Have you ever found yourself in a restaurant lounge or sitting at the bar of your local watering hole, and you glance over to notice the vast array of garnishes lining the work space of the bar well?
Apart from being your friend’s personal grazing trough (gross), is there a purpose to all those colorful, sometimes elaborate garnishes? Well, let’s do a little deep dive and find out! So slap your friend’s hand out of that cup of olives, and let’s explore the world of cocktail garnishes.
THE VARYING VIEWS ON COCKTAIL GARNISHES
First we must acknowledge that– as with many topics within the world of bartending– the subject of garnishes is riddled with subjectivity and stubborn opinion: The Elitist may tell you a garnish is only acceptable when it adds to the cocktail’s overall flavor.
Meanwhile, some Purists may say that a truly balanced mixed drink requires no garnish at all so that the customer doesn’t have the opportunity to ruin the perfect balance of flavors.
Then you have your Anarchists, fist to the heavens, stains of Blue Curaçao still encrusted across “this week’s” work shirt, with screams of “to hell with it all!” bellowing from their chests as they stabilize that final slider atop the produce-laden skyscraper adorning what some would call a “Bloody Mary.”
(And you know what? You do you, my friend! You light that sparkler in your AMF… Cheers!)
So, which is right? Is there any right answer at all? Well, here is where subjectivity becomes a factor because, truthfully, there is no right answer; it can almost entirely be condensed to one’s personal preference. Do you like fun drink garnishes? Cool. Prefer the aesthetic of plain drinks? Also cool!
THE VISUAL APPEAL OF GARNISHES
Now, had you asked me 5 years ago, I may have sided more closely to the Elitist in believing that a garnish was just an unnecessary decoration unless it had some functionality when paired with a delicious cocktail.
As I’ve grown and my own stubborn biases have eased (though maybe not completely subsided), I have come to understand that the “fashion” of a cocktail’s garnish can actually be its “function.”
In this day and age of social media, having an online presence can do wonders for small businesses, especially ones who may not have the financial resources for elaborate marketing.
In this scenario, who’s to say that it is wrong for them to throw a couple extra orchids onto a glass’s rim in order to create a more memorable cocktail and therefore get that geotag on your story… and thus free promotion?
“The first taste is with the eyes” has always been a cliché in the bar industry, but there is a lot of truth to it. The more visually appealing a beverage is, the more likely our own personal bias will lean in its favor. (Even if we don’t like the drink, we’re more likely to power through it if it looks “fancy” or has a certain wow factor.)
To clarify, there’s nothing wrong with having a garnish with functionality also; in fact, that is how most of them originated: as cocktail “accents,” if you will. Nothing beats the aroma of a freshly zested orange peel over the top of an Old Fashioned or the bright, citrus bite of squeezing a little extra lime juice into your Daiquiri.
LET’S TALK HISTORY: HOW GARNISHES FOR COCKTAILS DEVELOPED OVER TIME
Now, in order to better grasp the purpose of a garnish, we’ll have to take a little trip back to the mid-nineteenth century, when someone (whose name you may or may not be familiar with) was mixing cocktails across the United States and creating a phenomenon along the way.
Jerry “the Professor” Thomas, known by many in the modern bar scene as “the father of American mixology,” combined his creativity along with his flair for showmanship to turn the act of pouring drinks into the art and spectacle that craft-cocktail bartending is today, creating the birth of the classic garnish.
Though the exact origin of using fruits and citrus fruits to garnish cocktails may have been lost amongst the long-forgotten memories of over a century’s worth of late nights (and often longer mornings), there is still full mention of garnished cocktails in Jerry Thomas’ 1862 reprint of Bartenders Guide.
While Jerry Thomas’ style of bartending would probably more closely compared to TGI Friday’s “flair-bartending” by today’s standards (look up a Blue Blazer cocktail), it was this energy and excitement that sparked interest in mixology and opened people’s minds to the potential of what bartending could be.
Along with his affinity for bottle-juggling and extravagant jewelry, Thomas earnestly pushed to elevate each and every cocktail he presented to his guests. Each drink served became an exotic tipple that came with all manor of fruits and berries adorning the rim of whatever glass or punch bowl your concoction was being served in. (Think early Edible Arrangements but with booze… Hey, might be onto something there!)
In the early days, most garnishes were made from only food-based items; it wasn’t until after Prohibition, with the introduction of the tiki craze, that the garnish game was taken to an entirely new level of extravagance on top of those tropical drinks.
(However, it must be noted that, at the time, it was not seen as “tacky” or “over-the-top” to have an overly elaborate garnish sprouting from the rim of your glass, but instead was seen as a luxury or status symbol.)
POPULAR GARNISHES TO BEAUTIFY YOUR COCKTAIL PRESENTATION
OK, let’s say you’re going go for it and add a garnish or four to your cocktail glass. Here are some of my favorite cocktail garnish ideas, from simple garnishes to really fun ideas for excellent garnishes.
Common Cocktail Garnishes:
- Citrus twists or citrus wedges
- Cocktail cherries (Get the good ones, not the bright red maraschino cherries.)
- Fresh fruit slices (Think wedge of pineapple, strawberry piece, slice of orange, etc.)
- Chocolate shavings
- Kosher salt or salt mixture as an easy rim garnish
- Cherry tomatoes (for Bloody Marys)
- Classic cocktail garnishes like olives & cocktail onions for Martinis
- Simple herbs like a fresh mint sprig
Fun Garnishes to Elevate the Drinking Experience
- Edible flowers or herb blossoms for a pop of color
- Other edible garnishes like fresh herbs with flair, which adds aromatic appeal (Think torched rosemary sprig.)
- Smoke for a really special presentation and additional smoky flavor to the cocktail
- Delicate ribbon of citrus peel garnish, not just a simple piece of peel (Check out A Bar Above’s new vegetable peeler and channel knife to help you create the perfect garnish.)
- Pickled vegetables like carrot make for a great savory cocktail garnish
- Dehydrated fruits like a gorgeous blood orange slice
- Specific to a cocktail like the Bloody Mary… pickle slices, bacon, and other creative cocktail garnishes on a long cocktail skewer to really up the cocktail game
- Cinnamon stick or freshly ground cinnamon
- Fancy ice from a specialized ice cube tray– or even just crushed ice or large format ice
- Bitters sprayed in a stenciled pattern or dashed & then dragged through with a cocktail pick (both on top of egg white foam in a sour cocktail like the Whiskey Sour)
LONG LIVE THE COCKTAIL GARNISH
Fast forward back to modern times, and the garnish is still a staple of the American cocktail. Though the level of extravagance is still susceptible to the ebbs and flow of social trends, those little lime wheels and purple orchids on a finished drink aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
So whether you side with the Elitists or the Purists, or you are wondering why we’re still talking about the slice of lime on the side of your Gin and Tonic instead of just drinking the dang thing, you can rest assured that little lime wedge was placed there with purpose.
Whether to add a zest of fresh citrus to your nightcap or to boost your follower count via a flashy filter, you can always count on garnishes to get the job done. So go grab your cocktail picks, and get to garnishing!