I only had to ring up drinks for the customers at the bar, so the register was no problem. That shift went along without incident.
One of the popular drinks then was the vodka gimlet. Then the younger drinkers added Triple Sec. It turned out that one of the most requested drinks the summer and fall of 1975 was the Kamikaze. One evening while I was experimenting with drink recipes and thinking about the Cape Cod, I put a little cranberry in a Kamikaze. It tasted great. It was a ‘pink looking’ martini. I had very few customers at the bar that evening, and a regular customer who was close to the well, where I had made the drink, looked at me and said, “Neal, what’s that?” I sort of stuttered and said, “I don’t know what it is”. I explained that it was a Kamikaze with a little cranberry. I immediately stuttered again and told him, “I thought it needed a little color.” He realized that I was making a joke about how I had been hired; the staff had told some of the regulars the story about the managers. Then he joked, “Oh, how cosmopolitan”, and I replied, “Ok, that’s what we’ll call it- “a Cosmopolitan”. Prior to creating the drink, I drank mostly Bourbon.
From that point on when customers came into the bar and asked me what they should the have, I would always suggest a Cosmopolitan. When I went out for drinks I would always order a Cosmopolitan for myself. The bartenders would look at me and say, “What’s that?” I would casually reply, “It’s a Kamikaze with a little cranberry”. They would say: “Oh, yeah”, like they knew what the drink was. I inevitably laughed under my breath because I knew that they didn’t have a clue. They then would make the drink for me. Some were good; some were awful.
Two years later, in 1977, I became a Congressional intern. I went to Washington and was still drinking Cosmopolitans. Always the bartenders would ask, “What’s that?” and I would tell them and inevitably they would say: “oh, yeah”, like they knew what the drink was. It got to be quite funny to me. Well, at some point during that Fall, Congress took a week’s vacation. I took advantage of that week and traveled to Boston to visit a high school classmate who was attending Harvard University. While in Boston, I ordered my drink several times, and then drove down the coast to see another classmate who went to Yale. I was fortunate to go to the well-known bars and restaurants as I traveled. I had one more stop to make to see a friend of the family that lived in Manhattan. When I went to parties I would often drink Scotch, but when we went out on the town, I ordered my new drink. Later that autumn, during Thanksgiving, I went to Atlanta to visit another college roommate, and he was actually the mutual roommate of the one that got me my job at the Cork and Cleaver. He had been a waiter there when I was hired. My drink followed with me to Atlanta of course.
In 1979, after working for the State House of Representatives in St. Paul, Minnesota, I moved to San Francisco, California. I became a waiter and then a bartender. There, I once again would suggest the Cosmopolitan to customers. By that time I had had enough Cosmopolitans and would only order them when I went out to new establishments. In 1982, I was on the opening staff of a restaurant called The Elite Café. This is where the drink was discovered by many San Franciscans. By 1985, I was on the opening staff of another very popular place called Fog City Diner. It was at the Fog City Diner that I began making the Cosmopolitan with Mount Gay Rum. At the Fog City Diner I became known for the Barbados Cosmos. During this time I traveled back to Minneapolis, out to New York, down to Barbados, through Miami, Dallas, and Denver, up and down the west coast and even to Hawaii. I would always order the Cosmo and then move on to drink something else. I sort of felt like Johnny Appleseed because I knew that the bartenders with whom I had shared my drink would make it for their customers long after I was gone. The place I enjoyed introducing my drink to the most was the Lime Light in New York City in 1987. One of my customers at Fog City Diner gave me his VIP pass, wow, which was an awesome adventure. We never waited in line, there was no cover and we got into the VIP lounge; sitting there I thought who are these people? I was sure they were wondering the same thing about me. But I knew no one new my story and how I got there.
