There was once a time, not so long ago, when the citrus twist was a fairly reliable element of the cocktail. Some were manicured, a perfectly cut ribbon, angles sharply edged; others arrived au naturel, a fat swath dispatched directly from the Y-peeler. Today, however, the citrus peel has gone abstract. Scroll Instagram feeds from the world’s top bars and you’ll begin to notice a trend: perfectly round dots of lemon or orange peel, followed, inevitably by variations on a theme, like cleaved tomatoes or strawberries placed atop a block of ice. It’s a minimal style that’s endlessly adaptable (see: jelly cutouts and, sure, why not, truffles) but fundamentally the same.
Both Peter Altenburg, owner of Bird, a vinyl bar in Copenhagen’s Frederiksberg neighborhood, and Max Venning, owner of East London’s Three Sheets, say this shift toward minimalism started like a lot of things do: It began small, then got picked up more broadly. So while it’s hard to pinpoint where and when the trend started, what enabled it, from a technical perspective, is fairly simple. It’s the ice.
View this post on Instagram
Venning estimates that block ice first started showing up in bars about 15 years ago. But back then, having a steady supply of it wasn’t as easy as it is today. He described the process from his early days in Edinburgh: Boil water three times, freeze it in a container roughly the size of a sheet pan, then chop the blocks off the edge to avoid the cloudy middle. That would make about 10 blocks. “It was like a full-time job for one person,” he says. “The idea of doing that now is crazy.”
Today, ice services are widely available. “Block ice now has become a sign of a bar taking themselves seriously,” says Venning, and as a result, its use has become fairly widespread across the world. Some suppliers, like The Ice Corporation, based in Sweden, and Kuramoto Ice, out of Japan, have clients thousands of miles away. Others, like The Edinburgh Ice Co. and New York City’s Hundredweight Ice, stick to regional distribution. So it’s not just super high-end places that are using block ice. It’s any bar, anywhere, that cares about attracting a certain kind of customer. And bartenders have gotten used to working around a solid object that takes up the majority of space in a glass. Tossing in, say, an errant lemon slice no longer makes sense. Instead, they’ve developed a new, geometric visual language.
For some, garnishes are less about ornament, and more about intentionality. Block ice just makes it easier to carry out that principle. Minimalist garnishes allow bartenders to focus on the craft of drink-making, while making the drinks themselves look more like art. That concept, more than any single visual influence, seems to be pushing the prevalence of this trend. East London’s A Bar with Shapes For a Name (which often experiments with ice) closely aligns itself with Bauhaus, the early 20th-century German art and design school whose ideas shaped modernism around the world. As opposed to ornate contemporary movements like Art Nouveau, Bauhaus balanced beauty with function. So while it’s a stretch to say that every bartender who dots a drink with a citrus coin is evoking Walter Gropius, in spirit, there’s a connection: creating more impact by doing less.
View this post on Instagram
Bird’s “almost nongarnishing” approach, Altenburg says, is driven by both his personal tendency toward restraint and the Nordic culinary culture he’s working in. But the minimalist-yet-playful approach to plating that typifies New Nordic cuisine is no longer limited to Scandinavia. Or even to plates. Kat Foster, bar manager at Margot in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, first started playing around with “plating” things on ice when she worked at Eleven Madison Park. She had to figure out how to get a celery twist to look good. Solution: Place it in the well formed by the bar’s ice stamp. For Foster, on-ice garnishes aren’t an “all-the-time thing” but instead an elegant, handy tool that allows her to use garnishes that wouldn’t necessarily hold up well unmoored. Take, for instance, the cleaved cherry atop her Windowsill Thief, a drink that features brown butter–washed rye whiskey and lacto-fermented cherry syrup. The fruit directs your senses, and your attention, to the flavor in the cocktail.
“It’s a way to sort of have this visual element that isn’t, you know, taking away from the drink,” she says. And that visual element, Foster recognizes, is important. Because as she put it, “Everybody’s using their eyes first,” both in the restaurant and online. Altenburg made a similar point. When he started bartending, he had two rules for garnishes: They needed to complement the drink and they needed to be edible. He’s conceded on that second requirement a bit. “People look at a drink in a different way than they did 20 years ago,” he says.
As more culinary-inspired approaches to styling continue to influence bars, it follows that more edible, less one-off accents might find their way into drinks. “I’ve definitely seen a shift towards people trying to use things that are part of the process of making a drink rather than creating additional waste,” says Foster, who makes sure that anything that gets skinned and stuck on ice also gets juiced. Altenburg says that citrus coins, which Bird has become known for, use a third of the zest as compared to more traditional citrus garnishes. (Whatever’s left over gets used to make limoncello.)
Altenburg hopes this idea of using in-house materials, trying to “create garnishes with what you do,” will be the next phase of minimalism in cocktails. He’s currently in the process of redesigning Bird’s menu, which will move away from coins (and citrus altogether) in favor of edible garnishes that add another dimension of texture and flavor to the drink. But that doesn’t mean they’ll be more elaborate. On the contrary. He’s playing around with air-drying and making dusts, a switch that would allow, say, dried fruit to replace a fresh peel. “I think that should be the future of garnishes,” he says. Ashes to ashes, dots to dust.