How to garnish a cocktail

How to garnish a cocktail

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Consider the martini’s olives, the Gibson’s onion, the Manhattan’s cherry or the julep’s particularly lavish mint bouquet. Each of these cocktails, and many others, would not be complete without their garnish — understated or otherwise.

While it’s often the final addition to a drink, a garnish is not an afterthought or eye candy. It’s a utility player that has an integral role in the final cocktail, often impacting flavor or aroma as well as appearance.

Garnishes can skew as simple and effective as a well-placed and deeply aromatic citrus wheel or as theatrical as the overabundance of berries, cucumber, mint and more in a Pimm’s Cup.

This primer shines light on the little (and sometimes not so little) garnishes that lean toward the functional, the fun or the marginally outlandish.

CITRUS

Citrus garnishes make up the biggest section of this guide and for good reason. They add color and flair but can also greatly affect the balance of a drink.

How to garnish a cocktail

Citrus wheels (with variations)
This simple, classic and aromatic garnish can be dropped in a drink or perched on the glass’ rim. If placed on the edge of a glass, the citrus’ bright aroma will hit the drinker first, mingling with the flavor of the drink from the first sip. If added directly to the drink, a wheel subtly imparts its flavor through both citrus juice and citrus oils.

To make a wheel, use a sharp paring knife to slice the ends off your chosen citrus — lemon, lime or orange are most common — then cut crosswise into ¼-inch rounds, removing any seeds. Tuck into the glass or, if you’re placing it on the rim, use the knife to make a slit from the middle of the wheel to its edge.

For a twisted wheel, twist the sides of the wheel in the opposite directions.

To make a citrus flag, fold the wheel around a maraschino cherry (think of the wheel as a taco). Slide a toothpick or skewer through the pith of one side of the wheel, through the cherry and finally through the pith on the other side of the wheel.

Citrus wedges
Use a sharp paring knife to cut the citrus in half lengthwise and then quarter each half to create four wedges. If there is any white membrane on the straight edge of your wedge, slice it off. Remove any seeds. Make a small cut up to the rind to set the wedge on the rim of the glass.

Citrus peels (with variations)
Peels add aroma, brighten flavors and can gently suggest acidity in a drink. Start with a washed piece of citrus. Using a sharp Y-peeler, start at the top of the fruit and pull down and toward you at a diagonal. To garnish your drink, hold the peel by its long edges, skin side facing down about an inch above the cocktail glass. Pinch the peel to express into the drink; you should see a fine mist of citrus oil. If you would like more citrus flavor, lightly rub the expressed twist around the rim of the glass, then discard or drop into the drink.

More than just an attention-getter, a flamed citrus peel enhances the flavor and adds subtle complexity to a drink — as well as aesthetic flare. Start with a round, quarter-size peel. Light a match, wait a second for the sulfur to burn off, then hold the flame near the top of your glass. With your other hand, hold the peel by its edges, skin side facing toward the flame. Pinch the peel to express the citrus oils into the flame. The oils will be ignited and lightly caramelized. Drop the twist in the drink or discard.

A long, looping spiral of lemon peel that curves and coils around the inside of a highball glass, the horse’s neck garnish is generally used in a horse’s neck drink (ginger ale plus bourbon or brandy), but there’s nothing to stop you from using it in another highball. To make it, use a sharp paring knife to trim the tops from both ends of a lemon. Then, starting at the top and rotating the fruit rather than the knife, cut a long, ¼-inch to ½-inch strip all around a lemon to create an unbroken spiral (it’s OK to leave a small amount of white pith on the back). Transfer your spiral to a highball glass and use a bar spoon or chopstick to press the coil to the edge of the glass, draping one end of the peel over the lip so it stays in place.

While the two most common cocktail rims are a simple salt (using coarse salt) or sugar (using superfine sugar), there’s no reason to stop there. Mix the two together; swap in smoked salt or sal de gusano; rub in citrus zest or spices like cayenne or cinnamon; or deploy Tajín.

Whatever you choose, start by sprinkling it onto a shallow plate. Use a wedge of citrus to moisten the top outside edge of the glass (holding it upside down while you do this keeps the juice from running down the sides). Gently press the moistened rim into the plate of salt or sugar, etc., to evenly coat. Shake off any excess and pour the drink.

