A history of sweet cocktails for ladies, on the occasion of the Cosmopolitan’s 25th anniversary.
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Girl drinks, also known as chick drinks and girlie drinks, exist primarily to serve and to overserve persons eager to know the fun of catching a buzz while staying ignorant of the bliss of tasting liquor. This article represents an independent-study tool for readers seeking to refine this basic understanding along lines that are personally potationally meaningful. The key is to keep your definitions fluid but your taxonomy strict, remembering for instance that some so-called girl drinks are frat shooters in drag, and that others, if you listen closely to their accents, are androgynous tropical coolers transplanted to temperate latitudes.
One popular girl-drink style—frou-frou and fructose—arrives on the taste buds with the subtle flair of Kool-Aid Man presenting a hostess gift. Take the Angry Feminist, please—a girl drink from the cocktail list at a bygone vegan restaurant in Manhattan. The Angry Feminist calls for tarragon-infused organic vodka, Bonny Doon raspberry wine, triple sec, orange juice, and a pineapple-wedge garnish. I presume the drink is angry that one of her closest culinary cousins, the Purple Hooter, is a favorite of Nevada brothel whores.
The Angry Feminist is not to be confused with the Feminist Cocktail, which exemplifies a second girl-drink subgenre—cutesy and sucrose. Perhaps you've enjoyed a drink made in the tradition of The Savoy Cocktail Book? Well, the Feminist is more in line with the Beatles’ “Savoy Truffle.” It’s such a zany candy bar of a highball—rum, amaretto, peppermint schnapps, and Kahlúa, topped with ginger ale—that it simply must have been named with a slight sexist twirl of the mixologist’s moustache.
Girl drinks in a third major category—regressively lactose—involve milk or sweetened condensed milk or light cream or heavy cream or your roommate’s half-and-half or in a pinch your grandson’s Similac. Because they are associated with girls of a certain age, they are sometimes referred to as ladies’ drinks. Because they overlap with cocktails from the dairy genre favored by screen eccentrics, these milkmaid drinks are sometimes referenced by overworked television writers, who give them to supporting characters in lieu of a personality trait (cf. C.J. Cregg’s grasshopper on The West Wing and Raj’s on The Big Bang Theory).
Girl drinks come in a numbers of flavors, textures, and archetypes, it is plain to see. Same goes for the dolls and guys who order them. Yes, the girl-drinking community counts among its pillars many young women who really need to be carded, but it’s highly diverse in terms of demographics, sensibility, and tolerance for alcohol. Some girl-drinkers have been smacking their lips at the same post-prandial Pink Squirrel every weekend for decades on ends, and lemminglike others unthinkingly sip the flavor of the week. Some are novice drinkers, who, getting into the spirits on a rare occasion, simply ask the bartender for “something sweet,” which is his cue to lower the Malibu boom. And some are novice drunks upon whom banana daiquiris act as with shinobi stealth and a clinically degenerate lack of remorse, blasting them to the bathroom stall, where penitently they kneel, sobbing oaths and swearing curses while their friends hold their hair.
Sometimes the girl-drinker is an ombibulous literary type employing the time-management technique of snapping up the first cocktail that comes into view. The noted anthropologist Cindy Adams recorded one such girl-drinking episode in the New York Post a few years back when she teased Salman Rushdie for pounding pre-prepared Cosmopolitans out on the town. To his credit, the novelist offered the gossipeuse a correct response: "Look, it's what they've got. I'm easy."
The Cosmopolitan—which, as we shall see, this year celebrates its 25th anniversary—is a uniquely special girl drink. As the girliest popular cocktail in living memory and the buzziest girl drink in recorded history, it ranks as the third-girliest drink of all time, I hereby posit.
The second-girliest drink of all time is the Jackie O, which was originally conceived as a Mother’s Day brunch special at Upstairs on the Square in Cambridge, Mass. Vodka-based and bubbly-topped, blending six fruit flavors, the Jackie O is served, in its most austere version, in a glass frosted with pink sugar.
