Behind the Bar: How to Garnish

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Being served a Gin and Tonic with a dried-out lime wheel is a deal-breaker at any bar, but it’s especially hard to accept at an upscale joint that charges premium prices.

Even if a drink is made with fresh juice and from a great recipe, that’s not enough to compensate for bad presentation. The aesthetics of a well-made cocktail (just like a plate of gourmet food) are, of course, a huge part of its appeal. But figuring out the proper garnish can be tricky, even for a professional.

If the garnish is there simply to doll up the whole production, it has to be eye-catching. An example is the Sonia orchid that often graces a Mai Tai, whose perfectly hooked stem clings so tenaciously to the rim of a glass that surely it was destined to be a garnish. But even a fruit wedge or mint sprig needs to be appetizing and not so large that the drink becomes unwieldy.

And for many recipes, a garnish has a dual role: It must look great and also contribute an accent flavor or aroma. Take something as simple as an Irish Coffee. At The Buena Vista Cafe in San Francisco, one of the busiest bars in the country, the concoction is finished with a white cloud of hand-whipped cream. This topping serves two important purposes: It creates the drink’s signature dramatic black-and-white look, and the unsweetened coolness of the cream tempers the alcohol and the hot, sugary coffee.

Bartenders across the country are now also looking to the kitchen for inspiration. I recently had a tasty Margarita whose plain salt rim was replaced with a mix of thyme and red Hawaiian sea salt. And five years ago, a classic Martini with a blue cheese-stuffed olive may have been cutting-edge, but the signature cocktail at the new Chicago bar Ole’ Hardwood is a Tamarind-Lemongrass-Peppercorn Martini with a pork belly-stuffed cherry pepper.

Nothing wrong with getting creative; you just have to make sure that your garnish doesn’t overwhelm the drink. Now get mixing!

Master mixologist Dale DeGroff is the author of The Essential Cocktail and The Craft of the Cocktail. He is also a Liquor.com advisor.

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