How to garnish a cocktail

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Usually a bright piece of fruit, or a briny olive, or a festive umbrella, but sometimes something much more fancy, the cocktail garnish has a solid place in the history of cocktails. Today, we’ll look at what garnishes are and how to get started using them to good effect.

A cocktail garnish is an ornamental item that adds appeal to a cocktail. In case of fruit wedges, slices, or twists, the garnish actually imbues a bit of juice or citrus oil to the drink. Likewise, an olive or onion in a Martini or Gibson lends a whisper of savory flavor to those drinks. And of course, there’s the bright red (or green) cherries common to drinks such as the Manhattan. These add sweetness and color to an otherwise drab-looking brown drink. Other common edible garnishes include gratings of nutmeg or cinnamon, sprigs of mint or other herbs, and the smorgasbord of salty or pickled items (often added to a Bloody Mary.)

Not all garnishes, of course, are food items. Umbrellas, plastic animals, fancy straws, and plastic swords are among the incredible inedibles that serve as garnishes. And in fact, one tale of the origin of the word cocktail comes from such a garnish: the story goes that during the Revolutionary War, folks would garnish mixed drinks with feathers from the tail of a rooster, or a cock’s tail. (Incidentally, while this story is colorful, it’s almost certainly apocryphal, so if you want to tell it to your friends, just know it’s probably bullshit.) Today we’ll mostly be focusing on edible garnishes, though.

Whence the Garnish?

As with many other things in the history of cocktails, it’s hard to pin down the origins of the garnish. It’s possible that the garnish originated in the julep and the cobbler, two similar classes of mixed drinks that arose a couple of hundred years ago. The general plan for these drinks is similar: each calls for crushed or shaved ice, a spirit or wine, and a bit of sugar, with the whole mess served with a straw. The julep, of course, is garnished nowadays with mint; the cobbler, on the other hand, usually takes a slice of fruit (pineapple or orange), a pile of berries, and sometimes mint.

At any rate, the earliest bartenders manual that hasn’t been lost to history is Jerry Thomas’s, from 1862. In his book, Thomas instructs bartenders to use a piece of lemon peel in drinks and to even rub the peel around the rim, at times, presumably to leave behind of a bit of the oils. He doesn’t comment on the origins of the practice, so we can assume it was in common use at the time when he was writing.

Twists

How to garnish a cocktail

One of the easiest, most common garnishes for cocktials is the twist. I’ve written about the twist before—how to cut an ideal twist, how to set its oils alight and how to make fancier twists. No matter what type of twist you use, though, the basic idea remains the same. A twist is a tool for expressing citrus oil into a drink. Squeeze the peel over the surface of the cocktail, rub the colored side (not the white pith) around the rim of the glass, and either drop the peel into the glass or discard. Your call.

How to garnish a cocktail

Mint isn’t much harder to work with than twists are. The main thing with mint is to have a light hand, especially when muddling. When you garnish the top of the glass, use a fresh bunch of sprigs (don’t be miserly, and don’t reuse the stuff you muddled), and be sure to sharply spank the mint to release its aromas. Yes, I said spank.

Olives and Onions

How to garnish a cocktail

Olives and onions are classic bar staples used to add a savory quality to a drink. The history of these garnishes is, again, hard to pin down. Don’t laugh at the booze historians, though, please. I’m sure you’ve forgotten things that happened while you were drinking, and what else is cocktail history but a record of things that happened in bars?

Stories abound about the history of the Gibson, nearly all of them told by a man named Gibson who claimed to invent the cocktail. I think the only Gibsons who haven’t claimed to invent it are the science-fiction author, the newsman, and the actor.

Regardless of who invented the idea of tossing an onion or olive into a cocktail, I must say it’s a delicious one. I prefer my olives unstuffed, or simply studded with pimento.

Sad to say, fully DIY olives are a bit of a chore for home bartenders; you need a source of fresh olives and ample time in which to cure them. I live in Brooklyn and have a toddler, so I have neither source nor time.

