Over the past couple of years we’ve discussed recipes, spirits, commercial and homemade ingredients, technique and even our favorite tools—but a subject we haven’t spent a lot of time on is the cocktail garnish. We’ve shared a few details as recipes required, but we thought it might be helpful to compile a list of terms and techniques so our readers have a place to go for reference and suggestions. After all, the garnish is part the cocktail. Sometimes there’s flexibility and other times skipping or changing it can make or break the recipe.
It’s important to understand the reasons for a garnish because it will help you recognize when you might be able to get away with an adjustment versus those times when it’s absolutely crucial to nailing a recipe’s intended flavor profile. You may decide you cannot make a particular cocktail on the basis of not having the appropriate garnish. To put it another way, you wouldn’t skip a liqueur nor swap a base spirit if you were trying to reproduce a specific drink, right? It sounds dramatic, but that’s exactly the kind of effect the right garnish can have on a cocktail. We are talking about sensory appeal, and there are different levels that come into play. Most obvious is when the garnish affects the actual taste of the drink. This can easily occur with a few drops of oil from a citrus peel or a healthy dose of brine from some skewered olives. Second, and sometimes even more important is the aroma you often get with an appropriate garnish. If you are honest about flavor, you understand that much of what you taste comes in through your nose, and most garnishes are going to affect your sense of smell. Finally, the right garnish also serves to decorate the glass, from elaborate visual showcases to simple clean presentations that give a splash of color or cues to the flavors that await.
One of the most common basic garnishes is the twist. When your recipe merely specifies “a twist” it’s usually referring to a cut and twisted chunk of lemon peel. However, it’s not unusual for a recipe to cite twists of orange, lime or even grapefruit. Whatever the citrus, there are several ways to make a twist. Some of the variations will produce different shapes and sizes that will affect the presentation, flavor and aroma. In its simplest form, a twist is made by cutting a piece of the colored part of the peel with a bar knife. Sometimes just a coin-sized disc is sufficient, or piece like a stick of gum. Most of the time, the less white pith you include, the better, but depending on your fruit, it can help to keep it thicker to prevent it from breaking apart when you twist it. How you cut it is also up to you, but a vegetable peeler makes a nice, consistent flap and the edges can be cleaned up with your bar knife. Peeling with a knife can achieve similar results if you are careful not to include any of the flesh of the fruit. Also, watch that you don’t waste the citrus oils as you go. Some cocktails like the Brandy Crusta call for huge ring-like pieces that rim the entire glass while others benefit from a giant “horse’s neck” peeled from the whole fruit.
Bigger isn’t always better. Another technique involves using a tool called a channel knife. This cutting device is usually embedded into zester tools like a sideways notch cutter, but there are also dedicated channel knives that cut at different widths and depths. They allow you to make long, thin strips of citrus peel that can be elegantly draped over the edge of a glass, knotted, or tightly coiled into a “pig’s tail”. Whether draped or nestled onto the edge of a glass, twists cut with a channel knife are delicate and should be cut over the glass if possible to catch the spray of citrus oils.
Twists must be twisted
Next comes the actual twisting. This step should always be performed above the glass so the spray of oils is aimed at the surface of the drink. It’s the twisting action and the oils it generates that makes this garnish so important. The fragrance of whatever fruit you twist may fill the room, but more importantly, it will scent the cocktail so every sip includes its zesty zing. If your peel isn’t producing any oil, it’s probably old and spongy. Try another, or consider the age and condition of your citrus before you reach this point. For twists cut with a channel knife, coil the peel around a straw, pick or swizzle stick tightly. Slip it off and give it a carful pull to express the oils and help preserve the coiled shape. Using a toothpick in this manner will help you make tight pig’s tails with ease.
Once you have twisted the peel over the glass, you may choose to rub the peel around the rim of the glass. This will guarantee the flavor becomes part of the sipping experience. Now, you can drop the peel into the glass (colored side up please), drape it artistically over the edge, or discard it. That’s right, sometimes the garnish leaves its effect without actually showing itself to the imbiber. For some cocktails, this allows the flavors and aromas to play a role while avoiding the sight of fruit floating around in the glass. It depends on the recipe or the visual impression you are trying to achieve.
