Tiffin Project

Garnish or Garish: Debating Cocktail Bling

by Simon Ogden on December 2, 2008


If you want to keep the peace in a room full of bartenders, it’s probably a good idea to steer clear of the subject of drink garnishes. The chances of any two sharing the same opinion on this particularly contentious subject is slight indeed, which could make it the most personal of all the elements that make up the craft.

Having some object or another floating on, sunk in, or jammed onto the rim of the drink is a habit that we’ve come to take for granted in the modern bar. Is it, as the name suggests, just there for visual appeal, like parsley on a dinner plate? Does a perfectly made cocktail require accessorizing to distract from its colour, clarity, gradient and vessel? I know bartenders that I both trust and admire that sit on both ends of the see-saw: some loathe the idea altogether and some pride themselves on their ability to craft ornate little sculptures of fruit and vegetables and herbs. For me it always comes down to the same thing: I need to consider whether or not any applied accoutrement is there in the service of the drink.

Take for example the common practice applied at the night clubs and pubs of Vancouver. The delicate art of garnishing has been distilled to the preparation of a couple of pitchers of (hopefully freshly cut) lemon and lime wedges, which are stuck on the rim of every glass (and sometimes – gak – squidged into the drink before it’s handed over to you). Now, this is an entirely acceptable convention for a highball, as the taste of a gin and tonic should never bear any variance, while the presence and quantity of citrus always should. But does that cocktail that you just crafted really require me to add an extra 1/8 of an ounce of lime juice? Isn’t it then more of a condiment than an embellishment? I’m really not being elitist here, I’m honestly asking. Why do we garnish?

For me, in my work, garnish has to fulfill two jobs simultaneously. It has to be an integral part of the cocktail as a whole, and it has to look pretty. It should definitely be some kind of food product, which right away rules out little plastic mermaids and maraschino cherries. If you like a salty tang to your Martini, it should contain an olive. If a sheen of citrus oil provides the necessary top notes (it ain’t a Sazerac without it), a lemon twist it is. Hemingway’s beautiful Death in the Gulf Stream is just an iced Pink Gin without the peel of an entire lime to elevate it to legendary status. It has to have a rhyme as well as a reason, if not it risks being a distraction from what should be a sublime little work of relaxation art.

But this is just one barman’s opinion. What do you think, gang? Where do you stand on the garnish/garish debate?

To your health…

Simon Ogden | Urban Diner

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Seamus December 2, 2008 at 10:58 pm

I think the Death in the Gulf Stream is a little more than just a ‘Pink Gin with Garnish’. You have lime juice in there, not just lime peel. It seems like another of Hemingway’s acidic and minimally sweetened drinks. I say ‘minimally sweetened’ because the use of Oude Genever adds a touch more sweetness than would be there if you used London Dry.

Simon December 2, 2008 at 11:52 pm

True, Seamus, true, but I jump at any chance to name-check the Pink Gin.

GREAT blog, by the way, I’m a fan. I was just in Shanghai for the first time this summer actually, and duly impressed by the cocktail culture there. Not to mention the Art Deco architecture.

Mark December 3, 2008 at 3:32 am

If the garnish doesn’t positively affect the taste of the beverage, it shouldn’t be there.

’nuff said.

Harlan December 3, 2008 at 5:30 pm

The Mighty Bloody Mary or the Caesar… a drink based on the garnish. I feel jipped if I don’t get some sort of green “thing” in my drink, or celery salt on the rim. Mind you, the celery is often substituted for some other “green” thing. Not sure why? That bitterness goes a long way. Only one exaple of course.

Like Mark said, if it is there only to make it “look” pretty……….. PASS!!!!

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