California has wine. New Orleans has bourbon. The South has the mint julep. New York—New York, I submit, has a problem.
Its problem sauntered into a trendy downtown bar in highlighted curls and lowlighted roots and an inexplicable pink tutu in 1998 and didn’t leave until 2004 and spent all six goddamn years ordering cosmopolitans.
Because before Sex and the City made it humiliating beyond the pale to be a New Yorker who likes men and order a cosmo—Sex and the City very nearly made it humiliating to be a New Yorker who likes men period—the drink enjoyed enough popularity to stick to the city like it’d been spilled there. Carrie Bradshaw and the cosmopolitan will always be a part of New York.
Then again, so will the hot garbage smell.
The basic Sex and the City “thing”—viz., a group of Strong Women talking frankly about sex—had been done before and often better. As far back as 1939, George Cuckor had the all-female cast of The Women (tagline: “It’s all about the men!”) scheming and expertly backbiting over husband-theft and -recovery. From 1985 onward, Blanche Devereaux was the sexin’-est thing this side of an AARP discount. The girls in Steel Magnolias (1989), meanwhile, “went skinny dipping and… did things that scared the fish.” Sex and the City was just another way of satisfying the scopophilia that accretes around any semi-secret ritual like girltalk, and on that level, it was sort of unremarkable: anywhere between ten and sixty years late, a bit grating with the characters, generally slow on the uptake, etc. ad naus.
But there was one innovation. It was four parts vodka, 1½ parts orange liqueur, 1½ parts lime juice, and three parts cranberry juice. In the glass it was a bright, cotton-candy pink; on the tongue it was as if the sweet, very sweet cranberry juice and the tarter lime were bickering over top billing; in the stomach it just burned and had a tendency to repeat unpleasantly; in a Sex and the City character’s hand it was magic.
It summoned the show’s first and most devoted fan base. The Oxford English Dictionary first finds the cosmopolitan in print in the 23 October 1987 San Francisco Chronicle: “Au courant bon vivants sipped concoctions like Julie’s Cosmopolitan.” And after the girls appropriated their cocktail, the kind of pink-drink-wielding men described as “au courant bon vivants” in San Francisco in the ’80s stuck with Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte, and Samantha in New York all through the late nineties and early naughties.
The cosmo also did one thing it’s well-known that alcohol does: it spiced things up a little. Being less a cocktail than a saccharine-subtle vodka delivery system, the cosmo gave us some of our raunchiest moments with our raunchiest characters. Ladytalk would have been one thing. Ladytalk with cosmos was a different—pinker—animal.
And introducing the cosmo introduced bars introduced restaurants introduced galleries &c., and so booze made it possible for Sex and the City to be as much about New York as it was about Carrie’s sex life. When the characters got dull—and the characters got dull—there was always the center of the Universe, the most interesting city in the world, to make them, cocktails in hand, seem engaging again. Rather than cheesecake in the kitchen when things looked bleak, there were cosmopolitans in SoHo. The drink invited the city into the frame.
So when the series premiered, is it any wonder that the cosmo was seized on as one of its hallmarks? Every film and T.V. show like it before had been stone-cold sober. I want to suggest that the cosmopolitan did a lot more in its capacity as drink of choice than we naturally pay attention to. Writing it off as just another semi-gross drink on just another semi-gross show, we ignore that it performed a great deal of symbolic work, was a complexly overdetermined dream-element that contained all of what held the show together, initially, and came to contain much more: a whole generation’s aspirational fantasies about New York.
The cosmopolitan is now dead, passé, even tourists are starting to figure out that its cool factor is finally nil. But the city is still here. Sex is still here—girltalk in SoHo hasn’t gone anywhere. And cocktails are still excellent signifiers, especially of sophistication and refinement. The question now is: in the absence of the cosmopolitan, which cocktail is to be the hallmark of NYC cool, which is the perfect accompaniment to the discussion of adult mysteries like sex and real estate, which is going to enclose, if not the real New York, then the dream-city that’s summoned sophisticates to itself since time immemorial? It seems that an NYC drunk’s most important job now is finding out.
