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Twist and Twirl: A Guide to Garnishes

16/06/2014
© Annabelle Breakey - Getty Images

Much like a memorable meal at a fine restaurant, your favorite cocktail is not complete without the final touch, the presentation ... the garnish.

Garnishes come in all shapes and sizes and are often necessary for flavor as much as they are added for artistry. They can be floated, speared, or delicately draped from the top of the glass.

There's the twist (typically citrus), the tropical fresh fruit (don't forget the mini umbrella), the ubiquitous olive (served “up”), and increasingly, for flair, pickled vegetables (Bloody Mary anyone?).

While you can get as creative as your palette will allow, and mixing and matching is encouraged, there are some basic ground rules to keep in mind when contemplating the garnish:

  • Citrus should typically be used for cocktails that don't contain milk or cream.
  • Maraschino cherries, while fun in everything from Manhattans to piña coladas, should never be used in standard drinks like the martini.
  • Vodka-based cocktails tend to go best with lemon and lime pairings.
  • Tequila and lime mix well together, as do rum and mint.
  • A cinnamon stick, coffee beans, or chocolate are terrific for dessert cocktails.
  • Save your veggies for tomato-based concoctions.

In general, it's best to consider the overall theme of the drink you're trying to create while keeping in mind its primary ingredient when dreaming up your garnishing approach. For example, a simple pear slice is the perfect topping for an Asian pear martini. Coffee beans are ideal for complementing coffee and Irish liqueur cocktails.

In addition to the right ingredients, it's also necessary to obtain the proper tools. While most garnishes can be made with a paring knife, it's also helpful the have a channel knife and a grater on hand. The grater comes in handy for shaving dessert garnishes like chocolate and nutmeg. Larger knives may also be needed to prepare fresh fruits and vegetables.

Recognizable by its v-shaped blade, a channel knife is instrumental in turning lemon, lime, and orange peels into artistic twists. However, be careful not to overdo it. When using the channel knife, it’s critical to simply skim the peel, leaving the rind behind. Because the twist typically floats atop the cocktail, any attached pith will give the liquid a bitter flavor, overpowering the benefit of the bright oily skin.

While the inspiration for them can be spontaneous, the best-looking garnishes are typically prepared in advance, before you begin mixing the drink. That way you can focus on shape and style, not worrying about the ice melting. Add the garnish shortly after the shaking, stirring, or blending is complete.

Finally, don't be afraid to experiment! Think Maraschino cherries are overdone? Try artisan dried cherries in your Manhattan instead. Celery and olives not sparking the senses? Dress up your next Bloody Mary with pickled asparagus, green beans, and an egg.

5 Steps to Great Garnishing:

  1. Obtain the proper tools.
  2. Remember the ground rules for pairings.
  3. Consider how the garnish will complement the primary ingredient.
  4. Prep the garnish first. Add it last.
  5. Experiment.
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