The girliest drink of all time is sweet and pink and garnished with a flower. Concocted for a benefit thrown by Eve Ensler, it entered the journalistic record when described by Eric Felten in the Wall Street Journal in 2006. Very obviously, the girliest drink of all time is the Vagini. Its creator, a cocktail consultant named Kim Haasarud, described the Vagini to me as a riff on the Cosmopolitan incorporating sparkling rosé. This news arrived somewhat to the disappointment of my editrix, who had wondered if the recipe calls for a dash of fish sauce.
Haasarud took pains to state that the organs she most closely associates with the Vagini are the tongue and the cheek. “Many women today have pretty sophisticated palates,” she believes, and I agree. It should of course go without saying that a great many persons in skirts are more knowledgeable about single-malt scotch than any given poser in a kilt. It should, but it does not, which is why you are reading this sentence, which exists to mollify the freelance interrogation experts of the gender-crimes division of the thought police. The urgent queries of that crowd ring among a multitude of other questions, for girl-drink enthusiasts are an inquisitive lot: Where did the girl drink come from? Where is it going? Can you help me find my shoes? Please allow me to sketch a timeline. The chronology below intends to debunk some stereotypes, to rebunk others, and to repair the singular damage wrought by frozen mudslides.
1878: The Ladies’ Blush
Start with 2 ounces of Old Tom, which is sweetened gin. Add 1 teaspoon of crème de noyaux, which is a sweet almond-scented liqueur, and 1 teaspoon of white sugar, which also tends toward the sweet side, plus five drops of absinthe. Shake this with ice and strain it into “a coloured glass, the rim of which has already been dampened with lemon juice and dipped in white sugar.” The book American and Other Drinks touts the ladies’ blush as a "favourite drink among the fair sex," neglecting to cite its popularity with aspiring hyperglycemics.
1891: The Ladies’ Great Favorite
One part sherry, one part port, “ornament with orange and pineapple, and top it off with ice-cream.” The line from the Ladies’ Great Favorite to the Cheesecake Factory’s Strawberry Creamsicle spiked milkshake runs fairly straight.
1930: The Alexander
Shake 'Em Up, a cheeky cocktails-and-canapés guide from the speakeasy era, spends a chapter discussing what to mix “for virgins.” The authors specifically mention the Alexander, a gin-and-dairy drink that predates Prohibition but thrived during it for obvious reasons: Your gastrointestinal tract is less likely to revolt against a flood of bathtub gin if you simultaneously coat its lining with sweet cream. In The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, the lovely curmudgeon David Embury insists that if you encounter a member of the Alexander family, you should approach it not as a proper cocktail but rather “a nice mid-afternoon snack in place of a half pound of bonbons.”
1951: The Pink Lady
This sour, classically featuring gin, lemon juice, and grenadine, can be found in the hand of “that nice little girl who works in files,” according to Jack Townsend, a former president of the Bartenders’ Union of New York, in The Bartender’s Book:
Naturally, you never expected to see her at a bar. She gets into one about twice a year, at Christmas time or some other high old time. Just why she picks the Pink Lady for these occasions—since the Lady packs quite a wallop—remains a mystery, even to her perhaps. It’s quite possible she has seen the decorative and innocuous-appearing pink-and-white amalgamation passing on a waiter’s tray and decided, “Hmmm, that couldn’t do me any harm.”
Oh, but it could, especially when prepared according to our tart specifications:
1 ounce gin
1 ounce 100-proof apple brandy
¾ ounce lemon juice
¾ ounce grenadine
1 egg white
Optional garnish: dash of Angostura bitters
Supra-mandatory garnish: 1 brandied cherry
Put the gin, apple brandy, lemon juice, grenadine, and egg white in a shaker. Shake without ice. Add ice and shake again. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. Garnish!
If the Pink Lady were a piece of household hardware, she would be a floral-print hammer—but if you use grenadine made the simple way, mixing equal parts sugar and pomegranate juice, then the drink comes out mauve. If you want her to actually be pink, then you need to buy a pomegranate and make grenadine totally from scratch. And, hey, at that point, once you’re getting all Martha Stewart about it, you might as well go for the gusto and prepare raspberry syrup, substituting that for the grenadine. With the leftovers, razzle up two excellent old-school pink drinks—classy like tuxedo-clad flamingos—the Cosmopolitan Daisy and the Maiden’s Blush.