In some cases, a good orange twist with lots of oils can take the place of orange bitters in a cocktail. Drinks that call for grapefruit bitters may benefit from a good squeeze of zest if you don’t have the bitters. One fancy trick that transforms the oils is to light them on fire. This is best achieved with a quarter-sized disk of orange peel. Slice a disk off of a very fresh orange. Light a match and with your other hand gently hold the colored side of the peel near the flame to warm it up. Then, with a snap of your finger and thumb, bend the disc sending a spray of oil through the flame and onto the surface of the cocktail. This dazzling display of fire does more than impress guests—it also creates caramelized oils that flavor your drink. The disc can be dropped into the drink or discarded.
There are other nice effects that can be put into play such as tying knots, weaving or cutting tiny shapes with aspic mold cutters. Aspic cutters are like miniature cookie cutters that come in sets with various shapes. You can use them to cut little hearts, shamrocks, diamonds and so on. It’s a little extra work for a very impressive presentation. Twists can also be strung through additional garnishes or skewered with picks. Just use your imagination to create a twist that works. Remember that some cocktails have very few ingredients so the twist takes a prominent role in the overall taste. You want the garnish to enhance the flavor and presentation, not distract from it.
Wedges and Wheels
Taking a step beyond the twist, wedges and wheels make full use of a fruit’s flesh in addition to just the peel. In some respects, a twist will have a greater effect on a cocktail’s flavor because of the potent oils that come into play. A wedge or wheel, on the other hand, provides more decorative or visual interest contributing only a tiny amount of juice. Garnishes in a recipe shouldn’t be considered optional, but you might not miss a wedge or wheel as much as a twist. In some instances, however, a wedge represents a choice for the customer to add an extra squeeze of juice to their drink. This allows them to adjust the balance of flavors to suit their taste. More often though, a wedge garnish is just for looks. Either way, wedges and wheels should be added to the drink unsqueezed. They can be placed on the rim or nestled among the ice cubes. Thin wheels also look great just floating on the surface or tucked along the inside of the glass in tall drinks.
Cutting a wedge or a wheel is simple, provided you know how to orient the fruit to get your desired cut. For a wedge, start with a cut from pole to pole. In other words, slice the citrus in half so that your cut goes through the bud end and the stem end of the fruit. This will give you pieces that show the flesh across the whole face as opposed to a wheel that reveals the sectional membranes. It’s sometimes recommended that you cut off the tips first, but there’s really no need unless the fruit has a bit of the twig attached. Wedges are normally perched on the edge of the glass, flesh side down with the peel facing up. This requires a slit through the flesh, so it can be handy to make that slit ahead of time. If you are preparing several wedges at once, after your first cut, make a perpendicular slit through the flesh on the inside face of the halves without going through the peel. Then, continue cutting the halves tip to tip into wedges. Precutting this slit will save time and your wedges will be ready to quickly set over the rim. Each half can be cut into 4 wedges, so a typical lime should give you eight wedges.
Another technique is to forgo the center slit and opt for a cut along the peel. Separate the peel of each wedge with your knife like skinning a fish. Stop halfway up the peel of the wedge leaving a flap that can be placed decoratively onto the edge of a glass. The flesh will hang on the inside of the glass while the peel can ride down over the outside of the rim. The outside of wedges can also be decorated with a citrus zester like the one pictured above. You might try your hand at making a tattooed lime wedge like those seen at Pegu Club by carving little grooves in the skin before slicing. Jamie Boudreau has an excellent technique for creating a batch of wedges with each piece having a variety of patterns. If you decide to pre-cut them, they tend to oxidize quickly and can begin to turn brown if left uncovered. Cut them as needed or store them in ice water to help shield them from the air.
Wheels are similar to wedges but they look best when the entire circle of fruit is used. To cut a wheel you need to make your first cut across the fruit’s equator, perpendicular to the poles instead of through the ends like you do for wedges. The exposed face will reveal the triangular section membranes. Continue to make slices in parallel fashion. The resulting slices look like wagon wheels and should be thick enough to stand on their edge for perching on a rim. Make a slit from the center through the edge and insert the glass rim. You can also slice wheels extremely thin to float them on a drink’s surface for a nice effect or tuck them down the inside walls of a highball glass. Wheels can also be cut in wedge shapes and used like wedges. This is a good way to use up extra fruit leftover from squeezing, although wheel-cut wedges tend to release more juice and don’t always hold up when cut using the peel flap technique.
Other Fruit, Etc.
