The Art of the Cocktail Garnish

If it’s possible that there’s one thing I’ve become a bit known for in my little corner of the internet, it’s making a pretty cocktail. As a photographer and a highly visual person, I have always been immediately drawn to a drink (or a plate, for that matter) that is beautifully presented. It’s in our nature to be drawn to beauty, to seek it, and even to be influenced by it. In many ways, beauty truly is power. It has a special power over us, and it can truly improve our experiences.

Let’s take a deep dive into the power of the cocktail garnish to enhance our drinking experience, then we’ll learn all about the different kinds of garnishes and what they’re for!

Looking for cocktail garnish tutorials? You might enjoy my:

Guide to Citrus Peel Cocktail Garnishes

5 Easy (and Beautiful) Cocktail Garnishes.

 Perhaps my most favorite cocktail photograph, a Coconut Daiquiri garnished with a simple, yet strikingly beautiful Bridal White Star dianthus.  Why do we garnish cocktails?

Garnishes add visual appeal as well as aromatics and subtle flavor to cocktails. These small elements can have a big impact on the finished drink, so don’t skip them!

At first glance, it might not seem like much, but the way a cocktail is presented to us is a critical component of the drinking experience. We begin the experience with the preparation or ordering of the cocktail, developing anticipation. As the drink is carefully prepared, our senses begin to take in all of the sights, smells, sounds, and feel of the process. Finally, once shaken or stirred and strained, we garnish. A delicate spray of citrus oils from a twist, a single plump green olive submerged in a bath of gin and vermouth, a drip of heavenly Luxardo cherry syrup from three perfect, glistening cherries – these are small moments that crystallize the cocktail crafting experience and signify completion. The garnish is the final touch, meant to accentuate the drink’s flavors, tie them together, contrast with them, or perfectly complement them.

Vessel + garnish = presentation

Now, we take in the drink with our eyes. Like picking out our clothes, the garnish styles the drink and helps to showcase a bit of its personality. Think of a petite, sharply pointed lemon twist perched on a long-stemmed up serve, or an abundance of fresh mint and edible flowers atop a mountain of crushed ice in a tiki mug. Our drinking experience is activated with taking in the beauty of the finished cocktail, and then transformed with our first sip. The relationship between the look, feel, scent, and taste of a cocktail is like a carefully crafted dance, and when perfectly balanced and executed well, we go from simply having a drink to really having an experience.

If you’ve ever made or been served a really memorable cocktail that just stuck with you, that’s what I’m talking about here. These cocktail memories bring to mind the good company or events of the evening, in the same way that a certain song or scent can instantly transport us back to another time. Our memories and emotions are wrapped up in our senses. And it’s precisely because it provides a complete sensory experience that drinking a cocktail can be such an incredibly enjoyable thing.

What is a garnish, anyway?

A garnish is defined as a decoration, an embellishment, an accent. And while I agree with this basic definition, I think that cocktail garnishes are much more than that. Garnishes can serve many purposes. They can be simple or extravagant, edible or inedible, large or small, dropped in a drink or perhaps discarded altogether. In a bar environment, it makes sense to keep things mostly practical, but as a home mixologist, I can experiment endlessly. (Which, full disclosure, is pretty much what I do all day.)

Presentation = marketing. In a bar, the presentation of a cocktail should enhance the drinking experience and also help to market the drink. Garnishes and the overall cocktail presentation are really a form of marketing. Who doesn’t love a beautiful, even Instagrammable drink?

Presentation affects perception

What continues to fascinate me is the relationship between liquid, vessel, and garnish, and how when these three things align perfectly, the experience can be extraordinary. I’m continually amazed by how presentation affects perception, and how our perception can be greatly influenced by seemingly very small details. In many ways, creating a cocktail has become a deeply fulfilling thing for me, and the more I’ve experimented and explored the rich history of cocktails, the more I’ve come to understand just what an art form a well-crafted drink really is.

The point is this: a good drink is much more than just the sum of its parts! Now, on to the garnishes.

Types of cocktail garnishes

Let’s talk about the types of garnishes. I like to classify them by basic groups: twists, fruit, leaves, flowers, food, and objects. I keep twists separate from other fruit garnishes because their purpose is specifically to add the oils from the citrus peel to the drink, rather than to add subtle fruit flavor or simple visual appeal.

 Sunset Strip cocktail featuring a carved orange peel garnish. Sunset Strip cocktail featuring a carved orange peel garnish.

