Beef jerky, shaved beets, pickles, squash blossoms, freshly fried beignets—sounds more like an appetizer than a drink. Indeed, there’s a strong kitchen connection to today’s trendy cocktail garnishes. It’s a long way from doing that twist: olive or cherry. But even those elegantly simple garnishes are being rethought and updated as part of an innovative and classic cocktail resurgence.
Some of these garnishes are simply beyond eye candy. “A good garnish is not just eye-candy, it adds another dimension to the drink,” opines Ralph Ortiz, director of beverage marketing for Cypress, Calif.-based Real Mex Restaurants, which operates some 200 casual-dining restaurants. Real Mex has upgraded its classics as well as updating and contemporizing its Margarita collection. At its upscale El Torito Grill and Sinigual concepts, where the half dozen specialty cocktails are priced $8 to $9, Manhattans are topped with imported Luxardo maraschino cherries.
“We don’t sell a lot of Manhattans but we wanted to sell the best,” declares Ortiz. The Martini, made with Rain Organic Vodka, is enhanced with a chipotle-stuffed olive. “It gives a spicy, smoky finish to the drink, and fits with our mesquite-grilled menu,” he notes. Similarly, a Mesquite-Grilled Pineapple Margarita contrasts the grilled fruit muddled in the glass with a fresh slice of pineapple as a garnish and the glass is rimmed with a chile pequin-salt. In development now, says Ortiz, are also fruit garnishes made with chile pequin to enhance its flavors—a technique borrowed from Mexican cuisine.
One factor driving this blossoming of fancy trimmings is the current revival of Tiki bars, says Chris Frankel, bartender at Anvil Bar & Refuge in Houston. “The Tiki movement makes fresh product look pretty, but it often goes over the top,” he adds. Anvil holds Tiki Tuesdays every week. The bar also marinates fresh cherries in spiced Bourbon and puts them up in Mason jars for use in its Manhattans. “We get customers ordering Manhattans just to eat the cherries,” notes Frankel. Anvil offers 30-some cocktails, priced $8 to $12.
The Kitchen Connection
“Cocktails have been getting more culinary over the past five or six years and garnishes add another dimension where you can be creative,” posits Frankel. Anvil’s Trifecta is a good example. The molasses-maple flavor of the Cruzan Blackstrap rum in the drink gave Frankel the idea of topping the cocktail with a fried-to-order sweet potato beignet.
Kevin Schulz, who wears two toques as both executive chef and head bar chef at Bridge Bar in Chicago, has to agree about the culinary connection. He makes his Bullshot with jerky-infused vodka and garnishes it appropriately with a stick of jerky. Another drink from the list of a dozen cocktails, priced $9 to $11, is the Shiso Simple; an Asian-accented variation on a Pimm’s Cup, which substitutes Japanese yuzu citrus juice for the lemon and is garnished with an aromatic shiso leaf—also borrowed from Japanese cuisine.
“I get my inspiration from the kitchen—and the farm,” says Scott Rowe, bar manager at National Hotel Bar & Grill in Montgomery, N.Y. (which is actually just a restaurant and not a hotel). He’s also known as the “green thumb bartender” thanks to his day job at nearby organic Windfall Farms. At National, the garden is his garnish; Rowe has experimented with various herbs, beets, rhubarb, arugula, pickles and squash blossoms and edible flowers such as nasturtiums and pansies. Colorful heirloom tomatoes from the farm decorate his tomato-water version of a Bloody Mary, side by side with asparagus and cucumber spears. National Hotel Bar lists about nine cocktails, priced from $12 to $15. The Mobeeto is a riff on the Mojito, with beet juice in the drink and shaved beets as a garnish. For another drink, The Farmer’s Brunch, Rowe sticks pansy petals to sides of the glass, fills it with crushed ice then pours in the drink. “Attractive garnishes are attention-getters,” he notes. “They inspire me-too sales.”
Increasing Register Rings
“When garnishes are out of the ordinary, they grab attention. Other customers see them and say, ‘I want one of those,’” concurs Schulz. One of his most impressive garnishes features hickory smoke wafting out of the glass. For the aptly named Smoking Gun, Bridge’s bartenders use a hand-held smoker to fill an upside-down glass with smoke while the W.L. Weller Special Reserve Bourbon-Maple Syrup drink is mixed. The glass is turned upright in front of the guest so the smoke drifts out as the drink is poured in and the liquid mixes with the smoke; it’s garnished with candied bacon. “It has the ‘wow’ factor,” says the bar chef, noting that prepping one of these drinks invariably attracts requests for more.
