Going beyond ice and a slice

The garnish is one element of a cocktail that's easily forgotten, says Joel Harrison, but with a little consideration, they can elevate even the simplest drinks to new heights

Words by Joel Harrison

There is a science to mixing a good cocktail. The spirit, mixer, dilution and balance of the three are all important factors. As is the serve style: ‘straight up’ or ‘on the rocks’. But one crucial element that is easily overlooked is the garnish.

The two extremes of the garnish game have given this aspect of a good drink a bad name. From the ‘ice and a slice’ of a poorly made pub Gin and Tonic to overloaded tiki-style drinks that require a machete for reams of tropical leaves, fruit skewers and the like, garnishes can have a significant impact on the overall experience of a cocktail.

Far from a pointless dressing or final flourish of showmanship, a drink’s garnish goes beyond mere aesthetics, adding layers of flavour and aroma as well as visual appeal.

Martini with a lemon twist
'The lemon twist is the trailer for the drink, an aromatic advert for the Martini.'

However, the key role of any good garnish is introducing the senses to the liquid to come. Take the humble Martini, for example. A small sliver of lemon peel expressed over the crystal-clear surface of the drink will leave tiny pools of essential oils released from the citrus twist, adding a lively and dynamic note to the drink. It also releases the oils into the air, preparing the palate for the crisp cocktail to come. The twist is the trailer for the drink, an aromatic advert for the Martini.

The same applies to a Gin and Tonic. Over the past few years, there has been a rise in the options afforded to anyone ordering this seemingly simple mixed drink at a bar. A decade ago, the simple call for a ‘G&T’ would not have required further clarification; the customer would usually receive a measure of Gordon’s or Beefeater diluted with Schweppes tonic water and served with two small ice cubes. The garnish would be a lemon wedge. If you were lucky, it would be freshly cut.

Cocktails with garnishes
Garnishes that are added in handfuls, such as peppercorns, often add little in terms of aroma or flavour but can easily spoil a cocktail

Not today. A rising tide floats all boats, and the water level is high in the harbour of both gin and tonic brands; with it has come a new diversity in garnishes. Each gin brand seems to want to out-do its competitors with new outlandish trims, from samphire to strawberries.

Don’t get me wrong, playing the creative game with a garnish is brilliant. It can elevate a humble Gin and Tonic to something quite special, adding an additional layer of aroma, complexity and visual appeal. But there is a point at which the garnish may inhibit the enjoyment of the drink, getting in the way of a simple sip. Juniper berries and peppercorns are infamous offenders in this regard, adding very little in the way of aroma, often sinking to the bottom of glasses and clogging up straws. They are about as useful as a spoon for a steak.

The key role of any good garnish is introducing the senses to the liquid to come

Contrast these garnishes, which come in handfuls, with my favourite for a Gin and Tonic: a sprig of rosemary. I love lemon and lime wedges but the earthy-cum-herbal notes that rosemary delivers lifts a Gin and Tonic (or indeed a Tequila and Tonic) to another level. Factor in the relative ease of keeping a rosemary plant and it’s likely you’ll have a reliable supply of this garnish all year round.

The relative ease of growing rosemary at home makes a constant supply of this garnish a possibility

Not all garnishes have to be fruit or herb based either. Take the salt rim of a Margarita; the additional saline kiss works well as a counterpoint to the sharpness of the lime, the sweetness of sugar syrup and Cointreau, and the robustness of tequila. I can’t imagine a Margarita without it.

Similar in style is the oyster garnish on a Bloody Mary; savoury with a salty hit and a refreshingly light note, it plays the perfect partner to the rich, spicy, tomato flavour of this classic cocktail.

So next time you’re thinking about making a drink at home, think seriously about the garnish. Don’t let it be an afterthought, cut from a tired lemon or assembled from previously unused seasonings from the spice cupboard. You’ll be sure to find your groove with each different cocktail you make if you ensure the garnish embodies simplicity and vibrance.

What Joel has been drinking this month…

  • My drinks cabinet contains a balanced selection of whiskies from all over the world, with an increasing focus on bourbon and American whiskey. My current pour is the relatively new Uncle Nearest 1856, a Tennessee whiskey that comes with all the quality expected of a quality American whiskey, yet with some additional body and texture that elevates it above many others from the state. Try it neat, over ice.
  • Rum cocktails have been a big play for me this month, and I’ve been using Flor de Cana 15 ECO rum as the base for most. Particularly prominent has been a coconut Daiquiri, using a decent amount of coconut water in the mix, alongside the usual suspects of rum, lime juice and sugar syrup. Utterly delicious and completely refreshing, it is a real summer winner.
  • On a recent trip to France, I discovered just how good Pineau des Charentes can be. This aperitif from the west of the country is a wine fortified with unaged cognac. The flavour is rich and the texture is unctuous, with a sweet-yet-savoury note that has much appeal. Various brands are to be found, with no one individual producer standing out too boldly. It makes for a fabulous drink on its own and can even be used as a replacement for vermouth in a wet Martini, creating something of a sweetened version of the drink that will become a mainstay in my house this summer.
Joel Harrison
By Joel Harrison

Joel Harrison is an award-winning spirits writer, and a contributing editor at Club Oenologique.