Thursday, November 8, 2018

:: art of garnish -- a philosophical approach ::

First published on the USBG National blog in December 2017; slightly adapted version here.

Developing a cocktail or adapting a classic for a menu or a standardized house recipe does not stop once the proportions have been set, the glass type selected, and the name decided, but with the decision of how to garnish the drink. There are many reasons to garnish a drink, some not to do so, and plenty of why to or not to go overboard doing so. This essay is not a step-by-step tutorial by any means, just some thoughts on the art as a whole.

A garnish can add several things to a drink including visual beauty and aroma to the imbibing experience. Moreover, it can provide a snack as well as allowing additional flavors to enter the drink over time such as with a fancy flavored ice cube, bitters dashed over the crushed ice, or a citrus twist or spice in a high-proof or warm drink. Sometimes the garnish is expected, like mint on a Julep, a cherry in a Manhattan, and a twist or olives in a Martini, and the guest might feel slighted in a very emotional way by its absence. In many of these cases, especially the Martini, the cocktail takes on an almost religious fervor as to the correct way it should be delivered.

Other times, the garnish is added to improve the guest’s perception of the drink. We currently live in the age of Instagram with our phone’s cameras telling stories that our audiences cannot taste but with their eyes. This happened even before the mobile internet-through-garnish envy. In one instance, a pair’s drink orders were the most ornate and the least garnished drinks on the menu, respectively. The look of jealousy teetering on anger from the latter one who received an ungarnished drink in a rocks glass to her friend who got the egg white drink with a fancy bitters-painted stencil (and perhaps to me as the bartender serving them) has been etched into my mind. And there are plenty of times that people want that Tiki drink or other fun libation given its presentation alone, whether it be the vessel, flames, or other aspect of garnish. Yes, Tiki is a genre where more is more to a point, and the baseline for acceptability has been shifted over, but the same concepts discussed below still apply.
Garnish allows for the breaking up of monotony especially with the upswing of bittered, brown, and stirred drinks. Their presence can differentiate drinks, which has been useful when a guest asks for another round and you can recall what the other bartender served them just by the garnish remaining in the glass. However, there is a joy of no (or low) frills drinking, especially at certain types of bars, with certain company, or after the second or third drink. Therefore, the house theme as to whether garnish will be baroque and lavish or conservative and restrained ought to be figured out. The tighter this spectrum, the less chance there is for garnish envy, and the easier it is to figure out the house style.

The range of garnish materials starts with the vessel, whether it is antique glassware or an unusual ceramic mug, and can continue down below to what the drink is placed upon. Indeed, fancy coasters, fabric napkins, or trays can add to the drink’s experience. Garnishes can not only break up the monotony, but can help to tell a story such as through a symbol or to provide an extra sensual thrill. A good example of a symbol was a lightning bolt-shaped lemon peel garnish floated on top of my David Bowie tribute drink called Life on Mars (it also appealed to Harry Potter fans though who connected in their own way), and the Tiki literature has many--including cherries and a pineapple cube on a pick--for the Three Dots & A Dash.
When deciding on the specified type of garnishes that go into a drink, there are some considerations, especially with menu items:

First, garnishes take extra time past the mixing of the drink, and a menu item ought to be served the same way on a slow Tuesday as on a busy Saturday night. Some of this effort can be front-loaded by making garnishes in advance, such as at the beginning of the shift or by figuring out more time-stable garnishes such as dried citrus wheels; do consider that greatly adding to the beginning of the shift, along with the rest of the checklist, can make opening more of a rush and a chore.

Second, garnishes need to take into consideration the range of talent of the bar staff such that a menu item will be garnished the same way regardless of who is making it. One person’s knife skills often do not sum up the abilities of the rest of the staff or their desire for perfection. The use of tools such as shape cutters, pinking shears, and the like can alleviate some of these time, effort, and talent concerns though.

Bespoked off-menu drinks allow for more time-consuming garnishes, since they are either a one-off order or limited to a short window of time (especially when ordered by neighbors possessing drink envy or curiosity). Cocktail specials such as drink of the day can allow for extravagance on slower nights and limit concerns over whether the whole staff can enact the garnish. One issue with these drinks, and especially ones posted mostly for Instagram, is the understanding that they might bring in guests who expect the same treatment; when they receive a plain cocktail glass with a day-old lime wedge and not the crazed Instagram number, their expectations might have been set too high and not aligned to the average drink provided at the bar. Social media to some extent ought to match the reality of the guest experience.

When thinking about garnishes, make sure that all of it is edible such as by not using toxic flowers, or at least clearly not edible such as by the use of plastic items. If it is in or on a glass and not clearly plastic or metal, assume that people will try to eat it at some point. The concept of a garnish as a snack is well engrained with the same cherries being used on sundaes in our childhood as in cocktails in our adulthood save, of course, for the more recent and higher end places that use Marasca or brandied cherries. Safety ought to be considered with fire or sharp pokey objects that can jab the drinker in the face or eye. This spatial issue has more than just safety with dangerous garnishes but overall comfort with more benign ones as well. Does the garnish generate steric hindrance such that it gets in the way of enjoying the drink? Might the garnish bump the drinker in the nose or does the guest have to drink around an image printed on a rice paper disk floating on half the surface of the drink? Does the garnish get in the way of holding the drink, such as a wide-sugared rim on a rocks glass? Many of these issues do not impinge on the welfare of the guest but on the ease and comfort of quaffing the drink. Sometimes the imbiber will signal their lack of amusement by taking off that time-intensive garnish immediately or within the first few sips, but other times it will be more subtle.

In the end, a garnish can add a lot to a drink’s beauty, but it can also get in the way of its enjoyment. The trend towards baroque garnishing to attract social media attention comes at the cost of time and consistency, especially if not every bartender can provide that experience, or if those drinks are not available to most guests. The style of garnish ought to match the expectations of the guests, and not every drinker really wants toys or a salad floating in or hanging off their glass, or to wait an extra amount of time as their drink (and all the drink orders before theirs) gets garnished. Find the style that is right for the bar, proper for each drink, and perfect for the guest at that moment across the bar. An icebreaker for a first date has a different range of appropriateness than cocktails served over a business meeting (or a last date) after all. In many instances, drinking is meant to be fun, but in others, it is more somber and conservative; often there are circumstances where both ends of that mood spectrum are occurring simultaneously at the same establishment. Bartending is all about acting on instinct and anticipation as to what would make the guest’s experience better, and so too should the garnish match the moment.

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