Once an afterthought, garnishes are now often as much a part of a drink as the liquid in the glass. These decorations are being thought out long before the drink is prepared—months before in some cases—and are designed to perfectly complement the ingredients of a cocktail.
“I don’t add anything to a drink that’s not supposed to be there; it actually has to have a function,” says Stephen Thomas, manager of Restaurant Latour at Crystal Springs Resort in Sussex County, N.J. and mixologist for Crystal Tavern at the same resort. “Garnishes are there to enhance the drink; the drink is not complete without that garnish on it.”
Garnishes are especially fun at this time of year, when more produce becomes available and warm weather cocktails bring a spring to everyone’s step.
The bar at Restaurant Latour uses Norway spruce to garnish the Old Tjikko ($16). “This is a fun drink, especially with everything becoming green for spring,” says Thomas. He muddles some clippings from a Norway spruce—which grow right on the resort’s property—and muddles it with absinthe. He then mixes in gin, gives it a shake and stir, and floats the twig of spruce on the top.
Hog Island’s The Indian Summer Peach Cocktail
“It adds some good flavor,” says Thomas, adding that the restaurant uses American style gin, which is really juniper forward, with a little menthol-like flavor, and serves this drink in a martini glass.
At Crystal Tavern, the Kimble Chase Atwood ($12), the resort’s take on a grapefruit margarita, is made using tequila and a round ice cube made from fresh squeezed grapefruit juice. This ice cube gradually melts so the drink changes as the minutes pass. The garnish for this drink is a grapefruit stirrer, made from a slice of dehydrated grapefruit, which also adds flavor to the beverage, and some mint. “The perfect balance for this drink comes after about five minutes,” says Thomas, “but it all depends on how you like your cocktails.”
The venue also uses fruit to garnish its Baiser Framboise ($13). But it’s not fruit used in the traditional sense. Thomas dehydrates raspberries (in a dehydrator), then puts them through a spice grinder to create a fine powder. “The drink ends up being three different preparations of raspberry—a raspberry liquor, the powder on the rim, and a dehydrated raspberry. First, Thomas drops the raspberry into a champagne flute and pours some grappa on top to rehydrate it; he then adds the liquor and some prosecco. “We dehydrate the raspberry because you’re taking all the moisture out, so when you add it back in it’s alcohol, so it’s a much more concentrated flavor. And once you’re finished the drink you’re left with the raspberry so it’s the extra little pop at the end.”
Hog Island Oysters in San Francisco is also dehydrating its fruit, making salts and sugars, mostly from produce grown in the area, some of it on the venue’s own farm.
“We try to maximize what we can get out of every fruit, especially since we’re growing it ourselves because we can’t get the amount of product we’d get if we were ordering,” says cocktail director Saul Ranella.
“So I looked at each individual ingredient to see what I could do with every part of it. I found I could use the leftovers of the ingredients and turn them into garnishes. I started dehydrating them and making my own sugars and salts. We’re also taking the pulps that are being dehydrated, lightly chopping them and making a dust or coarse powder that can be incorporated into a salt or sugar to accent the flavor. It’s a unique way to do a rim.”
Hog Island’s Fire Ship cocktail is made with mescal, roasted red pepper syrup, fresh lime, Benedictine and Peychaud’s Bitters, garnished with a rim of red pepper salt. The Indian Summer Peach (local peaches infused with tequila, fresh squeezed lemon juice, mescal, Dimmi liquor and housemade peach shrub, which is like a simple syrup with vinegar so it lightly ferments) is garnished with a peach sugar rim and homegrown sunflower petals.
Ranella garnishes The Three Grapes cocktail with homegrown mint, which he keeps in water so it’s fresh. The cocktail’s made with Napa Valley grapes muddled with fresh squeezed ginger syrup, simple syrup, pisco (which is distilled from grapes) and Sauvignon Blanc. The mint is shaken with the cocktail and more is used as a garnish on top of the beverage, which is served in a brandy snifter. The cocktails all cost $11.
For this summer the bar has other plans: Ranella’s going to look at what he can do garnish-wise with pulling things from the water like seaweed and salt and using them for various functions. He’d like to infuse seaweed into vodka or make it into seaweed chips (which are akin to kale chips) then lie them from one side of the glass rim to the other. “We’ll be matching the merroir of the ocean with the terroir of the spirit.”
Garnishes are the perfect finishing touch to every cocktail, Ranella says. “You hit two senses before the drink hits your palate. You eat with your eyes and then you sniff it before you drink. When you take the flavor profile of the cocktail and put it on the rim, it emphasizes the package of what you’re giving to the guest.”