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Glam garnishes: it's time to start thinking outside the traditional garnish tray to enhance flavor and add flair to today's cocktails.

The growing ranks of premium products, skilled bartenders and savvy clientele mean that today's cocktails are more sophisticated and creative than ever. That final flourish of a garnish added to the glass should reflect that trend as well.

The best in cocktail garnishes provide three dimensions: visual, aromatic and flavor. So says Seattle-based mixologist and bar consultant Ryan Magarian. "It's no different than any other ingredient of the cocktail," he explains. "The garnish should be treated as a key component, not an afterthought."

Citrus has long been, and will always be, a strong foundation for cocktail garnish. Colorful, flavorful and versatile, limes, lemons, oranges and others add that perfect combination of flavor, aroma and visual appeal to cocktails. Traditionally, citrus has taken the form of twists, spirals, slices and wedges, but that doesn't mean there aren't some new ways to add panache to that citrus garnish.

Audrey Saunders, whose Pegu Club in New York City is one of the hottest new cocktail destinations in the country, adds simple finesse to the lime wedge garnish on the signature Pegu Cocktail. Before cutting the fruit, she first draws a zester across the whole lime, creating a random carved pattern, proving that a traditional garnish need not be mundane.

Other fruits are great fodder for cocktail garnishes as well. It wouldn't be the same little-trip-to-Hawaii-in-a-Highball if that Mai Tai didn't come with a slice of fresh pineapple garnish, but even the classic pineapple can use some updating. The foodservice sector of Dole Food Company has developed some beverage recipes for the trade that include some innovative garnishes. One is the Martini Wootini, blending raspberry liqueur, raspberry vodka, peach schnapps, pineapple juice and cranberry juice. The garnish is a few balls of fresh pineapple skewered with a cherry between them, perched on the edge of the glass.



One of the most maligned garnishes is the maraschino cherry. Fluorescent red and sickly-sweet, the modern day maraschino cherry is a mere shadow of its European predecessor. The original has its origins on the Dalmatian Coast (in what is now Croatia) and in northern Italy, going back more than a few centuries. Maraschino cherries get their name from a cherry native to that region, the marasca cherry, which is preserved in a locally produced cherry liqueur called maraschino.

Many bars still plop a run-of-the-mill maraschino in their Manhattans, even though they're using top-shelf ingredients in every other element of the cocktail. Saunders--for whom no cocktail detail is too small--uses Luxardo brand maraschino cherries imported from Italy, a product still made with the indigenous marasca cherry. Such an ingredient can be expensive or hard to find, so another flavorful alternative to regular jarred maraschino cherries is fresh or dried sweet cherries soaked in your house bourbon.

Floats are a simple way to vary the garnish on classic drinks. Rather than a slice of lemon hanging on the edge of a Lemon Drop, for example, a paper thin slice floating on top of the drink makes for a more striking visual presentation. And if you're thinking about a Pimm's Cup variation, consider a thin slice of cucumber for a floating garnish rather than the traditional spear. For her Autumn Sidecar, which includes a splash of Tuaca and Frangelico, Seattle-based cocktail consultant Kathy Casey floats a single toasted hazelnut on the drink for a simple yet classy garnish.

The line between the kitchen and the bar continues to blur in the modern world of cocktails. Some of it is in the less tangible "sensibilities" realm--as in sourcing top-quality ingredients and thinking seasonally. But some of that influence is in the uniqueness of the ingredients themselves. Take smoked paprika, for example. Also known as pimenton de la vera, this is one of the popular new ingredients chefs have been playing with in recent years.

Among Casey's clients is a new Seattle nightclub called Sugar, for whom she developed the Spanish Lemon Drop, which gets its Spanish flair from a dose of dry sherry. The real innovation, however, comes in the rim element--a blend of smoked paprika with superfine sugar.


There are countless possible variations in the rimming realm. Take color. For a Pomegranate Lemon Drop, Casey blends superfine sugar with a fine hot pink sugar (available through professional pastry suppliers) and, after rubbing the glass exterior with a piece of cut orange, rims the glass a full three-quarters of the way down.

Casey also makes herbal sugars for rimming. She packs fresh herbs, such as rosemary or mint, in a container of sugar for a couple of days, tossing occasionally, before processing them together. The rosemary sugar is used to rim the Tuscan Rosemary Lemon Drop at Seattle's popular Volterra restaurant.

Cured meats, like salami, are an ideal bar nibble to serve alongside cocktails. In one bar, the two meet on closer terms. For Seattle's Studio 410, Magarian developed the Anejo Manhattan, which features aged tequila, sweet vermouth, Licor 43 and a dash each of Angostura and orange bitters. The garnish is a thin slice of artisan mole salami folded around a tequila-soaked dried cherry, skewered to perch on the edge of the glass. The earthy cured richness of the salami echoes the depth of the tequila.


Going back to the basics, the quintessential Martini is a candidate for some garnish innovation, and it can be done without upsetting even the hard-core traditionalists out there. While the liquid elements--vodka or gin, a whisper of dry vermouth--may be sacred, the olive garnish allows for a touch of freedom. Pimento may be the ubiquitous olive-stuffer, but for a change of pace try olives stuffed with blue cheese, almonds, pickled garlic, even jalapeno.

Whether you're in the camp of cocktail purists who prefer subtle over showy or are more avant-garde in your approach to mixology, new creative touches abound for every kind of cocktail. An important part of the modern bar repertoire, cocktail garnishes deserve as much thought and care as the cocktail itself.


Some bars are taking the whole garnish thing to the extreme. Among them is Foxwoods Resort & Casino in Mashantucket, Conn. Foxwoods ups the ante on garnishes at Mezz, its new ultralounge opened in January, with five "Jewels of the Mezz" cocktails featuring jewels as garnishes.

At the low end, the Black Pearl cocktail costs a cool $300 a pop. A blend of Godiva Chocolate Liqueur, Baileys and Amaretto, the Black Pearl is garnished with black cultured freshwater pearls atop a sterling silver olive pick with 14 carat gold accents. Move up the cocktail list, and other libations feature pink tourmaline, diamonds, tsavorite and aquamarine jewel garnishes.


Topping the list is the Sapphire cocktail, which starts off familiarly enough: Bombay Sapphire, triple sec and blue Curacao, the rim frosted with blue-tinged sugar. The garnish here is a pair of earrings set in platinum featuring 0.8 carat worth of diamonds and 2.5 carats of blue sapphire perched on the sterling silver pick. The price: $3,000. Now that's an eye-catching garnish.

The house may take a hit when a casino guest wins big at the tables, but the casino payoff may come when the guests find their way to Mezz and discover a unique way to spend their winnings. Then again, at press time only one of the Sapphire cocktails had been sold.

Cynthia Nims is a Seattle-based writer who specializes in food, travel and spirits.
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Author:Nims, Cynthia
Date:Jun 1, 2006
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