When it comes to cocktail garnishes, bartenders tend to reach for the basics–the lemon wedge, lime wheel or orange peel. “But most people don’t use citrus to its maximum” when making garnishes, says Máté Hartai, beverage director of The Libertine in Dallas.
In the session “Sexxy Dranks” at the San Antonio Cocktail Conference on Jan. 18, Hartai explained how the right techniques and tools can help you make the most of even simple garnishes. Here are a few of his garnish tips.
1) Use the right tools. For one thing, you’ll need a good peeler to create gorgeous garnishes. The key difference in picking out a peeler is the diameter of the blade.
A channel knife, one with a deep V-shaped cut blade, is great for making attractive peel garnishes. You’ll also need a sharp knife; a pairing knife is good, Hartai said, “but get an exacto.”
2) Clean up your ends. Citrus peel garnishes generally need a bit of grooming. “Once you start trimming the ends off garnish peels, it becomes something you have to do,” Hartai said, and then you’ll start playing around with ways to make them look more appealing, from serpent-tongue ends to Gordian knots.
How do you get your bartenders to meticulously trim garnish ends when they’re trying to get a bunch of drinks out? Hartai said to first demonstrate how to trim the garnishes one at a time, and then show them how to layer the citrus peel strips to trim several at once.
3) Go beyond citrus peels. Use the channel knife to carve apples, watermelon and other fruits, Hartai said. And be sure to peel and carve the fruit over the glass “so the aromatics spray over the drink,” he added. Take a “snout-to-tail” approach with garnishes and make them from all the parts of the fruits or vegetables that you would throw away.
4) Get creative with picks. The pick is the most widely used of the garnish tools, and there’s plenty of variety—plastic, bamboo, etc. But don’t just stab fruit with your picks, Hartai said. A floating cherry suspended on a toothpick with the ends broken off, “is a thousand times more eye-catching than a cherry on a pick,” he said.
5) Embrace compound garnishes. A cherry speared with a pick to a lemon or lime wheel is the most common compound garnish, Hartai said, “and it’s pretty boring.” If you can introduce another color or shape to the garnish, it becomes more appealing.
Using the example of an olive stuck in a lime peel curl, “the black dot in the center now gives you a focal point,” Hartai said. Just be sure to pair your garnish size with your glass size, he added. You want the garnish to enhance the drink, not overwhelm it.
Remember that cocktail garnishes are all about the glass, color and contrast. You have to create visual movement and contrast on top of that drink, Hartai said. “Otherwise, it’s the same thing your mom is doing at home—you have to be better than that.”