The twist and other citrus peel garnishes

Probably the most common cocktail garnish, the citrus twist is a very simple and yet very special thing. Gently peel off a strip of orange rind with a vegetable peeler or a sharp knife, fold the edges inward with peel facing out and watch as a mist of glistening citrus oils spray from the peel. This simple application of oils can greatly enhance the flavors of a cocktail, and it can also dramatically cut through the sweetness of syrups or liqueurs. It’s a magical thing really.

Learn how to make several of these garnishes step-by-step in my Guide to Citrus Peel Cocktail Garnishes!

A great example of this is to pour a simple glass of sweet vermouth, any brand, on the rocks. Tasting it before and after adding a lemon twist is one of the quickest and easiest ways to understand the power of the twist. What may have seemed quite sweet before now tastes perfectly balanced, and the citrus aroma filling the glass adds opens up and adds depth to the flavors of the vermouth.

Fruit

This category of cocktail garnish includes everything from an orange slice in an Aperol Spritz to cocktail cherries in a Manhattan to a wedge of pineapple in a Pina Colada. Fruit garnishes are great for adding a subtle fresh fruit flavor and aroma to the finished drink, and they often give us a visual cue about what flavors are in the glass. In the case of cocktail cherries like maraschino or brandied cherries, they can offer a contrasting sweetness that is incredibly satisfying in a spirit-foward serve like a Manhattan or a Vieux Carre, or in a sour-style cocktail like a Whiskey Sour.

Are you supposed to eat a fruit cocktail garnish?

Sure! This is really your call. When it comes to garnishes like citrus slices or wheels, you may or may not care to take a bite. But if your drink is adorned with a wedge of fresh pineapple or watermelon, why not enjoy the entire experience? Cocktail cherries and olives are the perfect way to end a cocktail, so if you’ve only got one, save that single bite for your last sip. Examples of fruit garnishes are:

  • Citrus slices, wedges, and wheels
  • Cocktail cherries (maraschino, brandied, etc.)
  • Pineapple wedges or chunks
  • Melon wedges or balls
  • Dragon fruit balls (scooped with a melon-baller)
  • Half a passion fruit, floated on top of the drink 
  • Cucumber ribbons (cut lengthwise with a vegetable peeler)
  • Fresh coconut meat cut into shapes with cookie cutters
  • An apple, pear, or peach fan
  • Berries skewered on a cocktail pick
  • Dried fruits like apricots

 Beach Bird, a variation on the classic Jungle Bird, garnished with mint, pineapple frond, and a flower shaped slice of mango. Beach Bird, a variation on the classic Jungle Bird, garnished with mint, pineapple frond, and a flower shaped slice of mango.

Leaves

This category includes everything from a fresh bunch of mint to pineapple fronds. The leaves of herbs like rosemary, thyme, or lavender add flavor and aroma, while leaves like pineapple are used purely for their visual appeal and to alert the drinker to a flavor present in the drink. Because I love to forage for wild edibles, I’m always discovering new plants to use either in flavoring or garnishing a cocktail. A favorite is the super common wood sorrel, a small green plant with characteristic shamrock-shaped leaves that taste lemony. It goes without saying that you should always do your research before eating any wild plant, but wood sorrel is a nice safe plant to start with because there aren’t any poisonous plants that resemble it. You can read more on this subject here.

Personally, I love leaf garnishes. Greenery can make a cocktail look lush and fresh, while pleasing, symmetrical patterns draw the eye. I like to combine leaves with fruit or flowers to enhance the lush factor. A great taste test for this category of garnish is mint. The addition of mint adds a cool freshness that makes many, many cocktails taste even better, but a great example is a classic Mai Tai (2 oz aged rum, .75 oz lime, .5 oz curacao, .25 oz orgeat, .25 oz simple syrup). Taste it before and after adding a fresh sprig of mint and you’ll be sure to notice how the mint adds a whole new dimension to the drink! Here are some great leaf garnish options to try:

  • Mint
  • Basil
  • Rosemary
  • Thyme
  • Shiso
  • Wood sorrel
  • Pineapple leaves
  • Amaranth leaves
  • Hibiscus leaves
  • Makrut lime leaf
  • Kinome leaf

 Tomorrow’s Garden, a gin cocktail featuring a small garden of edible flowers. Tomorrow’s Garden, a gin cocktail featuring a small garden of edible flowers.