With the basics of citrus garnishes covered, we can turn our attention to other items. Nuts, olives, and cherries can be dropped into the glass or skewered on a pick. Skewered items can be balanced across the rim or combined with other garnishes. The classic “flag” garnish is a combination cherry-and-orange-wedge-on-a-pick. You can combine elements in other ways too like stuffing olives with bleu cheese. It’s important to understand that even these garnishes affect the outcome of the cocktail and many form the basis of popular cocktail variations. For example, a dry Martini is often garnished with a lemon twist, but olives are just as popular and they transform the flavor from sweet citrus to savory. Add a bit of the olive brine solution and you create a Dirty Martini. Swap this for a cocktail onion and you have the Gibson cocktail. It may seem like subtle differences, but your choice of garnish, especially in something as minimal as a Martini, will dramatically affect the outcome.
Sometimes the outcome is supposed to be variable. For example, the Sherry Cobbler calls for “berries in season” and the flavor will shift slightly depending on what you use. This is part of the experience with such drinks and you should embrace the flexibility. In many cases, the most sensible garnish is something you are already using. The Red Pepper Daisy is prepared using red pepper, and naturally, so is the garnish. The Apple Smash works great with a slice of apple with cinnamon on the rim. In every case, items are going to add their own nuances. Nuts may add salt, cocktail cherries will contribute color and affect the balance of sweetness. Don’t ignore the more exotic options such as chunks of pineapple, the leaves, pomegranate arils, edible flowers or Thai chile peppers. You may not want to slice up an entire pineapple for a single wedge, but if you are cutting fruit for a party anyway, it can be very handy to reserve a few pieces of this or that depending on the drinks you plan to serve. Some items can even be stored in the freezer until you need them.
Herbs and Spices
Another important garnish category is fresh herbs. The most common is probably mint. When muddled in a drink, mint will release its flavors, but used as a garnish it may be enough to draw the sipper’s nose down into the leaves. Slap the sprig against your palm or clap the leaves in your hands once to enliven their effect and produce that familiar aroma before adding them to a glass. A single leaf can also be floated or draped against the edge of the glass for a subtle, elegant splash of green. Other herbs can be treated similarly. In some cases, an herbal garnish is there to provide a touch of flavor and aroma but may also simply represent the flavors already in the drink. If you are creating a recipe from scratch using muddled herbs, reserve some sprigs for the garnish.
Spices also play an important role in certain recipes. Freshly grated nutmeg adorns everything from punch and hot toddies to swizzles and tiki classics. Cinnamon sticks and ground cinnamon both appear from time to time and so does whole star anise and coffee beans. We have even seen vanilla beans, ground black pepper and sprinkled salt. Speaking of salt, the rimmed glass is an important technique to master. Cocktails such as the Margarita take advantage of this, but the same process is used with sugar in drinks like the the Brandy Crusta and the Sidecar. Rub a citrus wedge along the outside of the glass and roll the wetted surface in a plate of sugar or salt or sprinkle it over the rim. You may choose to apply the encrusted garnish to just half of the glass giving your guest the choice to sip from the salt or sugar rim or to avoid it.
Bitters and other liquids
Cocktail bitters are typically used in dashes as part of the main recipe, but once in a while additional bitters are added as a garnish. Sometimes a recipe calls for a drop or two of Angostura on the surface. Drops floating on a drink or swirled into egg white meringue will release potent aromatics, scenting every sip. The Pisco Sour is a perfect example of bitters used as a garnish. They are sometimes drizzled over crushed ice for a similar effect. But bitters aren’t the only liquid garnish. Many cocktails call for a “float” on the surface of the drink. It’s debatable whether this constitutes a garnish, but small amounts of potent liqueurs or aromatic spirits help to scent a drink at first, then assist with flavoring it later as it dilutes. Floats are usually intended to be left unmixed. The Jackson Pollock cocktail takes this even further by using basil oil keep it separated from the rest of the drink. The swirls of color are reminiscent of the famous paintings, but each sip will have just a touch of oil to transform the tasting experience.
We may not have covered every single possibility, but with these details, you should be able to follow most recipes with success. Most garnishes require nothing more than a bar knife and an understanding of what you are trying to achieve. Special tools are helpful to pull off certain looks, but knowing a few of the basics will go a long way toward improving the results of your efforts. There will always be new ideas like candy cane dust or non-food items such as plastic animals or rubber bands around the glass, so if you’ve seen something worth mentioning or know about a category we left out, leave a comment below.