A Fresh Approach To Garnish
This is the age of thoughtful mixology. Historic recipes, bespoke ingredients and new spirits are all around us, challenging us to revive, invent, discover. We give so much thought to what goes into the glass, yet we frequently overlook one of a drink’s signature elements: the garnish.
A garnish is meant to entice the imbiber through every available sensory portal. Its clever shape and bright colors draw the eye, and when added to the drink, it can send its scent to your nose seconds before its flavors alight on your tongue. Cleverly done, it can make a big impression. Done with technical precision, like a fresh orange twist that sprays its oil across the surface of a Sazerac, it elevates a simple cocktail into a masterpiece. Executed carelessly, it’s a bore, an eyesore and a mess. Too often, we robotically do what we have always done: a flag on an Old Fashioned, an aging lime wedge on a Gin and Tonic, the Maraschino...
We put citrus fruits on the rim of a glass and expect our guests to finish the job by squeezing them into the glass, hopefully placing a cocktail napkin nearby so they can attempt to clean themselves up afterwards. Cocktail expert Jeffrey Morgenthaler refers to the “goofy fruit salad” we perch on the rim of a glass so our guests can gnaw it, leaving the masticated remains on the bartop for us to capture in yet another napkin. Distiller Doug Mackenzie of Great Lakes Distillery just calls it “garbage.” The limp pickle in a Bloody Mary, the plastic shark in a blue tiki-tini -- who, exactly, do we think we’re impressing?
Let us consider three classifications of garnish to begin the discussion: the ornamental, the functional garnish that completes the drink and the visual element that shows you the flavors before you take them in.
Ornamental garnish is anything inedible. Parasols, tiki toys and the like have a place on certain types of drinks. They are present for your amusement only and add nothing to the flavor profile of your cocktail.
Functional garnish gives the patron a chance to interact with their drink, and is intended to add another layer of flavor to the drink itself. Think of the lime wedge that imparts extra brightness when the guest squeezes the juice into a tonic. Think of the pickled asparagus spear used to stir a Bloody Mary. The olive, macerated in gin, that awaits the martini drinker. The fruit that floats in sangrias and cobblers and absorbs flavors that will later delight the palate.
Finally, the visual garnish. This usually manifests as solid matter representing the flavors of the drink. It can be eaten, but usually isn’t. Muddled herbs fall into this category, or spices like Star Anise. They are a demonstration of the drink’s ingredients and flavors. Think of the Mojito, a drink whose traditional presentation includes solid matter in the form of mint.
This is certainly the era of craft cocktails, and I hope this can include a craft approach to garnish, as well. Let us rethink what exactly it is we’re doing. If we mean for the flavor of the garnish to be in the drink, let’s put it in the drink. Muddle that cherry. Use that citrus press. Make a tincture, a syrup, a tonic to get it done. If it’s just for show, then let’s put on a show. Fruit and vegetable carving takes a little practice, but YouTube has lots of inspiration, and you didn’t get this far by being afraid to experiment.
As for the visual garnish, I am not convinced we’re doing our best work here. Try this experiment: Make two Mojitos, one muddled the traditional way and one with the lime juice pressed in and the mint bruised by the ice. I have found that herbs impart the best of their flavors when they are are not made bitter through the abuse of overwork. I believe there is a better way, sometimes called the Seattle Technique. Put the herbs in the shaker with the spirit and citrus juice, and when you strain the liquid out, you will have made an improved drink that doesn’t look like you chewed its ingredients before presentation. Alternatively, bartenders at the Petrossian in Las Vegas use the flat end of a barspoon to jostle the mint and ice in the mixing glass.
Above all, think about what you’re doing. See your work with fresh eyes and make sure you can be proud of what you present to your guests.