The Ladder of Death was always a conversation-starter on Anvil’s spring menu. A take-off on a Tiki drink, the concoction of rums and fruit juices is served in a rocks glass with pineapple leaves and a floating orange wedge; on top of the wedge is a crouton soaked in over-proofed rum, which is lit on fire in front of guests. Another head-turner at Anvil is the Rooster Cogburn, a play on a boilermaker; Bourbon, IPA and house-made beer syrup are shaken with a whole raw egg. The washed eggshell floats on the drink with half an ounce more Bourbon.
Although many creative garnishes cost more than a simple twist or plain olive, most bartenders opt not to charge extra for these drinks. Repeat business is deemed more important than a slight upcharge. Customer satisfaction is important too. “The overall experience of the drink, garnish included, brings value to the table,” says Ortiz at Real Mex.
With all the excitement surrounding garnishes, it’s easy to lose sight of what’s important: the drink and customer satisfaction. “Garnishes should never be arbitrary,” cautions Rowe. “There should be a clear kinship with the cocktail flavors, a complement or contrast. Every drink has a story and the garnish just adds to that story.”
Agrees Frankel at Anvil Bar, “You must have a reason for the garnish. If it’s just to look pretty or for show, that’s not good enough. It must work with the drink as a whole.”
“Garnishes have to fit in with the ingredients of the cocktails, and not be too out there,” recommends Josh Klein, director of mixology at Bar M and M’s Restaurant in the 84-room, 11-suite and 12-condominium Hotel Madeline Telluride and its sister property the 32-suite Inn at Lost Creek in Telluride, Colo. That said, Klein and his team came up with an “out there” drink with elements of molecular gastronomy.
Created for “The Science of Cocktails,” a recent cocktail competition between seven of Telluride’s top restaurants, the vodka-based NaCl’y Dawg plays off the Salty Dog (NaCl is the symbol for salt on the Periodic Table), but with sphereified blood orange “caviar” and nitrous oxide-charged foam of pink grapefruit. To add more fireworks, the glass is rimmed with a mixture of salt and Limon Pop Rocks candy. The science experiment grabbed the first place prize. The cocktail gained such exposure for the hotel that it’s going onto the cocktail list of six to 10 cocktails priced $8 to $9. “The bartenders aren’t terribly excited at the idea of executing the NaCl’y Dawg on a busy night,” jokes Klein. “But it’s not that difficult.”
Training on the consistent execution of drink garniture, of course, is critical to customer satisfaction and repeat business. “We train our staff to recognize the importance of the garnish and presentation,” says Ortiz at Real Mex.
At the National Hotel Bar, Rowe creates a manual detailing all the cocktails on the list so that bartenders will all be in synch and serve consistently mixed and garnished drinks.
“When the new menus debut at Anvil, we make all the drinks in front of the entire staff so that they know how they are supposed to taste and look, including the garnish,” explains Frankel.
Experience matters too. “The people we hire are not just drink pourers. Because these drinks are not just putting a lot of stuff in a shaker and then dumping it into a glass,” points out Schulz at Bridge Bar. He works extensively with bartenders on new garnish techniques. “There is training behind every aspect of our cocktails.”
All the activity and creativity in garnishes begs the question: Is this just a fad or a solid trend? And is it merely an urban phenomenon or spreading throughout the country?
“The creative garnish trend started in places like New York and San Francisco, but now it’s popping up in second- and third-tier cities,” argues Frankel. He thinks the trend still has a ways to go before it runs its course.
“Slowly but surely the whole cocktail trend, including creative garnishes, is making its way out of the major cities, making its way here,” says Rowe, whose bar is in a small town about 75 miles from New York City. “Cocktails appeal to the young professionals, the people who watch the Food Network,” he observes. “They are more willing to step out of their comfort zone and try something new.”
“We’re starting to see more creativity going into the glass in small towns outside the big cities,” believes bar chef Schulz. “Like fashion or food, it takes a while to get to everyone in America, a trickle-down effect.” He thinks that the creative garnish trend has legs because it’s a good showcase for creativity and talent behind the bar. “But like everything else in the restaurant business, it goes in cycles.”