In 2000, some fellow named Ben from the magazine G.Q. called and said he had talked to bartenders all over the country who claimed that I created the original Cosmopolitan. He asked if I would tell him the story about how it was created. I assured him that I was the fellow that had concocted the original Cosmo, but that the story was of a personal nature. Because the story was about discrimination, I was reluctant to tell it even then. My quest to become a bartender is just how America became more cosmopolitan over the last thirty-five years. I first told this story in 2002, up until then even my closest friends had no idea, they just knew the part about the Barbados Cosmos.
I explained to Ben that here in San Francisco I was known for the Barbados Cosmos made with Mount Gay Rum. He said that he knew that, that he had tasted one and that it was a great drink. I looked at the phone receiver and could not believe that some guy in New York had tried the Barbados Cosmos. It had been three years since its conception and I had not been back to New York within the last four years! I realized then that drinks go viral and morph.
Along the way, I have created many other drinks, none of which became popular except in restaurants where I created them as their designer cocktails, these drinks were only served in their establishments. I have subsequently become a bar manager, a restaurant consultant, and general manager working in a score of restaurants over the years in the Bay Area of California.
In the book “Viva Vodka”, W. Parker Kerr, states the Cosmopolitan was being served in the mid-1980’s at Julies Supper Club and indeed it was, I was there drinking them. In the book “The Art of the Bar” the authors Jeff Hollinger and Rob Schwartz, (p.25), are the closest to the true story. But, truly it was the TV show, “Sex in the City” that drove the cocktail to its international fame.
Many people have told stories about the creation of the drink. This is my story, the true story of how the Cosmopolitan was created and how it traveled from one coast to the other and then back again.
Some think that it is a type of Martini. The Cosmopolitan is in the family of drinks called sours. It is closely related to the Margarita or the Whiskey Sour. Some have speculated that it was created in a gay bar because it was pink and in a triangle shaped glass. Some believe that the drink was created in the twenties, but indeed it came after the Kamikaze, thus after WWII. I believe that the Kamikaze was created in 1974. Some believe the Cosmopolitan originated in New York or Miami. I’m consistently amused by all these rumors.
The irony of the story is that the managers of the Cork and Cleaver have to live with the knowledge that the bartender that they didn’t want to hire created one of the most popular drinks of the last quarter century. The symbolism behind the drink is that in the last thirty-five years, the United States has become more cosmopolitan. The drink fit the era in which it was created. The color, the name, the cocktail glass, and the flavor all came together to make it something that many people of varied backgrounds have enjoyed. Even though I have not sought fame, I think that it is important to publish the story as a historical milestone.
I want to thank all who have helped me make this cocktail popular and those who have made innovative variations. And special thanks go to Toby Cecchini, who popularized his version of the drink at the Odeon in Manhattan in 1987. I hate to disappoint the International Bartenders Association, but it was Toby’s version that used citrus vodka. The first Cosmopolitan was made with Gordon’s vodka and Triple Sec in 1975. Later in the 1980’s when flavored vodkas became popular, bartenders made their versions with different flavors and used Cointreau as substitutes for the original drink.
In Toby’s book, “Cosmopolitan, a bartender life”, (p.60) he explains that he did not create the original drink, but that his co-worker traveled to San Francisco and discovered it there. He states that she was introduced to the drink at the Life Café, but most likely it was the Elite Café. His co-worker didn’t get the recipe right, but as a good bartender he figured it out and made it popular in the “Big Apple’, when all along it started out in the ‘Mini Apple’ many years before.
Neal Murray, Author
1975 The Cosmopolitan served at Cork ’n Cleaver, Golden Valley, Minnesota
1982 The Cosmopolitan served at The Elite Café, San Francisco, California
1985 The Cosmopolitan served at the Fog City Diner, San Francisco, California
1988 The Barbados Cosmopolitan served at BIX Restaurant, San Francisco, California
2003 “Cosmopolitan, a Bartender Life” 2003 author, Tobi Cecchini p.58-60
2006 “The Art of the Bar” 2006 authors, Jeff Hollinger & Rob Schwartz p.25
2006 “Viva Vodka” 2006 author, W Park Kerr p.80