Flowers

Ah, edible flowers. Of all the things I’ve been intrigued by or obsessed over in my life, edible flowers are one I keep returning to over and over again. Before embarking on the full-time photographer and blogger life, I owned a small natural skin care line. I spent years researching botanicals for their benefits for skin and health, and I always found flowering plants to be especially inspiring. Today, learning about and growing plants and flowers that are good to eat has become a real passion of mine and I also enjoy sharing what I’ve learned.

Not all flowers are appropriate cocktail garnishes

Before we get into this category, let’s talk about safety and why it’s a concern. The internet (and especially places like Pinterest and Instagram) are filled with all kinds of pretty images of food (for example, wedding cakes) decorated with seemingly harmless flowers. However, some of the flowers in these pretty images are not at all safe to eat, and some of these images are circulated endlessly. This spreads bad information, and can turn into a real problem. It’s important to know that plenty of common flowers and houseplants are not safe to eat or have contact with your food, and some are actually quite dangerous. Let’s think for a moment about a substance containing toxic chemical compounds sitting in a bath of alcohol – a solvent. This could quickly turn a pretty drink into a deadly cocktail. So always do your research, purchase from trusted sources, and maybe most importantly, don’t assume that something is edible just because you’ve seen it on social media! 

Here’s a quick guide to edible flowers. There are more edible flowers than listed there, but it covers the basics. You can order edible flowers online, buy them at local markets, or even grow your own. There’s a wide variety to choose from, and you can pick them for flavor, aroma, or just for their beauty. Some of my favorites are lavender, begonias, dianthus, roses, and orchids. There is nothing quite like a beautiful, delicate flower adorning a fancy coupe. Some flowers are sweet (for example, violets), some spicy (nasturtiums), some citrusy (begonias), some vegetal (hostas). You can pair your edible flowers with your drinks based on their appearance, scent, or flavor, but I find that most folks skip actually eating floral garnishes, even if they know they can eat them. Check out my edible flower guide for more info and inspiration. Here are some favorites to get you started:

  • Roses
  • Orchids
  • Pansies and violas
  • Nasturtiums
  • Lavender
  • Dianthus and carnations
  • Borage
  • Herb blossoms, such as basil, mint, or rosemary

 PBJ Proof Margarita, featuring an almond butter and raspberry jam sandwich garnish. PBJ Proof Margarita, featuring an almond butter and raspberry jam sandwich garnish.

Food

This is a really fun category and consists of, well, food. I recently made a friend’s peanut butter and jelly-inspired cocktail that called for a sandwich garnish and it was AWESOME. Who doesn’t love a cocktail that comes with a snack?? Some other food based garnishes include paper cups of nuts clipped to drinks, the meal in a glass Bloody Marys adorned with hot wings or whole fried chickens, and lovely after dinner drinks served with a wedge of dark chocolate. The possibilities are pretty much endless, and only limited by the real estate of your glassware, or your appetite, or your creativity. I love creating food and drink pairings, so this category of garnish is one I’ve explored time and again. Here’s a list of fun ideas:

Fun food garnish + cocktail pairings

  • Fried finger foods paired with Bloody Marys (or Bloody Marias or Red Snappers)
  • Pickled vegetables like asparagus paired with a Red Snapper or a Martini
  • Dark chocolate paired with spirit-forward, after dinner style drinks like a Cognac Old Fashioned
  • Blue cheese stuffed olives in a classic gin Martini
  • A skewer of feta and olives in a dirty Martini 
  • A paper cup of salty popcorn or peanuts to accompany a strong or sweet drink
  • A toast point with marmalade to garnish a classic Breakfast Martini
  • Miniature tea sandwiches paired with tea-based or brunch style cocktails
  • Freshly grated nutmeg on a Brandy Alexander
  • Cocktail onions in a Gibson Martini

 A Mezcal Mule garnished with a carved lime twist and a chicken feather. A Mezcal Mule garnished with a carved lime twist and a chicken feather.

Objects

The final category is reserved for items that serve one purpose: to add visual appeal. These objects are not edible, and that’s (hopefully?) clearly understood. They adorn a cocktail in order to tell a story, add some personality, or to get a laugh. Some object garnishes I’ve seen are:

  • Playing cards
  • Tiny rubber duckies
  • Feathers
  • Gemstones
  • Origami planes or animals
  • Paper umbrellas

Want to learn more about cocktail garnishes?

Learn how to make 5 Easy (and Beautiful) Cocktail Garnishes or dive into the the world of citrus twists in my Guide to Citrus Peel Cocktail Garnishes.

For more inspiration, head over to Instagram and be sure to tag me @moodymixologist in your creations!

 

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