DIY cocktail onions, though? Oh yes, so easy and so worth it. One major advantage of doing it yourself is being able to season them as you please.

Or borrow the Hemingway trick and just use plain frozen onions in your drink. They’ll still impart a bit of flavor, but they’ll also help keep your Gibson icy.

Cherries

How to garnish a cocktail

The use of cherries in cocktails dates to the 1800s. Originally, the maraschino cherry wasn’t the neon red thing you see in jars in the grocery store. Maraschino cherries, initially, were simply marasca cherries from Croatia, preserved whole in maraschino liqueur. But marasca cherries from Croatia needed to be imported from, well, Croatia, and this was expensive, so manufacturers started making them here, swapping in native cherries and liqueurs other than maraschino. By the time of Prohibition, the liqueurs were left out entirely, and the cherries were chemically dyed and preserved.

You can buy artisanal cherries from several producers (the pricey Luxardo ones are delicious) or you can make your own at home, which is more fun because you get to buy brandy.

Finally, a Word of Advice

When you’re at home, you can do what you want to with your own garnishes. If you get crazy one night and just eat every last cherry out of your fridge, that’s your waistline, not mine. But please, please, please, when you’re out at a bar, don’t ever pick garnishes out of the bartender’s supplies. Seriously.

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Cocktail garnishes serve to either complement or contrast a drink’s flavors and add a dazzling, visual element to a cocktail.

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  • 11 Cocktail Garnish Ideas
  • 3 Ways to Prepare a Citrus Fruit Garnish
  • Learn More

11 Cocktail Garnish Ideas

Here are some cocktail garnish ideas to liven up your favorite cocktail or complement a cocktail creation of your own:

  1. Berries: Raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries can all add extra fruit flavor to your drink. All you need to do for this garnish is slide a cocktail skewer through your berries and rest the skewer on top of the glass.
  2. Celery: A celery stick can be used to add a refreshing element to a cocktail, like a Bloody Mary.
  3. Citrus: There are a variety of citrus garnishes that can be added to cocktails, from basic twists, to wedges, to wheels.
  4. Cocktail onions: Pickled pearl onions do not frequently appear in many cocktails but they are the signature garnish of the Gibson cocktail, which is a variation on the Martini
  5. Maraschino cherries: Maraschino cherries are preserved, sweetened cherries that are used frequently in both alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktail recipes. Cocktails garnished with maraschino cherries include the Manhattan, Whiskey Sour, Vodka Collins, and occasionally an Old Fashioned.
  6. Mint: Mint adds an aromatic flavor to cocktails and is the main ingredient in both the Mojito and the Mint Julep. Bartenders often smack mint sprigs with their hand to release the mint’s oils before adding it to a cocktail.
  7. Olives: Green olives are the garnish of choice in a classic Gin Martini and often come stuffed with additional ingredients like pimento peppers or blue cheese.
  8. Pineapple: A wedge of pineapple is a great way to add a tropical flair to a mixed drink and is frequently used to garnish tiki drinks, like the Piña Colada and the Mai Tai.
  9. Sugar: Sugaring the rim of a glass is an easy way to add a decorative and sweet garnish to your cocktails. Rub a citrus wedge around the rim of the glass to make the sugar stick, and to add an extra acidic flavor to the drink. You can also rim a glass with salt instead of sugar using the same method.
  10. Whipped cream: A sweet, whipped cream topping is the ideal way to garnish many liqueur-based, dessert cocktails or frozen drinks.
  11. Inedible garnishes: Not all garnishes are intended to be eaten. Cocktail umbrellas, straws, sparklers, and swizzle sticks are all examples of inedible garnishes that are used solely for ornamental purposes.

3 Ways to Prepare a Citrus Fruit Garnish

Citrus fruits—lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits—make up the most popular category of cocktail garnishes. There are three different ways that a citrus fruit garnish can be prepared:

  1. Twist: A basic citrus twist is simply a curled sliver of citrus rind. A basic citrus twist is made by using a vegetable peeler or paring knife to cut out an oval-shaped slice of citrus peel, which is then squeezed to express the oils and curl the rind. Though simple to make, garnishing with the basic twist brings heightened visual appeal to a cocktail, and the citrus oils from the rind add a vivid aroma and extra flavor to your drink.
  2. Wedge: A wedge is a cut, triangular section of citrus fruit, often either lemon or lime, that either rests on the rim of the glass or is squeezed and placed into the cocktail. When a wedged is squeezed into a drink, the juice adds acidity to balance out the cocktail’s flavor.
  3. Wheel: A wheel is a round slice of citrus fruit placed on the rim of a cocktail glass solely for decoration and is usually discarded before the drink is consumed.