1954: The Lucky Jim
From Google Suggest to Yahoo! Answers and beyond, the Internet is littered with evidence of men whose bouts of girl-drinking provoked identity crises and inspired shame spirals. “Is a whiskey sour a girl’s drink?” “Is a margarita a manly drink?” “Are mojitos gay?”
There is apparently a kind of dude who, having enjoyed something other than the beer or whiskey preapproved by his peer group, grows anxious about his masculinity. I’m not going to speculate about the nature of this anxiety. I’m not going to wonder why I’ve tripped across such lines of questioning in forums devoted to bodybuilding, automatic rifles, and professional football. I’m just going to hand this thing over to Kingsley Amis and let you enjoy your Baileys in peace: “Saying and perhaps thinking you like dry drinks, when, in fact, you prefer sweet or sweetish ones, is probably the result of a confused feeling that sweet drinks are ladies’ drinks, perhaps even old ladies’ drinks. Permit me to say that this is rubbish.”
Count on Sir Kingsley for original thinking in this department. His own contribution to the girl-drink cookbook is a stiff vodka martini mellowed with cucumber juice. The Lucky Jim represents a fourth girl-drink category—dumb bland—that tends to go unexamined because it is unlively. He named it for the hero of his first novel, who “would be among the first to appreciate that its apparent mildness might make it an excellent love-philtre to press on shy young ladies, if there are any of these left anywhere in the land.”
1970: The Lemon Drop
By the time that sexual intercourse began in 1963, shy young ladies were indeed hard to find. Many complex cultural forces contributed to the decimation of their ranks, including the introduction of the Pill and the invention of respectable places to wash the Pill down with the Booze.
Considerable credit for the latter development goes to Alan Stillman. In 1965, Stillman was a New York City bachelor living near the Manhattan end of the Queensboro Bridge, a corner of the Upper East Side dense with stewardesses and other eligible lovelies. He wanted to meet his neighbors, and he needed to create a place where they could be met, so he opened a neighborhood joint and, as it happened, a frontier. “Before T.G.I. Friday’s, four single 25-year-old girls were not going out on Friday nights, in public and with each other, to have a good time,” he once told an interviewer. “They weren’t going out with each other to a bar for a casual dinner and drinks because there was no such place for them to go.” Classing up a gin mill with Bentwood chairs and imitation Tiffany lamps—set dressing the part of a homey establishment, as it were—Stillman built the first of the great singles bars.
All of the sudden, all across the country, it was as if every night were ladies’ night, and oh, what a night. In the phrase of Life magazine, “dating bars” functioned “more or less as perpetual college proms.” And what is a prom without spiked punch?
The most worthy of singles-bar girl drinks is, to my tongue, the Lemon Drop. By convention, authorship of the drink is ascribed to Henry Africa, a San Francisco saloonist who, nuttier than a Herb Caen anecdote, changed his name to that of his bar. At the dawn of the Me Decade, with Bay Area nightlife entering its Tales of the City phase, Henry Africa’s soothed the sensibilities with décor including authentic Tiffany lamps and an efflorescence of hanging plants, and hence it earns distinction as the first of the fern bars. Unlike other mixological icons of the fern-bar era—the Harvey Wallbanger and the Freddy Fudpucker, the Pineapple Francine and Rupert Holmes’ piña colada, any of which you can readily imagine spilling into the lap of Jack Tripper at the Regal Beagle—the Lemon Drop is timeless and modernist-clean.
I want to take care not to oversell this vodka-based beverage: Vodka has no character (an inescapable limitation of endlessly many girl drinks), and a bar that promotes its Lemon Drop is likely selling a crude synthetic slush. But if you are obliged to entertain and you have a bottle of vodka to kill, the Lemon Drop is where you want to be. Made properly, it is a good gateway for leading a potential apprentice cocktailian to the richer pleasures of the Sidecar and the White Lady. I vouch for this recipe, written by a food blogger who counts the drink as a high home-bar pleasure, “even though I would certainly never order one out because I keep my shame to myself.”
The Very Early 1980s: Vodka Tonic
Whit Stillman’s Last Days of Disco, presenting a dry carousel of a yuppie roundelay, opens with a long sequence set somewhere Studio 54ish. On behalf of a friend, nightclub flunkie Des McGrath (Chris Eigeman) delivers a drink to publishing assistant Alice Kinnon (Chloë Sevigny). Des says, “Jimmy Steinway gave me this vodka tonic to give you … ”
Alice: That's odd he knew I drank vodka tonics. I never told him.
