Finally ensconced at a table in one of the world’s most acclaimed bars, I was thrilled—to gawk at the regal room, to see the much-buzzed team of disciplined bartenders at work, and to take my first sip of the delicate sherry cocktail I ordered. But as soon as it arrived, my heart deflated at the sight of the cheap toy garnish adorning the rim. Indeed, the drink tasted as delicious and balanced as I had expected, but I just couldn’t look past that kitschy pink plastic accompaniment. For a rather serious drink den, opting to grace a concoction with such a juvenile finishing touch felt decidedly out of place. I did not order a second.
Although this cocktail’s presentation didn’t resonate with me, clearly the bar was attempting to straddle whimsy with elegance through its use of garnish. This last step, the accessorizing that makes or breaks a dress, so to speak, has the power to visually seduce or alienate before even raising a glass to one’s lip. Oftentimes, a simple lemon wedge or thin orange zest curl does the trick; sometimes downright cumbersome orchid fronds and tiny paper parasols are added to conjure escapist sultry climes. But how does a bartender know his or her boundaries when it comes to such flourishes?
“Garnishes have a unique ability to categorize cocktails, even as many of the methods and ingredients change,” says Leslie Ross, beverage director of Houston-based restaurant group, Treadsack. “Tiki? Garnishes that are notoriously fun and over the top, with glassware and bowls to match. Classics? Simple, clean, even minimalist, as expressed oils can be used for garnish. Avant-garde? Balloons filled with lemon oil bursting over a glass, a paper lantern hovering, caviar, even crocodile heads.”
Bartenders, then, use myriad garnishes that run the gamut from playful to sophisticated. The Shark Week cocktail—a riff on the applejack-forward Jack Rose—is served at the low-key Ames Street Deli, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and is one such example of the former. The blood-like hue of the grenadine is a welcome invitation to delve further into the theme and cap off the drink with a toy shark. However, the snazzy Hello My Darling cocktail on offer at the Back Room in the tony Park Hyatt New York chooses to enliven a rum Old Fashioned with merely a classy, tropical-inspired skewer of dried banana instead.
Balancing creativity with practicality is key to dreaming up a memorable garnish. Take the Aegean Sea, for instance. This cocktail—served at Cindy’s, the rooftop boîte of the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel—is Nandini Khaund’s spin on the White Negroni, featuring a whole caper leaf at the bottom. While a clever approach, the leaf also significantly helps bolster the flavors.
“We aromatize our glass with St. George Rhum Agricole, which imparts a scent of olive and earth. The drink tastes of the bitterness of gentian and an alpine hint from Italian pinesap. As the drink is sipped, the Santorini caper leaf changes the cocktail in a subtle way, imbuing it with the satisfaction of salinity, reminiscent of a dirty martini. When the caper leaf is eaten, the drinker completes a full journey from the mountains to the sea,” she says. For Khaund, the caper leaf is paramount to the cocktail’s appeal: “Because we feast with our eyes and all of our senses, a garnish is a vital cocktail component. If you drink a mint julep without the bouquet of mint in your face, it’s merely bourbon and sugar. Bad garnishes detract from the composition of a cocktail: Sometimes a breath, or negative space, is more important in the experience.”
As today’s cocktail creations further tap into forward-thinking savory territory, the addition of culinary-minded garnishes is fitting. At Trick Dog, in San Francisco, the Bon Vivants’ July cocktail melds Fighting Cock bourbon, Amaro Lucano, blackberry, Shiraz, Dale’s Pale Ale, chipotle, and lemon. Bringing all these disparate ingredients together is a sharp Cheddar garnish. Scott Koehl, beverage manager for Ada Street, in Chicago, whips up the earthy Nine Pound Hammer (Booker’s bourbon, corn, demerara, and tobacco bitters) featuring a house-dried and house-smoked cornhusk garnish. While at the Fig & Olive, also in the Windy City, there’s a Fig & Walnut Julep (Four Roses bourbon, port, muddled Black Mission figs, mint, and fresh citrus) accentuated by a shaved walnut-covered fresh fig.
Carnivore haven Steak & Whisky, in Hermosa Beach, California, is where beverage manager Dave Keenan makes the Swanson with rye, barrel-smoked maple syrup, and bitters garnished with a dehydrated square of scrap meat salvaged from the restaurant’s steak tartare and charcuterie board.
“Garnishes are essential to the cocktails they accompany because they serve to balance and unite the flavors within the drink. The steak garnish is necessary for this particular drink, as it completes the palate by balancing the sweetness from the maple and the peppery notes from the rye. It’s like umami in a glass,” Keenan explains.
Just as the right garnish can help underscore the mission of a bar as in the case of Steak & Whisky, it also has the power to buoy its cultural connections. In New York City, Oaxacan-inspired cocktail bar Masa y Agave flaunts an exhaustive list of agave spirits assembled by mezcal sommelier Courtenay Greenleaf. Here, some of the libations are garnished with infused salts, from ancho chili to pink peppercorn to smoked guajillo-sal de gusano, intriguingly made with dehydrated larvae found on agave plants. A popular ingredient in Mexico, it adds yet another layer of authenticity to the Mezcal-isco (Fidencio mezcal, Espolon reposado tequila, lime, agave, and orange). “It’s a cocktail inspired by the traditional way of drinking tequila and mezcal in Jalisco, Mexico. There, people sprinkle worm salt on an orange or apple slice, which they eat alongside a sippable spirit. In the Mezcal-isco, the salt garnish reflects that Mexican tradition and brings out the citric flavor from the orange and lime juices in the drink, while an orange slice adds an aromatic element as well,” Greenleaf says. “Garnish is a must for any cocktail, rounding out how one experiences the drink. It balances the palate without adding or taking away from the actual flavor.”
Ross, who created the Tears of the Black Tiger for Treadsack’s farm-to-table Northern and Northeastern Thai concept, Foreign Correspondents, blends Makrut lime-infused tequila with vanilla-rose syrup and soda. It has a garnish of banana blossoms, banana leaf, lime, and black salt stripes, clearly amplifying the connection between a menu that stars dishes such as crispy rice salad with pork sausage and spicy blue crabs. “Garnishes play a tremendously important role in cocktails. Just like with food, fashion, cars, and even potential mates, a drink is initially considered based on how it looks. Seeing as how we eat with our eyes, we often drink with our eyes as well, and the garnish can make or break a drink on your menu,” she says. “Many times, people are willing to try a cocktail without much consideration of the ingredients if the garnish is enticing. The opposite is true as well, as I have seen a garnish make a perfectly good-tasting drink visually unappealing.” I couldn’t agree more.