If you came here, chances are you’ve been to a bar where they served cocktails with a stamped ice cubes because that’s where branded ice cubes already gained popularity as a way to garnish cocktails. But you don’t have to go to a bar to get this sophisticated cocktail garnish. You can also easily do them at home. Ice cube stamps are a great addition to your selection of bar tools. No matter if you just started mixing or have years of experience at a (home) bar. Serving your drinks with a large clear ice cube having your initials stamped in is great fun. Stamping ice cubes is one more possibility to elevate the presentation of your cocktail. Plus, it will create a lasting impression on your guests. So let’s check how you can serve your next Negroni with branded ice.

Can I use wax seal stamps for stamping ice cubes?

The short answer is yes. But it won’t work as well as an ice cube stamp. Let me explain: the best way to get your logo or initials stamped on an ice cube is by using a thick and deeply engraved brass stamp. Therefore, using ice stamps creates a branded ice cube within a few seconds. Wax seal stamps usually are also made of brass but with a lot less material. While they also work without prior heating, it takes way longer to achieve a decent result.

Another disadvantage is depth. A wax steal stamp won’t imprint deeply enough to create strong effects. Ice cube stamps have extra depth to produce a clear and long-lasting impression on the ice. But saying that, if you have a wax seal stamp at home that you want to use, give it a try before you purchase an extra tool. If the outcome is what you imagine, you saved yourself some money.

Inverted Ice Stamps

There is another essential difference between ice cube stamps and wax seal stamps besides material and depth. For a wax seal stamp, the artwork gets embossed to the wax. As wax is hot, it’s soft and fluid, allowing the stamp to sink in and create the artwork. As ice is solid, embossing does not work. Instead, impressions are easier debossed into the ice. So an ice cube stamp is actually a reversed version of a wax seal stamp.

Dimensions of Ice Cube Stamps

Ice stamps can come in different sizes and shapes. The usual diameter is between 1.5 (40mm) and 2 inches (50mm). The most common ones are round or squared, but you can also see rectangular-shaped stamps occasionally. Ice stamp engravings are usually 0.07 inches (1.8mm) deep but can be as deep as 0.12 inches (3mm). Whereas, for wax seal stamps, the depth ranges between 0.03 (0,8mm) and 0.04 inches (1mm).

How Ice Stamping works

Now we know what an ice stamp can do. But how is it used? Stamping ice is a quick and easy task, you only need to press the stamp firmly on the ice, and within 2-3 seconds, the ice cube is branded. When touching the ice, the energy transfer between metal and ice is melting the surface. This process is so quick you won’t believe your eyes. I added the video from clear ice below to show you how easy this is.

The stamp does not need to be heated to brand the ice. Only if you want to stamp a large number of ice cubes in a row, I recommended heating the stamp or letting it rest on a warm surface after each ice cube.

Courtesy of clear ice company

Price

Ice stamps are usually custom-made and more expensive than a basic wax seal stamp. Also, the required extra depth causes extra costs. In comparison to a wax seal stamp, the personalization of an ice cube stamp usually takes double to triple the time. Plus, you also need more material as the stamping head is not only deeper but also larger. But despite all that, creating your one ice stamp still is affordable. High-quality ones can be as low as $80. Quite reasonable considering that it is a custom product.

By: Katie Johnson | April 25, 2019

Easily master the cocktail garnish basics.

How to garnish a cocktail

What would an old fashioned be without an orange swath, or a margarita without a lime wedge? A cocktail garnish can transform any kind of beverage into an elegant mocktail or cocktail.

Even if you are not a professional bartender, the garnishing basics are essential to have (and not just about adding pizzazz). Lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit garnishes can be used to add an extra hint of citrus to your drinks, even the essence of the citrus expressed over your beverage can add that bright hint of fruitiness.

