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Grapefruit peel, flaming orange twists, grated nutmeg, herb sprigs, cucumber slices, flowers—cocktails nowadays are all about the garnishes. They beautify your drinks and add aromatic intrigue, completing the cocktail and upping the pleasure quotient. But not all garnishes are equal. A thick, ragged peel ruins the look of a drink. Too much pith in grated citrus brings unwanted bitterness. And delicate garnishes that aren’t positioned correctly can fall below the surface and get soaked before you sip. To make and place garnishes correctly, you need tools you can trust.
“A lot of it is how comfortable a person is with the tool,” says Julia Momose, partner and creative director at Kumiko in Chicago. “Pick up a tool and get comfortable with it, and when you do, stick with it. If you do switch your tool, recognize how it will flow differently. Go slowly but with confidence.”
Sharp, sturdy, well-fitting tools are key to great garnishes. Here are some of the best.
Best Overall: Mercer Culinary Precision Plus Straight Plating Tong
“It’s imperative that you have a good pair of tweezers when you’re dealing with micro-herbs and leaves,” says teaching bartender Anthony “the Professor” Baker, who has worked at such garnish-forward New York City cocktail bars as The Aviary and The Grill. “If they’re dull, they don’t capture what you need.”
His choice is this chef’s plating tong from Mercer Culinary. “The brand has amazing quality for bartenders. They craft everything they make, and you can tell they put a lot of time into it,” he says. “I need sharp tweezers, the dangerous ones. I’m talking about tweezers that you could protect yourself with; they’re so sharp and on point." Baker appreciates how exacting this tool is, which really helps with tiny garnishes.
Best Grater: Microplane Premium Classic Series
Originally developed as a rasp for woodworking, Microplane is the grater of choice for bartenders. “I love how shallow the blades are, so when you’re zesting, you’re not getting the pith,” says Momose. “It tones down the bitterness, and they have many different shapes and sizes." She highlighted the classic, long Microplane, which is great for prepping; a smaller version that's perfect for grating chocolate; and the Microplanes that are more rounded on the sides, which Momose says are nice for harder garnishes like cinnamon.
Best Tweezers: JB Prince Offset Fine Tip Tweezer
Some tweezers are more rounded at the end, meant for bruise-free handling of cherries and olives; others are pointed for plucking rosemary or snapping stems in half. “There are so many different shapes and sizes,” says Momose. But her favorite is JB Prince's pair of offset tweezers.
“Instead of being straight, the handle lifts up so you can rest it on the back of your hand if you’re hunched over. It’s easier on the wrist, more ergonomic and slender. I love the aesthetic and the fine-pointed, stainless steel tips,” she says of this pair, which combines precision and comfort.
Related: The Best Bar Tools
Best Value: Kuhn Rikon Original Swiss Peeler Set
Kumiko's Momose declares Kuhn Rikon’s budget-friendly tool her favorite Y-shaped peeler—"the only one I will use.” She likes the sharp blades and the flexible plastic base, which makes it easier to maneuver larger citrus fruits. “You can press it down and flatten the peel to get a beautiful large swath, and it cuts evenly," she adds.
The thinner handle works better for smaller hands like Momose's. And the blade is removable, so you can save it and pop it into a handle in any of the many colors Kuhn Rikon makes.
Best Peeler: Titan Peeler
“It’s insane how good of a quality you need from a peeler,” teaching bartender Baker says. “You’re trying to dig in and get a lot of pith out, and I’ve seen peelers break a million times.”
Titan, he declares, has stainless steel blades that are strong enough to handle tough citrus skins—which also means you don’t risk slipping and injuring yourself. “I can’t tell you how many times I cut my pinkie with other peelers,” he adds.
Related: The Best Citrus Peelers
Best Citrus Planer: OXO Good Grips Citrus Zester
For good-looking citrus in your drinks, a top-notch planer is of utmost importance, according to Baker. “Most planers take too much of the pith, which makes a peel look so ugly.” But OXO, he observes, takes just the skin.
Moreover, while other tools, in Baker's opinion, don’t have much grip to them, this brand’s signature hefty, non-slip handle is “like training wheels” for home bartenders. “It’s easy to hold,” he says, making the tool “safe and simple to use.”
