The Gonzo Age of the Cocktail Garnish

Once a utility player in the cocktail game largely used to add flavor to a drink, garnishes have gone from understudy to center stage. Robert Simonson on how the garnish became theater and what it says about the state of cocktails today.

bulldog cocktail mother of pearl nyc

“Bartender, there’s a dinosaur in my drink.”

“Quiet, or everyone will want one!”

Once a utility player in the cocktail game, something that contributed to the flavor of the drink, garnishes today run the gamut of functions. They are drink porn; they are eye candy; they are artistic flourishes; they are playthings; they are theater, both of the Vegas and absurdist varieties. Only part of the time are they edible.

In many recent instances of breakout cocktails or cocktail bars, the garnish has been the story, not the drink. When Jane Danger opened Mother of Pearl, her new tiki-esque bar in the East Village, the most expensive drink on the list, Imperial Bulldog, was also one of the most ordered, largely because it was topped with three raspberries, a couple pineapple fronds, and an upturned bottle of Underberg bitters. The nearby Holiday Cocktail Lounge first gained attention for rescuing and reinvented a beloved old dive bar. But it won its second wave of sustained publicity—and arguably carved out a personality as a home of laid-back whimsy—when it started plunking cheap plastic dinosaurs and toy soldiers in its drinks. Most recently, Eben Klemm, in-house bartender for the W New York – Downtown hotel, threw down a new trump card. The “garnish” for his cocktail The Nitecap is a working key to a room in the hotel. The drink price starts at $299.

“What is a garnish?” asked Klemm, whose work has long had an experimental bent. “Is it a physical thing? Can you can an experience a garnish? Can it be post-modern? Can you garnish a drink with a room, essentially?”

Today, maybe. In the past, no. For much of cocktail history, there have been basically two categories of garnish. First, there are the worker garnishes, those finishing touches that are essential to completing a drink recipe: the olive in the Martini; the cherry in the Manhattan; the onion in the Gibson.

And then there are the fancy garnishes, intended either partly or solely as decoration. (Some garnishes straddle both categories, particularly the various nonsense that crowns many Bloody Marys.)

A perfect storm of factors has led to that lime rose blooming above your glass. “I think people are thinking about the cocktails as a complete experience,” said Leo Robitschek, beverage director at The NoMad in New York City. “Before it was about putting booze in a cup and tasting it.”

Fancy garnishes go back to the 19th century, when star bartenders were quite florid in their trimmings, piling cobblers and juleps high with fruit, or lighting up flamed orange peels. (A trick brought back into style by star bartender Dale DeGroff.) But it was all food-based. Non-edible adornments arrived after Prohibition with the advent of the tiki craze. Paper umbrellas, branded swizzlesticks and plastic doohickeys transformed murky brown rum and juice mixtures into much more colorful affairs. And for the most of the 20th century, tiki was the drink ghetto where decorative garnishes lived.

That garnishes have ballooned in importance at a time when tiki culture is enjoying a rebirth—in the form of bars like Lost Lake in Chicago and Latitude 29 in New Orleans—is no coincidence. But the garnish renaissance can’t be attributed to a single thing. A perfect storm of factors has led to that lime rose blooming above your glass.

“I think people are thinking about the cocktails as a complete experience,” said Leo Robitschek, beverage director at The NoMad in New York City. “Before it was about putting booze in a cup and tasting it. People weren’t paying attention to aromatics and aesthetics. Part of it is showing another skill level, going above and beyond a normal garnish.”

The garnish renaissance began quietly, with baby steps that arose from the craft instinct. Bottled garnishes were eighty-sixed. Instead, cocktail cherries were hand-made, soaked in brandy. Housemade pickled onions eventually followed. The results made for better-tasting and more attractive drinks. Lemon, lime and orange twists grew from slivers to dramatic swaths, often cut into elaborate shapes or tied into clever knots. Candied ginger found a place on the glass rim. Star anise swam on the drink’s surface.

As the cocktail boom created a more crowded field, however, it became more difficult for each new bar to win attention for its creations. Anything that made the patron happy, inside or outside the glass, was good for business.

“Every drink should have something,” said Naren Young, an owner of Dante in Greenwich Village and a bartender who has frequently spoken on the importance of garnishes. “People are more engaged when there are more things to talk about.” Dante’s garnishes walk a more traditional line, but with twists that set them apart. A twig of baby’s breath rests atop the Point Blank; a fat orange wedge serves as a kind of lid to the Garibaldi, the house drink.

Engaging the press has become equally important. A frequent early complaint of writers and photographers covering the cocktail scene was that one drink looked very much like another: brown or clear liquid in a glass, ad infinitum. Improving presentation became a priority. Robitschek had it written into his bartenders’ training manual at The NoMad that every cocktail that is submitted for the menu should be “camera ready.” (The recent rise of the blue cocktail can also be attributed to our mad shutterbugging culture. A neon blue drink, to a certain way of thinking, is its own garnish.)

Thanks to the social media landscape mixologists must now daily consider when conceiving new drinks, cocktail-making has, according to Jane Danger, “backed up”—that is, drink invention is now just as much about the “outside the glass as well as what’s in the glass.”

For a new bar that doesn’t have a marketing budget, Instagram is undoubtedly a critical, and easy, way to get the word out. But Michael Neff, of Holiday Cocktail Lounge, said he hoped he wasn’t so cynical that he started putting plastic toys in drinks just to ignite Instagram. Still, he can’t deny the outsized reaction customers have had to the plastic figurines.

“Now we put them in gin and tonics, because people are like, ‘Where’s my toy?’,” he said. “If you make someone happy and they take it home and put it on their dresser and wake up the next morning and remember they had a good time, I’m happy.”

It would be easy to see the new breed of garnishes as pure gimmickry, a bit of barroom Barnum. But, to Robitschek’s mind, they are primarily a sign of the creative health of the cocktail industry. “It shows you’re putting love and effort into a cocktail,” he said.

Moreover, the joy of an unexpected cocktail adornment runs both ways. “It’s just as fun to make it,” said Danger of lavishly garnished drinks. “And then you present it to them and they’re excited, too. I go clap-clap-clap and walk away.”

OTHER STORIES YOU MAY LIKE:

Inside London’s Growing Crop of Experimental Cocktail Bars
More Is More: The Evolution of Tiki Garnish
The Extras: How (and When) to Garnish with a Flamed Orange Peel
Peek Inside London’s Most Whimsical Drinkware Factory

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