Using lemons and limes as our examples, here are 5 classic citrus cocktail garnishes to help get you started.

How to garnish cocktails with a citrus wedge

Suggested Bar Tool

How to garnish a cocktail

Featured Cocktail

How to garnish a cocktail

How to cut a lemon or lime wedge

Cut the ‘pointy’ ends off of the citrus. Placing the fruit flat side-down and make angled slices on either of the sides. Put directly into drink or make a slit in the flesh and slide on the side of your glass.

Last Updated: December 16, 2020 References

This article was co-authored by Stephen Denning. Stephen Denning is a licensed bartender and a dedicated wikiHow community member and contributor who is passionate about creating various drink recipes. He has been contributing to articles on wikiHow since 2015.

There are 19 references cited in this article, which can be found at the bottom of the page.

This article has been viewed 22,648 times.

Ah, oranges—the sweet, juicy fruit that just about everybody likes. In addition to being a great snack, oranges are also perfect for garnishing drinks, especially cocktails and certain types of beer like wheat beers and orange ales. Try experimenting with wedges, slices, wheels, and twists by adding them to different beverages for a garnish you’ll want to eat!

How to garnish a cocktail

Stephen Denning
Community Expert Expert Interview. 30 July 2020.

  • Be sure the knife is clean before you start cutting, also.

Stephen Denning
Community Expert Expert Interview. 30 July 2020.

  • You can use either a chef’s knife or a paring knife for this, but it’s easier if the knife is very sharp.
  • Be careful whenever you’re using a sharp knife. Keep your fingers and hands out from under the blade and always cut away from your body. [4] X Expert Source

    Stephen Denning
    Community Expert Expert Interview. 30 July 2020.

    How to garnish a cocktail

    Stephen Denning
    Community Expert Expert Interview. 30 July 2020.

  • When you’re drinking a beverage with an orange wedge garnish, you can squeeze the wedge into the drink for extra orange flavor. Or, you can just grab it off the rim and eat it!
  • How to garnish a cocktail

    Stephen Denning
    Community Expert Expert Interview. 30 July 2020.

    Citrus peels, maraschino cherries, stir sticks, paper parasols: garnishes make drinks more festive, whether they’re cocktails or mocktails.

    Cocktail garnishes aren’t just for looks. They complement or contrast flavors. They should either hint at what’s in the recipe (mint and lime garnishing a mojito) or bring out a flavor in the drink (like salt contrasting with the tart, herbal flavors in a margarita).

    Fruity Drinks

    Along with citrus wedges and strips of zest, you can add color to a drink with a whole kumquat. These tiny citrus fruits are entirely edible–peel and all–and they pack a mouth-watering punch of sweet-tart flavor. Other suggestions include:

    • Maraschino cherries or brandied cherries
    • Pineapple wedges
    • Mint leaves
    • Fruit kabobs: several kinds of fruit chunks on a skewer
    • Ice cubes frozen with berries or slices of fruit
    • Shaved fresh coconut
    • Whipped cream, ice cream or a scoop of sherbet
    • Flavored sugars: many specialty kitchen stores carry “cocktail froster” powders in flavors such as lemon, green apple, or cranberry
    • Mai Tai
    • Pina Colada III
    • Frozen Lime Daiquiri
    • Paradise Island

    Garnish with a Twist

    Some classic drinks require a classic garnish–a gin and tonic requires lime in the U.S., lemon in the UK — while Cuba libre is, by definition, a rum and coke with a lime wedge. Still, you can dress up a drink without changing it: a long twist of citrus peel is a simple and elegant way to finish off a mixed drink. To get extra-fancy, use strips of zest or circular slices of more than one kind of citrus, twisted or tied together.

    • Mojito
    • Gin and Tonic
    • Classic Whiskey Sour
    • Highball
    • Manhattan
    • Cape Cod

    Garnishes for Salty, Savory, or Straight up

    Some of these garnishes can cross over to fruit drinks: thin slices of cucumber and a sprig of thyme make refreshing garnishes on lemon-vodka drinks.