I ask Erin what she thinks of people who order cosmos. She squints one eye piratically, thinking, and says, “Sometimes, people just haven’t had the right drink.” Diplomacy being apparently part of a bartender’s stock in trade, a tool right up there with the strainer and muddler. “You don’t mean to, but you always judge.”
Erin Barbour is bar manager at NYC’s Public. By merit of being an amalgamation of commoner ones, the NoLita hotspot is one of those rare miracles: a great, Michelin-starred restaurant, with a better bar, that manages to be both chic and approachable. In a neighborhood that can skew towards the fratty, Public caters to more adult tastes: grilled kangaroo, beet gnudi, snail and oxtail ravioli; a watermelon and tarragon gimlet, the Public 75; an endless and gorgeous wine list—served under low-hanging tubular bulbs rheostated down to “Pretty.”
Erin’s also, it’s pretty obvious, a total nerd, in all the word’s most flattering shades of meaning. Which is to say that Erin is unreservèdly passionate about her work. This is always a lot of fun to watch, someone who cares. She guides and recommends with a classically infectious-type enthusiasm that turns out to be pretty much the opposite of condescension, I think: it strikes me, watching her work with her charges, that part of really loving something must be wanting to give it away.
And she’s personally responsible for three totally unique items on the cocktail menu, way in the back, after the mixed drinks and beers and wines and whiskeys and rums: the cellos.
They’re three remarkable house-made riffs on the Italian digestif limoncello, an infusion of lemon rind and simple syrup in a high-proof neutral spirit. Limoncello’s popularity is a fairly recent development in the U.S.: the OED first picks it up in the engrossing-sounding 1993 book Lemons, which notes that it was mixed with barley water in nineteenth-century Italy and used to treat invalids. (Better days.) The “Mellow Cello” is an infusion of lemon rind and vanilla, the “Pompelmocello” of grapefruit rind and rosemary, and the “Bananas Foster Cello” of banana, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg—all three distinguished from more straightforward vodka infusions by their sugar content. “It’s not really a genre of dessert drink,” Erin says of her cellos, “but I’m making it one.”
I wouldn’t say that the Mellow Cello is a “variation on” the classic—it’s more properly an elaboration of limoncello’s familiar flavors. It doesn’t alter the taste of the Italian liqueur; rather, it completes it. It’s very much in the spirit of the spirit. The lemon and the vanilla interact complexly on the nose: the scent is somehow smooth–sharp, like a whetted blade. Both have an intensity to them. But the cello tastes mostly of lemon, with a sort of gentle and soothing undertaste that must be the vanilla. It tastes full: complete: what lingers in the mouth after each sip is like a fruit entire. I keep trying to chew the aftertaste, which pretty obviously doesn’t work.
Erin reports that grapefruit and rosemary is “a classic flavor combination,” which is news on this front. “Sometimes,” she adds, “an old classic really is good—for a reason,” an opinion which the chronicler and editors endorse. The Pompelmocello smells just like rosemary: it’s crisp, and clean, and generally very wholesome-seeming for something with a proof. Indeed—is this sort of embarrassing to admit?—the first thing I associated to, tasting it, was a pediatrician’s lollipop, which jives nicely with limoncello’s historical use as a restorative. The natural-tasting sourness of the grapefruit cuts the cello’s sugary sweetness, and the burn of the spirit keeps the flavors from being cloying. It doesn’t linger in the mouth in the same way that the Mellow Cello does, but that’s an effective invitation to drink more.
