Ask any girl and she will tell you that a cocktail garnish is the jewelry of the drink. Could you imagine a classic Martini served without an olive or a Manhattan without a cherry? It just would not be the same. Garnishes on cocktails were simple from the 1700s to the late 1990s, but when Martini bars popped up all over America between the late 1990s and the mid-2000s, they offered menus with 100+ flavored Martinis. Garnishes consisted of a lot of double-dipped rims of chocolate, caramel, honey, crushed candy, crumbled Oreos, flaked coconut, nuts, sprinkles, and more. This time period overlapped with the beginning of the craft cocktail movement, so the cocktail culture pendulum was swinging to both ends of the spectrum. You could compare it to the mid-1970s to the early 1980s music industry tension when there were two groups of music lovers: fans of disco and those of rock ’n’ roll.
Today, most of the frou-frou Martinis with store-bought mixers and cheap booze are gone, and there is always a new crazy garnish because it’s fun. Since 2010 the craft cocktail culture has taken their well-thought-out elegant garnishes to a whole new level.
Cocktail garnishes can be anything edible such as fruit, vegetables, herbs, spices, flora, candy, baked goods, dairy, and even meat products. The only limit when it comes to garnishes is your imagination. Yes, there are common bar garnishes, but most bartenders like to experiment with new garnishes. Generally, the garnish is placed on top of a cocktail, but it can also be placed on the rim. The garnish flavor should always complement the flavor of the cocktail.
Olives are classified as a fruit because they are formed from the ovary of the flower. This particular fruit has the possibility of being stuffed. Most come already stuffed with a red pimento pepper. From the late 1990s to the mid-2000s, Vodka Martinis with blue cheese–stuffed olives were all the rage. Today, you can make your own stuffed olives. Stuffing ideas include cheese of your choice, roasted garlic, Italian sausage, nuts, jalapeño, pickled onion, pepperoni, or anchovies.
Common Fruit Garnishes
Apples, cherries, bananas, blackberries, blueberries, coconut, cucumbers, grapes, grapefruit, lemons, limes, watermelon, olives, oranges, pineapples, raspberries, and strawberries.
Not So Common Fruit Garnishes
Apricots, avocados, boysenberries, cranberries, dates, dragon fruit, figs, raisins, guava, kiwi, kumquat, lychee, mango, melon, nectarine, blood oranges, tangerine, papaya, passion fruit, peaches, pears, plums, star fruit, and tomatoes.
Common Vegetable Garnishes
Celery, green onions, pearl onions, pickled beans, and pickled okra.
Not So Common Vegetable Garnishes
Beets, ginger, and rhubarb.
Common Herb Garnishes
Basil, chives, cilantro, dill, lavender, lemongrass, mint, rosemary, sage, and thyme.
Not So Common Herb Garnishes
Borage, caraway, catnip, fennel, garlic, parsley, oregano, and tarragon.
Spice garnishes can be mixed with salt or sugar and then put on the rim of the glass. They can also be sprinkled (or grated) on top of a cocktail that has a frothy head or on top of whipped cream. Some can be used in their whole forms such as cinnamon sticks and star anise.
Common Spice Garnishes
Black pepper, cayenne, celery salt, chili powder, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt, star anise, and vanilla beans.
Not So Common Spice Garnishes
Ancho chili, anise seed, bay leaf, cumin, caraway seed, crystallized ginger, saffron, and white pepper.
A Vanda orchid first garnished a cocktail in Hawaii, by bar legend Harry Yee, in 1957. Since around 2005, bartenders have been searching for beautiful, nontoxic, edible flora to use in their cocktails. All common fruits, vegetables, and herbs go through a flowering stage, and all of these are non toxic and safe to use. It’s more important to know what flora is toxic and not safe to use as a garnish in your cocktail. For example, during the holiday season, you may think that a sprig of mistletoe would be a perfect garnish for your holiday cocktail, but mistletoe is toxic. Always search the Internet before using any questionable flora as a garnish.
Nontoxic Flora Garnishes
Aloe vera, angelica, orchids, daisy, dandelion, chamomile, chrysanthemum, clover, eucalyptus, forget-me-nots, gardenia, hibiscus, impatiens, jasmine, lavender, lilac, magnolia, marigold, orchid, pansy, peony, primrose, rose, snapdragon, sunflower, tulip petals (not the bulb), violet, water lily, and zinnia.
Toxic Flora Garnishes
Angel’s trumpet, azalea, belladonna (also called deadly nightshade), bird of paradise, bluebell, buttercup, calla lily, daffodil, English ivy, foxglove, hyacinth, hydrangea, iris, lily of the valley, lucky bamboo, mistletoe, morning glory, rhubarb leaves, star of Bethlehem, sweet pea, tobacco, tomato leaves, and wisteria.