    • Slices or curls of cucumber, carrot, and radish
    • Fresh herb leaves or sprigs
    • Thin spear of celery with olives skewered on it (or use herb stems as skewers)
    • Blanched green onions with the ends fringed
    • Cocktail onions, pickled asparagus, or other pickled vegetables
    • Special olives: bleu cheese-stuffed olives in a Bloody Mary, or caper-, anchovy-, or jalapeno-stuffed olives in a martini
    • Toasted hazelnuts (for White or Black Russians, or any drink with hazelnut or cocoa liqueurs)
    • Stoli Doli
    • Amaretto
    • Limoncello
    • Homemade Liqueurs

    Frosting

    Coarse kosher salt is essential for margaritas. Make your own sweet cocktail froster with powdered drink mixes. Or try:

    • Coarse sugar or sparkling decorator’s sugar
    • Finely ground coffee beans mixed with sweetened cocoa powder
    • Finely chopped coconut
    • Celery salt for a Bloody Mary

    For most drinks, you can moisten the rim of the glass with a wedge of lime, lemon, or orange–or dip your finger in water and rub it around the edge. Dip the glass into a shallow dish filled with the garnish. Carefully pour in the cocktail without filling it to the brim.

    How to garnish a cocktail

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    More Cocktail 101

    In Cocktail Land, there are two basic types of garnish: there’s the functional garnish, and then there’s the decorative garnish. The functional garnish adds flavor to a cocktail—a lemon twist or a flamed orange peel, for example.

    The decorative garnish is more for show. Sure, it might add a small amount of flavor, but that’s not its reason to be there. Mainly, it provides visual appeal and a bit of fun.

    Think of all the stuff some joints add to a Bloody Mary. Celery, olives, waffles, shrimp, pickled eggs, beef jerky, spare ribs. (Some places make even a simple cocktail order an ordeal for vegetarians.) How much of that actually enhances the flavor of the drink? Maybe the briny stuff, if you’re lucky. No, those bits are there for decoration and festivity (and maybe an attempt to one-up the restaurant next door).

    But you don’t need to clear out your fridge just to garnish a cocktail. A few simple elements can add some visual pop and maybe a hint of aroma and flavor. Let’s look at some good options.

    Herbs

    How to garnish a cocktail

    Herbs are a great for classing up a cocktail, especially when carefully chosen. Pick herbs that enhance the aromas and flavors in the cocktail. A great example is a lavender garnish for a martini. Many gins already contain lavender in their mix of botanicals, and even those that don’t usually pair well with that flavor.

    Some herbs seem to have been invented to pair with spirits: lemon balm and verbena both pair well with rum, for example. Thyme and cilantro match up nicely to tequila. Rosemary and the aforementioned lavender are great playmates with gin.

    But don’t limit yourself to thinking about the flavors of the base spirit. Think about the background flavors, too. Herbs that carry an anise flavor, for example, pair well with whiskey. Why? Well, think about pastis and absinthe, either of which can be used in the New Orleans classic, the Sazerac. They both carry notes of anise, which marry well with the rye base. Herbs such as anise hyssop and tarragon can pair beautifully with whiskey, if used judiciously.

    Edible Flowers

    Edible flowers, blossoms, and buds also make great cocktail garnishes. Many bartenders already use flower flavors in cocktails, in the form of ingredients such as elderflower liqueur, creme de violette, rose water, and orange flower water. Consider flowers that enhance or complement the flavors of the cocktail, or just choose something that brightens up the beverage.

    Be careful, though, to buy them from a reputable source, such as a farmers market vendor, rather than picking them on your own. Unless you’re a good forager, you might choose something toxic by mistake.

    Citrus Wheels

    How to garnish a cocktail

    A tall glass, a highball, a thin round of lime. Summer nights.

    Flags

    How to garnish a cocktail

    A little more complicated than a citrus wheel, a flag is a half-wheel of orange (or sometimes a wedge of pineapple) with a cherry speared to it. Flags are normally used to garnish sours and old-fashioneds, but as Chuck Taggart’s beautiful photo shows, they’re also perfect on Hurricanes.

    Have you experimented with cocktail garnishes lately?