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17 Oct 2018

On Cocktails: Garnishes Can Be Wonderful Parts of a Good Drink … If Both the Bartender and Consumer Know What They're Doing

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Garnishes can be great! Garnishes can be great! Courtesy of Carlos Mares

This town turns on a dime. Last month, I was writing about the slowest time of the year and sipping switchel. This month, I need an ice pack for my right elbow and a brace for my knee as I look for new gray hairs in the mirror.

If I were more of a traditional beverage writer, I would offer a list of spooky cocktails for your Halloween soirée. Maybe next year. Instead, we need to talk about garnishes.

I don’t know if anything confuses my guests more than garnishes: Watching what people do with the things hanging off the side of and/or stuck in their drinks is a never-ending source of curiosity to me.

Drink garnishes were a bit of an afterthought in early cocktail history. In early American cooking and drinking, the answer to most things was nutmeg. Nutmeg was such a common touch to early punches and slings that one ancient recipe book even recommended grating your muddling stick if you ran out! One had to keep up appearances, I guess. We don’t see nutmeg often as a garnish these days, but in the craft scene, we have a soft spot for it, and you can find it behind the bar in a little cup somewhere awaiting the odd Brandy Alexander or whatnot. When it comes to drinks with nutmeg or other spices grated on top, they are there for aromatics: Their purpose is to float on top of the glass and provide a pleasant odor to the overall experience. Trust me: If I thought your drink needed a half-teaspoon of nutmeg incorporated into it, it would be in there—so please don’t stir in the grated coffee bean, nutmeg, cacao nibs or other gritty aromatics! You don’t want that texture … trust me.

Speaking of nutmeg … forgive the aside, but there is a special cocktail that deserves a little more love: the Army and Navy. I had been doing a little research on this little oddity of old-fashioned flavors, and found myself in muddy waters. I checked in with bar manager at Truss and Twine, fellow cocktail writer Dave Castillo, for an assist. He relates that it first appeared in David A. Embury’s Fine Art of Mixing Drinks circa 1948, but was “Embury’s reformulation of an earlier cocktail which called for a larger portion of gin and was described by him as ‘horrible.’”

I can tell you this reformulated mix of gin, lemon, angostura bitters and orgeat is anything but horrible. It just might be the perfect drink for a warm day or even a cool fall night in the desert, when there is just the slightest hint of autumn in the air.

Continues Castillo, “Embury’s recipe called for a lemon twist as a garnish, but we prefer a grate of nutmeg, as it plays off of the confectionary flavors of the bitters.” Having tried it both ways, I can certainly vouch for that. As with most drinks calling for something sweet and sour and boozy and bitter, these are just recommended specs:

  • 2 ounces of London dry gin
  • 1 ounce of lemon juice
  • 1/2 to 3/4 of an ounce of orgeat
  • (Aside within the aside: There are many mediocre orgeats on the market, and sweetness and complexity will vary greatly. I suggest that if you can’t make your own, then Liquid Alchemist is a nice homemade-like choice. Dave’s not parting with his recipe, but there are plenty of them online!)
  • One or two dashes of Angostura bitters
  • Shake with ice; double strain up into a coupe! Top with a grate of good ol’ nutmeg with the microplaner positioned directly across the rim of the serving glass.

If there is a garnish more revered than nutmeg, it’s mint. Unlike exotic citrus fruits and seasonal berries, which were certainly used when available, mint grew from coast to coast for months out of the year. Mint is both a garnish and an ingredient, and in a drink like the mint julep (a topic for another time)—basically a sweetened bourbon over ice—the aromatic garnish becomes an ingredient by sheer force of intensity.

Let’s be honest, though: When you hear “mint,” you are probably thinking “mojito.” Well, few drinks are as often botched as the mojito. In my early days behind the bar, I certainly was no exception. Using the back of a bar spoon to punish some wilted mint into submission, adding some granular sugar packets into the mixing glass, squeezing yesterday’s lime wedges while hoping for some brownish liquid to precipitate … the horror. The mojito deserves an article of its own; for now, refer to the Southside article from a couple of months ago (available for free at CVIndependent.com!), and substitute a nice, light-bodied Cuban style rum for the gin.

The lesson I learned from my early days of making what I now call “mint soup” is that leafy herbs are best treated lightly and with generosity. The key to a good mojito, or eastside fizz, or Planter’s punch isn’t mint incorporated into the drink; it’s the bounty of fresh, lively, green mint flooding your nose with terpenes and other aromatic molecules! In other words: Please don’t shove the mint garnish into the glass. If the drink needed more soggy mint, we would have added it! It doesn’t do any good in there, and just makes it look like you’re drinking swamp water. Obviously, this advice also goes for basil, rosemary, or anything else with a stem.

Now that the two main types of aromatic garnishes (hard spices and fresh herbs) are out of the way, let’s discuss the rest. As for the ubiquitous lime or lemon slice on the top of your glass, try the drink first. If it’s a bar that cares about your drink, the slice will be fresh and vibrant. If it’s not, maybe switch to a bottle of beer. Do not drop a nasty piece of citrus into your drink … citrus garnishes can cause foodborne illnesses! If the slice looks good, try the drink before just squeezing it in. We put it there for you to adjust the tartness to your taste, so if it calls for it, by all means, use it.

As for other garnishes, like your classic “flag” of cherry and pineapple or orange, the same warnings apply. If they look like something you might eat at home on a plate, eat them. If they look suspect, take them out and put them on a beverage napkin. The same goes for the leafy stuff if it’s overpowering or annoying—just take it out, and let us clear it away. Easy!

When it comes to garnishes, a little can go a long way, and a lot can go a long way—but at the end of the day, remember that sketchy garnishes are often the sign of a sketchy drink program. Good garnishes are a sign that the bar cares about the details. In this month of scary things, make sure to avoid the ones on your glass.

Kevin Carlow is a bartender at Truss and Twine, and can be reached via email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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