Best Splurge: Misono Handmade Molybdenum Paring Knife
Baker suggests a paring knife when you want to go one further with citrus peels, making them look “nice and sharp” by cutting the corners away before twisting them. Fond of using hers to “swipe a perfect little disc of pith for flaming,” Momose advises that home bartenders invest in a high-quality paring knife.
Her choice is Misono for its weight and balance, as well as its sharpness, which she asserts has staying power: “It’s just what I need to have on the bar for cutting beautiful designs and patterns.”
Related: The Best Citrus Juicers
Best Gift: Kai 8-Inch Pinking Shears
For the home bartender who has everything, this surprise gift will up anyone’s cocktail game. Yes, they’re fabric scissors, but their stay-sharp teeth can be used, says Baker, “to take your citrus and twist and turn it into zigzags”—a fun effect in tiki drinks and other concoctions.
Ergonomic rubber handles make the work of creating interesting garnishes pain-free and easy. And you’re guaranteed to not be gifting your friends something they already have on their bar.
Best Kit: Mercer Culinary Eight-Piece Garnishing Kit
This all-inclusive set satisfies produce-forward mixologists looking to make their fruit and vegetable garnishes “super sexy,” says Baker. The tools—a paring knife, planer, peeler, channel knife, oval melon baller, double melon baller and apple corer—are made of high-carbon stainless steel with slip-free polypropylene handles.
Tucked into tight pockets in a heavy-duty polyester roll, they’re just right for transporting to wherever the party is. “Some bar tools are so flimsy and bendable. But Mercer tools don’t break or dent or bend easily,” Baker asserts. “They have an amazing amount of sturdiness.”
Related: The Best Gifts for Bartenders
When you’re working with small, delicate garnishes, a super-sharp, straight-handled tweezer is essential. The Mercer Culinary Precision Plus Straight Plating Tong is the one to reach for (view at Amazon). Using this tool, however, can be like driving a Ferrari for some. For comfort and ergonomic control, go for the JB Prince Offset Fine Tip Tweezers (also on Amazon) instead.
What to Look for in a Garnishing Tool
“I have smaller hands,” says Momose. “Larger handles are more clunky for me. I hold my peeler like a knife, right up to the blade.” She has a harder time keeping control of big handles properly, so she looks for thinner grips. The tool should fit easily in your grip.
“Vegetable peelers are a big cause of hospital visits,” according to Momose. “I have taken off much of my finger. Bartenders have horror stories.” One problem is that a flimsy tool can snap or slip while you’re working with it, causing the blade to slide and accidentally cut your skin. Look for solid construction.
Dull tweezers can’t pick up fine garnishes. Dull graters, planers and knives make messy, useless peels and zest. And dull blades can be dangerous when you work too hard to cut the fruit, and then the knife slips and cuts you instead. Look for tools that hold their sharpness.
How do you clean garnishing tools?
Most garnishing tools can simply be washed and dried, but when you clean a microplane, you don’t want to use a sponge because bits of the scrubber will rasp off and get stuck in the tool, Baker says. Use the spray attachment on your kitchen or bar sink to blast any remaining bits of garnish off the Microplane, even after it’s come out of the dishwasher. He also suggests soaking your peeler in hot water for an hour or so after heavy use. That helps remove citrus oils and keeps the tool spotless.
How do you store garnishing tools?
“Make sure that when you buy the tools, you don’t throw away the packaging,” notes Baker. If it’s hard plastic, it can serve as a cover that keeps the sharp tool’s blade free from dulling. It also protects your hands when you reach into your tool bag or bar drawer. It’s also a good idea to purchase a bar roll like the one that comes with the Mercer Culinary Eight-Piece Garnishing Kit. It has tight pockets that hold the tools in place.
How often do you need to replace garnishing tools?
Baker advises to replace sharp garnishing tools, such as graters, planers and tweezers, after about 500 uses. By then, they will be starting to wear down, and you don’t want them to break on you in the middle of making drinks. He suggests always having a backup tool for the job on your bar.
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Betsy Andrews is a freelance journalist specializing in food and drink, travel, and the environment, and has been writing about wine and spirits for two decades. Betsy has written for Liquor.com since May 2020. Her work has appeared in Food & Wine, Eating Well, The Wall Street Journal, SevenFifty Daily, VinePair, Wine Enthusiast, Travel & Leisure and more.
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