Candy and Baked Goods Garnishes
Garnishing with candy and baked goods (such as cookies) started in the late 1990s when
Before then, the sweetest cocktail garnish was a sugared rim. Because you have so many ingredients to choose from, this category of garnishes is totally up to your imagination. Here are some ideas: rock candy sticks, sugarcane sticks, chocolate-covered strawberries, Tootsie Pops, fortune cookies, a glazed doughnut set horizontally on the glass rim, gummy worms, licorice straws, marshmallows, Peeps, and placing a cookie horizontally on the rim and then poking a hole for a straw.
Rimmer Garnish Ideas
When rimming a glass at home, all you need is two plates. One plate will hold your dry garnish (salt, sugar, sprinkles, crushed cookies, etc.) and the other plate will hold the wet garnish that acts as a glue so the dry garnish can stick to the glass. Lemon or lime juice can be used for salts and sugars, but you will need something stickier to attach crushed cookies, sprinkles, etc. Some good choices include melted chocolate and syrups.
There are many Sugar and salt are staples in the rimming world. For sugar, you can use white, raw, brown, and powdered. If you want to color it, you just need some food coloring and plastic storage bags. When using salted rims on cocktails, you want to use a coarse kosher salt and not table salt. Sugar and salt can be combined with a myriad of spices and herbs to create a new flavor. Combinations might include cinnamon-sugar, cayenne-sugar, edible gold flake and sugar, dried cilantro and salt, cracked black pepper and salt, and dried basil and salt. As for crushing candy and cookies, double-bagging plastic storage bags and then banging the treats with a mallet until crushed is the best way.flavored and colored sugar and salts that you can purchase, but you can also make your own at home.
Other rimming garnishes to try are sprinkles, Pop Rocks, flaked coconut, Cajun spices, edible pearl dust, chocolate powders, shaved chocolate, and crushed nuts.
The most popular dairy cocktail garnish is whipped cream. You can make your own whipped cream by whipping cream and sugar, or in a pinch, you can pick up a can at your local grocery store. The most popular alcoholic drinks that use whipped cream are hot coffee, cider, and chocolate drinks. They also sell non-dairy whipped creams.
Bloody Mary Garnishes
Since the 1970s the Bloody Mary has been the winner for the most edible garnishes of any cocktail in the world. Vintage Bloody Mary ads from the 1930s through the 1960s show very little garnishing for the Bloody Mary: one celery stalk, one lemon, and a lemon and celery stalk. The olive makes an appearance in the 1960s.
Bloody Mary garnishing from the 1970s through the 1990s included salted rims, Cajun spice rims, pickles, pickled beans, green onions, cherry tomatoes, peel-and-eat shrimp, oyster on the half shell, and blue cheese–stuffed olives.
In the 2000s, the Bloody Mary Bloody Bar was born. Vodka companies approached popular restaurants and bars offering free signage, menus, infusion jars, and, of course, a discount on their vodka. The establishment would set up a table filled with containers with a variety of garnishes, hot sauces, and mixes for guests to choose from. With time and for competition’s sake, the garnish choices got more insane—well, insane for that time. Choices included beef jerky, hard bacon strips, Slim Jims, pizza-themed garnishes with rims of Parmesan cheese and pepper flakes, spaghetti-themed garnishes with meatballs, olive brine to make it dirty, an assortment of cheese cubes, and so much more.
By 2012, the BM bars began to fade and a new, exaggerated Bloody Mary craze was born. Dave Sobelman from Sobelman’s Pub & Grill in Milwaukee is given credit for the ultimate, most excessive, over-the-top Bloody Mary to date. He calls it a Chicken Fried Bloody Mary and it’s garnished with a whole fried chicken.
Today, many bars are offering personalized Bloody Mary check-off menus. You are given a printed card and pen and you simply check off the items—choices such as vodka, rimming, and garnishes—you want for your Bloody Mary. Basically, they are saving the time and trouble of setting up a table and keeping a small Bloody Mary bar behind the bar.
Bloody Mary Fruit Garnishes
Cucumbers, lemons, limes, olives, and pineapple.
Bloody Mary Vegetable Garnishes
Asparagus, avocado, brussels sprouts, carrots, celery, baby corn, cocktail onions, fried onion rings, green onions, jalapeño poppers, mushrooms, peppers (all types), pickles (all types), pickled beans, pickled okra, radishes, and tomatoes (all types).