And then there’s the Bananas Foster Cello. In case I haven’t been totally clear: all three of these are divine. But the Bananas Foster Cello is my favorite—and, I think, the most interesting. Erin came up with it as the result of an—abortive, I assumed but felt it was impolite to journalistically confirm—attempt at a raw diet that had her dehydrating bananas. After letting the fruit sit in the dehydrator for about fourteen hours, she tried the result and immediately had two thoughts: “This is so fuckin’ delicious—I gotta put this in vodka.” (This is another line of thinking that the chronicler and editors heartily endorse.) Because the cellos are house- (i.e., Erin-) made, the flavors all vary from tasting to tasting—Erin reports that the Pompelmocello has indeed an observable life-cycle to it, in which the tastes of the rosemary and grapefruit wax and wane and wane and wax, respectively—which becomes an especially complex problem when there are so many flavors in play: banana, clove, cinnamon, and nutmeg. The banana is a consistent background note that’s more or less easy to identify depending on the other ingredients—it lends the cello a smooth, fruity flavor, but mostly acts as the space in which the other ingredients interact. The strongest taste is of either cinnamon or cloves, depending, and a sharper palate than mine was able to pick up the hint of nutmeg after a few sips. And it’s delicious: slightly thick, rich enough to be satisfying as a complete dessert but light enough to work into a cocktail, a flawless reproduction of the dish that inspired it, with the alcohol supplying the fruit and the fire at the same time.
And this, I submit, is what makes the Bananas Foster Cello the most remarkable: it’s a whole recipe deconstructed and reconstituted, distilled, as it were, a transmogrification of structure and form that leaves content surprisingly intact. If the essential magic of the cocktail is the magic of transformation, transubstantiation, whole-greater-than-parts reconstruction—if the essential magic of the cocktail is sublimation, then the Bananas Foster Cello is notable for performing that magic on an even more fundamental level than is usual.
Which is perhaps all a little highfalutin. Here, here’s another way to think about it: Why is the sandwich not a cocktail? There’s a fair number of structural similarities. They’re both admixtures, of elements that can be discretely disgusting (imagine a spoonful of mayonnaise), ontologically different when assembled than when disassembled—the sandwich seems to have all the makings of a good cocktail. So where’s the magic? Why do I think of Erin as more an artist than an anything-, let alone simple one-plus-one-is-two mix-, ologist, but “sandwich artist” is the kind of joke that only a multinational corporation could conceive of straight-facedly? Why do we pay attention to historical artists’ favorite liquors but not their favorite deli meats? Why, in short, is the cocktail so intoxicating?
Well there’s the obvious answer: alcohol. Sandwiches do not get you drunk. Whereas alcohol is one of the very few more or less legal U.S. intoxicants. This seems to me not wholly satisfying, this answer. It wouldn’t be hard to find, in the darkly glittering panoply of street drugs extant, a more fun high—indeed, if instant gratification is where the magic comes from, then by all accounts it should be crack cocaine with the complex artistry and rich history. And there are even alcoholic drinks that will do the job but are decidedly unmagical. Beer comes to mind.
Could it be how the cocktail is represented—that its magic comes from its portrayal as magical? This seems to be Erin’s intuition. She avers that the liquor industry “is like a machine”: “If someone wants to promote something, it’s amazing what they’ll do. If you could get a couple of football players drinking something, or get it placed in a TV show….” Which makes sense, of course, that the industry responsible for selling something would also take a great interest in managing our perceptions of that thing. It also seems true that more and more, liquor companies are promoting their products by inviting bartenders to submit recipes using them: this is especially true of newly-available liquors, like absinthe.
But there’s always a “but,” and a few problems with this thesis occur to me. First off, it would seem that a liquor company’s true objective is to get the consumer to want to consume only that liquor, in which case promoting a cocktail, which to a greater or lesser extent masks the flavor of the liquor and makes the particular brand used less important, would be counterintuitive. There’s no difference between a cosmopolitan made with well vodka and one made with Stoli, and anyone who claims otherwise is lying to you. And, too: it strikes me that the trick to good marketing lies not in inventing a new perception, which is more difficult and costly and more likely to fail, but in latching on to an old perception. Not in making the cocktail magical, in other words, but in exploiting the magic that was already there. Plus there’s the fact that the perception of the cocktail as magical benefits all liquor companies, so it’s in no one company’s interests to spend the time and money required to reinforce that perception. Finally, if representing something as containing magic were enough to create that magic, then how come nobody remembers Marcel’s tea? Everyone knows that Proust wrote about Marcel’s madeline, but who remembers that the magical madeline wasn’t enough—he had to crumble it into the equally magical tea? Proust could surely summon fascination with a thing better than any advertiser, and even he couldn’t imbue tea with the cocktail’s divinity.