Des: It's uncanny.
Alice: You mean it's a complete cliché? All women recent college graduates drink vodka tonics, or something like that?
Des: Well, maybe.
1987: The Sex on the Beach
The flavor scientists who arranged the sticky molecules of DeKuyper’s Peachtree Schnapps produced a nuclear reaction—a fad without precedent. It sold 1.3 million cases in its first year. The Fuzzy Navel, to which it syrupily contributes, became the most popular mixed drink in the country, and the Sex on the Beach—which is a Fuzzy Navel deluxe—installed its naughty name on the American menu and the spring-break canon. The flood of fruitish flavor receded by the end of the decade, and the peach schnapps bottle moved to the back of the national liquor cabinet, where snooping kids figured nobody would miss it. Not knowing what they were doing, just messing around with the fruit juice their parents put in the fridge before they left for the weekend, teenagers dared to mix further girly variations on the Sex on the Beach and its duck-faced sorority sister, the Woo Woo.
Photo by Francesco Perre/iStockphoto.
1988: The Cosmopolitan
In the middle of the 1980s, Absolut was test-marketing its first fruit-flavored vodka in Miami, and a bottle of the lemon-kissed Absolut Citron made its way into the hands of Cheryl Cook, a hotel bartender in South Beach. Wanting to put something pretty in the inverted cone of an iconic cocktail glass, she mixed it with cranberry juice, triple sec, and Rose’s lime juice, and she named it after Helen Gurley Brown’s magazine. It caught on, and women liked it, but it was not yet a girl drink, despite being “oh so pretty in pink.” (This was, after all, mid-‘80s Miami, where even an artist as butch as Michael Mann did the police in pastels.)
The formula circulated the fleshpots of port cities, eventually nestling in the ear of Toby Cecchini, a bartender at Keith McNally’s Odeon in New York. In 1988, he upgraded the ingredients to the formula that’s standard today, arriving at something “pretty good, like a high-end, girlish kamikaze,” as he has said in a Slate diary and in a memoir. It was girlish, but it was unisex. “It’s an insider’s cocktail that absolutely everyone drinks,” William Grimes observed. “Like a well-written sitcom, it flatters its audience into believing they are a little more sophisticated and knowing than they really are.”
1991: The Chocolate Choo-Choo
“Girl Drink Drunk” is a Kids in the Hall sketch about a nondrinker who orders the frilly fictional Choo-Choo and quickly develops a ruinous habit, hiding around his workplace not only rum but also a stash of paper umbrellas. The comedy is good but the mixology is conceptually flawed. Many of the featured beverages are elaborate caricatures of tiki drinks, which by their nature are no more or less girlie than a Samoan wrestler in a grass skirt.
1996: The French Martini
Keith McNally’s Pravda put this upscale Purple Hooter on the menu and “kicked off the whole flavored ‘martini’ craze,” according to Dale DeGroff, in a phrase that uses scare quotes like tongs.
1998: The Cosmopolitan, No. 2
It took 10 years for the Cosmopolitan to complete its gender assignment, and the transformation required the efforts of actual sitcom writers. In 1998, HBO’s adaptation of Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City debuted, and its characters, being trendy sorts, ordered them ostentatiously. (Candace’s pal Bret gave the drink a celebrity cameo in Glamorama that same year: “On this much Xanax, it’s remarkably easy to concentrate … while pouring cranberry juice, Cointreau, and lemon citron into a shaker filled with ice that you yourself attacked with an ice pick and then you're rolling a lime and slicing it … ”) The show effectively designated the drink as a totem and a sacrament. Soon, thousands of high-heeled bright young things were clambering across the cobblestone clubland of the Meat-Packing District to order a Cosmopolitan at Keith McNally’s Pastis, one of Carrie’s favorite joints. This liquid cupcake was the blood of her body.
2008: The Cosmopolitan, No. 3
The feature-film adaptation of Sex and the City closes with the gals lifting a toast to solidarity, clinking Cosmos to celebrate themselves. “Why did we ever stop drinking these?” says Miranda. “Because everyone else started,” answers Carrie.