Bloody Mary Animal-Based Garnishes
Bacon, beef jerky, calamari, cheese (all kinds), cheeseburgers, cheesecake, chicken (all kinds; parts and whole), clams, cocktail sausages, crab, crawfish, fish (all kinds), ham, hot dogs, lobster, mac & cheese, meatballs, mussels, oysters, pepperoni, pizza (whole and sliced), ribs, salami, sandwiches (all kinds), shrimp, Slim Jim, and steak.
Cocktail Decorations and Tools
Probably the most iconic nonedible cocktail decoration is the paper parasol (also called the cocktail umbrella).
Cocktail decorations and tools mainly consist of pics (also called picks) and straws. Pics help hold an edible garnish near the top of your drink so it doesn’t sink to the bottom, and straws help you sip the cocktail—if you choose not to drink from the rim—and also stir it up more if you desire.
Pics can come in sizes in length from three inches to twelve inches and they can be made of bamboo, wood, plastic, and metal. There are hundreds of pic designs in the world plus companies that specialize in creating logo picks.
Straws can come in sizes in length from five-and-a-half inches to eighteen inches. Most are made of plastic, but they can also be made of paper, bamboo, metal, and glass. Some can bend and some are fat.
Other popular nonedible decorations are little plastic animals and creatures that sit on the rim of your glass. These shapes include monkeys, mermaids, elephants, and giraffes. Lots of bars will have special decorations for signature drinks. For example, Tropical Isle in New Orleans has a drink called the Shark Attack that comes with a blue hollow plastic shark. The bartender pours grenadine (blood) inside the shark and then nose-dives it into your drink. Other decorations you may run across include a bamboo back scratcher, Krazy Straws, rim-hanging shot glasses, hot test tubes filled with booze and pushed into your drink, and indoor drink sparklers.
Unusual Cocktail Garnishes
Every day bartenders come up with new techniques for creating garnishes. International bartender competitions tend to have amazing, intricate, food-styled garnishes that replicate that of a five-star chef. Others are clever, experimental, or just plain over-the-top. Here are several examples to give you inspiration:
Eau de Vie—a craft bar in Sydney, Australia offers beautiful presentations for all their cocktails. One fun presentation is called “Lady’s Leg,” which is prepared in a vintage late-1930s cocktail shaker in the shape of a lady’s leg complete with a high-heeled silver shoe. The cocktail uses a house-made cranberry sorbet instead of cranberry juice, giving the drink a creamy and soft texture. It is served in sexy vintage champagne coupes. View their stunning gallery of cocktails at eaudevie.com.au/sydney.
The Cocktail Professor team from Amsterdam has some of the best drink presentations and garnishes in the world (view their website, Facebook, and Instagram). Examples include an edible paper plane on a twisted classic Aviation Cocktail; a twisted Old-Fashioned garnished with an edible wax seal; a cocktail served in a glass pipe that you can suck to drink and blow to blow bubbles; a cocktail with a small bag of pineapple caviar clipped on the rim with a mini clothespin; a cocktail with a swipe of white chocolate then torched coconut on the side of the glass as opposed to the rim; and several smoking cocktails.
At the Chicago tiki bar Three Dots and a Dash, the Treasure Chest (for eight) is a rummy drink served in and garnished with orchids, skulls, and other items one might see in a treasure chest.
The Black Ant in New York City serves a cocktail that is rimmed with salt and crushed black ants. The Mexican black ants are supposed to be an aphrodisiac. Oh, they also say that it pairs well with an order of Tlayuda con Chapulines, which are crunchy tortillas with sautéed grasshoppers.
Victor Tangos in Dallas serves a cocktail made with house-made oyster mushroom syrup and garnished with a candied shiitake mushroom.
Cassia in Santa Monica offers a cocktail that is garnished with a spoon of sea urchin roe.
In the London bar Nightjar, garnishes include a matcha green-tea cookie, an origami bird sprayed with perfume, and a dried starfish.
In New York City, Shigefumi Kabashima created a cocktail that sits in an ice-filled, skull-shaped glass and garnished with a burning stick of sacred palo santo.
Canadian Frankie Solarik is a bar chef who is blowing minds with his garnish techniques. He says: “It’s the idea of presenting a drink as a dish. I strive to compose cocktails with the same visual, visceral, and taste appeal, and complexity that is possible within a dish. The general goal for me artistically is to challenge the conventional thought as to what’s possible within the medium of a glass.” View his gallery on his website, and photos on Facebook, to grasp the beauty and inventiveness of his mind.
Lounge Bohemia in London created the Bubble Bath Martini. It’s garnished with rose foam and a baby rubber ducky.