It’s an all too often experience, sadly, that I order my favorite highball – the modest gin and tonic – and on the rim of my dirty glass is a forlorn wedge of lime, dry and depleted of all nourishment, its once green edges now tinged in shades brown and neglect. It’s a sad day for this venerable aperitif and an even sadder day for me. Which brings me to the subject of garnishes for this post; something that seems so obvious in our profession but is often approached with a certain degree of flippancy, bordering on disdain.
For some of you, the very notion of garnishing your drinks smacks of nonsense and frippery, while for others what makes a cocktail, well, a cocktail, is embodied in the way in which it is decorated. Is a Pina Colada really a Pina Colada without the requisite fruit salad and other superfluous gaudiness that usually crown its already overflowing rim? Perhaps not.
There are almost no cocktails in existence that don’t benefit from some sort of adornment. Even the Gin Fizz – traditionally a drink served without a garnish – always benefits from a lemon twist (once called a ‘fancy’ garnish before Prohibition) broken over its surface, its pungent oils making the drink pop. And that is exactly what we should be looking for when thinking about any sort of garnish. How am I going to make this drink ‘pop?’
A garnish doesn’t need to be ostentatious by any stretch, although nothing seems out of place in this age of shiso leaves, pickled watermelon rind and dried papaya. Smoked salmon? Sure. Shaved truffles? You bet. How about some edible gold leaf while we’re at it? Or an orange blossom foam on your next Negroni? In my mind, every drink should have at least something it calls a garnish, no matter how restrained. A twist of orange, a shaving of nutmeg, a basil leaf, a lime wheel – all the archetype of subtlety – yet highly potent in their own way.
Cocktails are a sensory experience that should be analyzed in ways that go beyond taste. How do they smell? How do they make you feel? And of course, how do they look? After all, it is indeed the garnish that ties it all together. That said, it should be appropriate – whenever possible – to the ingredients that are in the drink and not so invasive as to hinder the actual act of imbibing the cocktail in the first place. I mean what’s the point of that kitsch umbrella (I’m a big fan, yeah I said it), plastic monkey and behemoth pineapple wedge if you can’t enjoy what’s in the glass?
I’m a sucker for a beautiful and thoughtful garnish on my drink and at Saxon + Parole we go to great lengths when considering what to put on each and every drink. Right now blood oranges are in season and the deep crimson color will breathe new life into your next Garibaldi Cocktail (Campari and orange juice), if indeed you garnish this drink at all. You should. We use it on our Sanguine Cocktail with a little spritz of rosewater for added aroma.
We also have a fresh Mayan shrimp on our Michelada, cut sugar cane and grated nutmeg on our Lower East Cider, an edible pansy flower on the Beetnik, drops of chili oil that bob around on the surface of the Bowery Fix, a beautiful star anise on the Pisco Punch, pickled celery ribbons on the Celery Gimlet, dehydrated plantain chips on the Banana Rum Re-Fashioned, toasted almond flakes on the Scorched Almond Gin Fizz, fresh cranberries on the New Amsterdam, pink peppercorns on the Fat Washed Peppercorn Daiquiri, pickled okra on the Bloody Mary as well as a series of flavored salts using the likes of Aleppo pepper, coriander and citrus.
Even our Dry Martini Service comes with a trio of garnishes, or what we call ‘accoutrements:’ a large olive, a pickled onion (prepared in house and pickled in some of the same botanicals as Plymouth Gin and a lemon twist. Oh, and the cherries (when in season) that grace our Manhattan ‘On Draught’ we pickle with port, whiskey and hard spices. If there’s one thing that will make me very happy from this article, it would be for anyone that currently carries those awful, neon-hued excuse for a maraschino cherry, to throw them in the trash and start using decent cherries. It’s not that hard people and guests do notice the difference.
Attention to detail is all I ask. In a time when stirred and brown is beautiful, it’s no excuse to not add that final flourish and garnish your drink with something, anything. As long as it’s fresh, appropriate, thoughtful and where possible, edible. That might be something as simple as a wedge of watermelon (yes, please!) or a twist of citrus to something more extravagant like a flower or a piece of beef jerky. Maybe you want to freeze some of these things in some ice spheres or cubes (except perhaps the jerky; that’s just a little weird).
People buy with their eyes and how many times have you heard someone oohing and aahing over something spectacular that you’re putting that finishing touch on for someone else? A great cocktail, in the end, is all about the details.
P.S. Please post in the comments section here some of your favorite garnishes so myself and everyone else reading Shakestir can steal them and use them as we see fit. Thanks.
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