Cocktail garnishes can seem superfluous, and they are if we’re talking about paper umbrellas or the strange skewers of food topping Bloody Marys. But a true garnish is more than simply ornamentation. It adds an essence to the drink. It contributes to the alchemy that transforms a group of ingredients into a cohesive cocktail. One that you experience, not just by taste but by smell and sight as well. The history of the cocktail garnish is as cloudy as a long night of drinking, but it’s definitely not a new practice. The Jerry Thomas bartenders manual from the late 1800s has instructions on the classic lemon twist, so it’s safe to say that garnishes have been around for a while. And they’re certainly not going anywhere. Herewith, everything you should know about finishing your drinks.
Unlike other garnishes, a twist of citrus is less about flavor and more about aroma. The fruit’s skin imparts a drink with its fragrant oils. Instead of some narrow, dainty curl, we prefer a more rustic slice of peel. Use a vegetable peeler to strip a wide swath of the skin (known as the zest). Pinch and twist to spray the oils over the drink, then run the outer part of the zest around the rim of the glass and drop it in.
A classic garnish, used to add a savory, salty touch to your gin or vodka martini. The green olives (stuffed with a wide variety of fillings from pimentos and almonds to garlic and blue cheese) has a long and fuzzy history—no one’s sure how it came to be an integral garnish—but it’s remained a favorite for martini drinkers, along with its brackish brine.
Naturally sweet and slightly crunchy, cocktail onions are the signature garnish of the Gibson cocktail. And while you’ll mostly find them pickled at bars, you could opt to use frozen pearl onions (like Hemingway did) to impart a more mellow flavor and keep your drink extra cold.
First introduced in the US in the late 19th century, maraschino cherries have been a cocktail staple ever since. The name comes from Croatia’s marasca cherry and the maraschino liqueur (made from the crushed, pickled fruit) in which they were preserved. During Prohibition, the liqueurs were subbed out for brines and dyes which lead to the bright red style we have today. But artisanal brands like Luxardo still offer true marasca cherries that are dense and chewy with a sweet-tart flavor.
The julep’s muddled mint was one of earliest green garnishes, but today herbs like basil, rosemary, thyme and cilantro have found their way into refreshing and inventive drinks. The botanical ingredients add a wealth of aroma and a subtle flavor, but the key is handling them with a light touch. You want to activate the herb’s natural oils but you don’t want to crush the leaf’s veins (which contain a bitter chlorophyll). See the sidebar for the perfect way to apply the right amount of pressure.