Maybe the difficulty here is that “magical” is a slightly messy word. Because I certainly don’t mean to refer to the practice of shouting “Abracadabra” and yanking rabbits out of tophats. More accurate might be the word “mystical,” which refers to what is enigmatic but also to what is interpreted. Which word, interpretation, will always summon Freud—and appropriately enough. For the cocktail is constructed in the same way as the dream.
The dream is the fulfillment of a wish. This is one—in many ways the—distinctive truth of psychoanalysis. The dream is the fulfillment of a wish. It is what it enacts and it enacts what it is. It is all at once desire and its object and their resolution.
So too with the cocktail, “that once mystifying set of names which [the drinker] can never now pronounce without taking secret pride in the worldly initiation that has entailed their correct usage, or—what is the same thing—without feeling deep relief, whenever he orders a ‘screwdriver,’ a ‘grasshopper,’ a ‘greyhound,’ a ‘Manhattan,’ that the bartender does not scowl, smirk, or give any other sign of being asked to bring forth from his shaker a tool, an insect, an animal, the whole metropolis.”1 Like the abracadabra, the cocktail invokes; but as in the dream, it is at once the resolution of its own invocation—it will, for example, “bear the supplementary mark of sophistication”2 as it itself produces the same mark, wishing and fulfilling in one fell swoop.
The cocktail is a fulfillment. Hold it in your hand and be older, smoother, more sophisticated. But the fulfillment only makes sense in relation to its own wishes: to grow, to seduce, to learn. Hence the pathos of the cocktail and the dream, which both reach at once deep down into and far beyond themselves—and are truest in the grasping, not in the holding.
Hence also the absolute perfection of the Bananas Foster Cello, which literally distills each of its singular ingredients to its purest essence while striving for the completeness of a dish. It goes deep into itself, allowing the subtlest flavors from its ingredients to imbue the vodka, but also far beyond itself, becoming in its fullness an objet d’art, a fulfillment of its own promise.
The dreamlike quality of hanging out in a bar has a lot to do with the basic, formal features of most bars—they’re closed off, classically low-lit, in perpetual late twilight (the dream state par excellence), immune to the passage of outside time—but really unfolds from the cocktail itself. Imagine a city flowing, melting into a martini glass from the cocktail shaker. Or a screwdriver. Or a Mr. Collins. All emerging smooth and entire, albeit Dalí-style, from the bartender’s most famous tool. Surely only in a dream could a plate of flaming bananas be frozen at the moment of their conflagration, as in crystal, to be poured later into cut glass.
In a dream, or in an NYC bar.
The Basic Recipe for a Cello
- Acquire a fifth some good vodka and whatever you’ll be infusing it with. For basic limoncello, this means peeling off the rind of a lemon but not the pith, which is the white, bitter part of the peel. Erin notes that an orange cello infusion that included the pith might be an interesting combination, however—experiment.
- Drink a little bit of the vodka. (N.b.: Not strictly necessary, but it makes the next step—along with most everything else—a little easier.)
- Cram your ingredients on into the bottle.
- Seal the bottle tight and store it in a cool, dark place for ten days.
- On the ninth day, acquire a handle of something. Drink it all, then wash out the handle. (N.b.: This is the chronicler’s suggestion. There are surely other solutions to the obvious problems of volume presented by #6 sub. They are all surely less fun.)
- On the tenth day, pour your infusion into the empty handle, and fill the remaining half with simple syrup.
- Place your handle in the cool, dark place you found for #4. Wait another ten days.
- Open up and enjoy immoderately.