Despite what you may think, cocktail garnishes aren’t just pretty accessories added on by bartenders looking to score a bigger tip. Like a Highball without ice, a Martini without vermouth, or a Hot Toddy without hot water, garnishes are fundamental to many cocktails’ flavor and identity. A Manhattan wouldn’t be a Manhattan without the cherry, just as a Mint Julep wouldn’t be a Mint Julep without the bouquet of mint protruding from the silver chalice. The garnish is essential, and just because you’re making a cocktail at home doesn’t mean you can skip it. To help really drive that point home, here is a breakdown of how each type of garnish benefits its signature cocktails.
Garnishing cocktails with citrus rinds dates back to dawn of bartending. Jerry Thomas, the first celebrity bartender, forever immortalized the twist in his 1862 book, Bartenders Guide. Thomas used citrus peels in a wide range of drinks, from regal punches to stirred cocktails.
You’ve probably noticed that when a bartender garnishes a cocktail with a citrus rind, he or she doesn’t simply drop it into the drink. Instead, bartenders express the oils in citrus rind over the drink and rub it around the rim of the glass. This insures that the oil is the first thing that you taste and smell when you sip the cocktail. In cocktails like the Negroni, citrus oils counterbalance the bitterness of Campari, adding depth and harmony. Without the citrus oils, the drink would be flat and unbalanced, and the bitterness would be far too prominent. In drinks like a Martini, on the other hand, lemon oil acts as an amplifier for gin’s inherhent floral and citrus notes, bringing flavors that would have otherwise gone unenjoyed to the forefront of the cocktail.
When we talk about garnishing cocktails with cherries, we’re talking about real cherries—maraschino cherries preserved in alcohol and sugar, not the neon red “fruits” that float atop Shirley Temples. Synonymous with cocktails like the Manhattan, a cherry garnish adds a touch of sweetness to the drink, which cuts the bracing bitterness of the Angostura bitters and enhances the darkly fruity notes in the sweet vermouth.
Garnishing cocktails like the Mint Julep and the Whiskey Smash (which is usually made with mint but really works with any herb) with fresh herbs not only allows the oils from the herbs to seep into the drinks, but also for the fragrance of the herbs to fill your nose with each sip. Taste and smell are closely tied together, so the more you smell, the more you taste. It’s a truly multi-sensory experience.
Not just a delicious, booze-soaked snack at the end of your drink, olives add salinity, edge and depth to your cocktails. While we can all attest to the brilliance of a Martini garnished with a skewer of plump olives, that’s certainly not the only cocktail that benefits from a hit of brine. Salt reduces bitterness, so adding olives to drinks made with an amaro, like the Aperol Spritz, results in a much brighter, rounder drink.
Bitters on Egg White Foam
One of the first uses of bitters as a garnish was in the Pisco Sour. Originating in the 1920s in Peru, the cocktail is topped with a thick froth of shaken egg whites, and decorated with a delicate swirl of bitters—like latte art before there was latte art. The bitters don’t just serve as pretty ornamentation; as the foam dissolves, the bitters seep into your cocktail, cutting the sweetness and acidity with a bitter depth. Adding bitters to your egg whites can also reduce the inherent “wet dog” smell that is often associated with egg white cocktails; the strong aromatics of the bitters are the first thing that you smell rather than the foam. So the next time you put in the time, sweat and tears required for most egg white cocktails, be sure to break out the bitters. You don’t want all that hard work to be for nought.