When the hoi polloi pick up a trend, the hoity-toity press onto the next. I’d bet that the gang—and especially Samantha—would have moved on to one of the girl-friendly variations on the mojito that began making the rounds in 2000, around the time that the soundtrack to Buena Vista Social Club went platinum. Pomegranate, maybe?
That last one is made with VeeV, a very strong organic liquor from an eco-conscious distiller. It is fundamental to the VeeV sales pitch that you can save the rainforest and add antioxidants to your diet while holding a drink that looks good with your manicure. In 2008, the stuff was sufficiently of the moment that Florence Fabricant in the New York Times published a recipe that used it to make … the Amazon Cozmo.
Photo by Palle Christensen/iStockphoto.
2011: The Midori Super Sour
“Working to be relevant to a new generation of 21-25 year old women,” Midori, the troublingly green melon liqueur, hired Kim Kardashian as a brand ambassador. The theme of Kim’s campaign is stand out, which encourages young women to attract attention by ordering a refreshment that, under a nightclub blacklight, glows like an Industrial Toxini.
When asked at promotional appearances what her preferred way to choke back Midori is, Kim stands there, Saran-wrapped into a Midori-green dress, and claims to prefer the Midori Super Sour, a concoction I cannot countenance. If you simply must dabble in this realm, try Andrew Bohrer’s recipe, which uses gin. Gotta use gin unless you want “a cocktail balanced for a Cabbage Patch Kid.”
2012: The Best Amaretto Sour in the World
We have just wrapped the books on a momentous girl-drink year. Some people are still feeling the New Year’s hangovers they earned guzzling prebottled cocktails produced by VeeV and by Skinnygirl, a brand developed by the acclaimed Real Housewife Bethenny Frankel. (Some people are still receiving in-patient trauma counseling after being exposed to “the World’s Largest Bachelorette Party” that went down at Tao in Las Vegas, where attendees pounded the calorie-conscious “Skinnygirl Naked Cosmo.”) Smirnoff expanded its range of confectionary vodkas beyond Fluffed Marshmallow and Whipped Cream to include Iced Cake and Kissed Caramel; not to be outdone, Van Gogh Vodka introduced a PB&J flavor, “setting a new low bar in beverage crassness.”
Meanwhile, Applebee’s went nationwide with an after-hours concept—“bee’s”—and it moved its fair share of wildberry-mango Main St. Rita® Swirls. There were hints that the hip kids are sincerely appreciative of the fern-bar cultural aesthetic. The New York Post put out a big story on mojito fatigue.
Getting frisky over in R&D, a few bloggers gave girl drinks high-tech makeovers—dipping a lemon wedge into dehydrated Midori granules for a “Deconstructed Midori Sour,” for instance, and using gin, vermouth, a Granny Smith, and a nitrogen-infusion process to create a classed-up appletini. (“Does it taste like a ‘real’ Appletini? Hell, no. That’s why I’m still drinking it.”).
And getting back to basics, Portland, Ore.’s Jeffrey Morgenthaler published a recipe for “the best amaretto sour you’ve ever had in your life,” which yielded the best amaretto sour I’ve ever had in my life. The key ingredients are egg white and a half-jigger of cask-strength whiskey, which completes the drink “like Jerry Maguire completes Renée Zellweger’s character, whatever her name was.”
2013: The Cosmopolitan, No. 4
If you are going to insist on making a Cosmopolitan this year—possibly because you are one of these people born in the ‘90s who already have the nerve to throw ‘90s theme parties—then look to Slate’s variation, which embiggens the drink’s flavor profile and updates its chic with a double-cheeked pink-grapefruit kiss of fashionable Aperol. (If you have none at hand, substitute an overdose of orange bitters.) This is a Cosmopolitan for the 21st-century girl, right down to its pandering, catchy name. A Robert Pattinson fan celebrating the big two-one could do worse than to have one or two.
1½ ounces Absolut Citron
¾ ounce Cointreau
¾ ounce fresh lime juice
¾ ounce 100 percent cranberry juice
1 teaspoon Aperol
Shake with ice. Strain into a chilled cocktail glass. In accordance with a tradition aged for 25 years, set your expectations to “pretty good.”
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.