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Cocktail garnishes – how much is too much?

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The objective of Cocktail Garnishes and tips on creating them

You never get a second chance to make a great first impression.

You have the perfect setting; great lighting, vibey music and good looking bartenders who have entertaining bar personalities. Before a customer can taste your delicious drink, they feast with their eyes (and yes, some may critique their ROI against the size of their drink as well). It’s imperative to create a great looking drink as much as it is to actually create a perfectly balanced (tasting) cocktail. Enter the debate around garnishes.

Parrot cocktail garnish made from pineapple

Parrot cocktail garnish, courtesy of Deva Kolb, Pinterest

Garnishes have peaked and troughed in trends over the centuries. A decade back, they were the majority focus of a cocktail – if consumers didn’t receive an impressive looking gymnastic parrot on their drink, they were unimpressed. The first reference to a garnish dates back to 1862 in Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide – whereby citrus peels were used. Garnishes have now reached a targeted objective of enriching a cocktail. Remember that the first reference of the word cocktail was printed in London’s Morning Post & Gazetteer on 16th March 1798 and a cocktail at this time was

Remember that the first reference of the word cocktail was printed in London’s Morning Post & Gazetteer on 16th March 1798 and a cocktail at this time was a spirit with bitters and sweetener. Cocktail was further defined in print for the first time on 6th May 1806 in a New York newspaper, ‘The Balance, and Columbian Repository’ describing the above-mentioned recipe. Earlier references exist of this style of drink in the 1690s and early 1700s where pharmacist, Richard Stoughton, was selling a healing concoction called “Elixir Magnum Stomachicum”, made from spirits, bitters, and sweetener. By the time our man Jerry Thomas got his hands on the cocktail he stepped it up a notch by making it “fancy” through the addition of citrus peel.

The Objective

The purpose of a garnish is to compliment the cocktail in both aesthetic appeal, as well as enhancing the taste and smell to the consumer. There is nothing worse than a great looking cocktail that disappoints in taste so ensure that you focus efforts on the actual taste and create a garnish that will complement the drink accordingly.

Exaggerated or simple garnishes?

So what’s actually best when it comes to cocktail garnishes – exaggerated or simple?Garnishes are generally themed according to the base spirit of the cocktail:

  • Gin and vodka cocktails – A more sophisticated garnish is recommended, however, use your discretion here – an olive or a twisted slice of orange peel can do wonders.
  • Whiskey/Brandy drinks – less is more.
  • Rum cocktails – generally Rum or Tiki cocktails are where the extravagant Tropical tiki cocktailgarnishes are used, in the form of fruit, umbrellas and bright coloured props.
  • Tequila cocktails – citrus is best here in the form of lemons, limes, and oranges.

Garnish your cocktail to tell a story
Consumers love an experience and they frequent bars to be entertained. Take advantage of this and communicate your cocktail’s story through your garnish. What inspired the cocktail recipe? What setting is the cocktail best presented in? Old school(80/90’s) style of garnishing always called for using an ingredient that is present in the drink eg. Strawberry Daiquiri garnished with strawberry and/or citrus. But garnish today is considered as part of the drinking experience and not only athletics. A well-placed mint leaf in an Aperol Spritz opens up the nose to a new journey that completely contrasts the bitter taste of the drink.

When researching the masters of garnishing, bartenders like Luca Cinalli  – the mastermind behind bars like Nightjar and Oriol, one quickly realizes that the garnish of a cocktail has a much larger impact on the final drinking experience of the customer. It gives the imbiber the opportunity to interact with the drink, enticing all the senses.

Tips for garnishes

  • Use the garnish to add to the flavour of the drink – the saying ‘cherry on top’ is exactly what we’re referring to.
  • Select your garnish as the final touch to your cocktail – a twist of a lime or orange peel over the drink vessel will give a delicious scent that will greet the customer’s sense of smell before they take that first perfect sip.
  • Think complimentary rather than obvious – compliment the garnish’s scent / taste / colour to the cocktail – you don’t need to use citrus just because it’s the signature taste of the drink, a sprig of dill may be more daring and yet complimentary.
  • Read your consumers – yes we may be stereotyping, but stereotypes were created for a reason. A macho gent drinking a strong Negroni will not appreciate a pineapple parrot garnish on his crystal tumbler.
  • If the cocktail and setting allow it, use your garnish to complete the story. Think bird-cage with a smoking chard of cinnamon stick to accompany your Apple-Cinnamon Old Fashioned. The customer will be wowed by the presentation and the delicious smell.
  • Replicable – think Bacardi Legacy Cocktail Competition – create drinks and garnishes to be replicated by other bartenders that won’t necessarily have your skill.

Garnishes can be a great way to communicate your signature skills as a bartender, but don’t use it as an excuse to show off skill and overshoot the mark. Always consider the cost of your garnish in relation to the selling price of the cocktail – customers need to be charged for their garnishes as it affects your bottom line. Sometimes less is more. Use your discretion as a professional – compliment the cocktail to bring out its best features, and read your guests.



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