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Setting the tone: bar chefs highlight the role that garnishes can play in successful bar programs.

Dressing up a drink has come a long way from the standard array of garnish options that used to exist in a bartender's mise en place. Mix together two of the top 20 restaurant trends in the National Restaurant Association's 2009 Chef Survey--culinary cocktails and locally grown produce--and the result is a new breed of garnish.

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"My garnishing theory is no different than that of a classically trained European chef," confirms Adam Seger, mixologist at Latin-influenced Nacional 27 in Chicago. Seger works closely with the kitchen not only to source products, but also to add that chef's touch to each of his cocktails; garnishes that have been found on his drinks include fresh strawberries, sugarcane, candied ginger, basil on the twig and the combo of homegrown mint and fresh blueberries.

A finishing touch--such as three blueberries skewered atop a drink--can increase the value of the entire cocktail program with relative ease, giving a seasonal flair even when the drink is not based on seasonal produce. Blackberries, which can be quick frozen and added to a glass of fizz, or a few fall cranberries set to float in a spicy drink, are easy, festive touches, says Bridget Albert, master mixologist for Southern Wine & Spirits of Illinois. Her new book, Market-Fresh Mixology: Cocktails for Every Season (Agate Surrey 2008), champions the fresh approach with simple summery garnishes such as a wedge of watermelon, a cherry tomato or a husked gooseberry. She also advocates uncomplicated year-round solutions such as a fresh grating of autumn spice over an autumn pumpkin cocktail, for instance, or a beet chip afloat in a wintry root concoction.

At La Duni Latin Cafe in Dallas, the house Bloody Mary, $9.75, is made with roasted Texas tomatoes and chilis, then finished with a house-mixed celery salt rim, fresh jicama sticks and often a market-fresh treat such as a local radish. Local honey, one of the hottest cocktail ingredients, has year-round application in drinks, but inventive cocktailians also are adding pieces of the comb as a garnish. Likewise, dried, local maple can be an attractive and tasty rimming option.

To help with the local garnishes, Seger has set up what he calls his El HerBARio at Nacional 27, a series of planters outside and inside the bar where he grows mint, basil, thyme and herbs that he clips for his drinks. Bars and restaurants that don't have such elaborate programs still can run with the idea in a more limited form, adding a few potted herbs to help with fresh garnishes year-round.

Cocktail consultant David Commer recognizes that locavores aren't necessarily the target market in his clients' establishments, but he notes that the freshness factor is something that has trickled down. "Garnishes may be the easiest element a chain can use to turn a cocktail from ordinary to extraordinary," he says. He also admits it is not that easy for a large chain to change a major bar ingredient such as sour mix, but an easy to substitute item like fresh lime is doable. T.G.I. Friday's found a major hit earlier in the decade when it started serving its Ultimate Margarita both with fresh lime and orange slices, thus allowing guests to either tart up or sweeten their cocktails.

TAKING THE RIGHT APPROACH

The classic cocktail renaissance has been unmistakable. While faithful enhancements such as alternative olive stuffings for Martinis and house-infused cherries for Manhattans stay true to the traditional adornments, bar chefs diverging from the classics generally agree that the key to successful garnishing is to either replicate a flavor or ingredient or to balance a taste, aroma or body with complimentary or contrasting flavors. While sweet and salty tempers tart, spice or heat, bitter or spicy additions can cut sweetness. Over-the-top cocktails don't really require fantastic garnishes, while those that are more straightforward can benefit from a fanciful touch. "I want the garnish to be beautiful and integrated without being overdone or fussy," notes Seger.

In his Ham and Cheese cocktail, $14, the shaken Iberico ham-infused Hennessey VS Cognac and honey-spice syrup is served up with a Manchego cheese garnish that nearly covers the glass. This cocktail both harmonizes classic Spanish ingredients and balances sweet, savory and spicy elements.

La Duni's "Taste Love"-themed signature cocktail, Gin Chupito, $9.75, includes flamed chile de arbol syrup with fresh pressed Texas grapefruit juice and a striking, syrup-infused chile de arbol pepper as garnish. Their traditional Peruvian Pisco Sour, on the other hand, made with a perfectly foamy egg white cap, requires nothing more than a dash of bitters to perfect it.

Though citrus wedges, wheels and twists are standard cocktail garnishes, getting the real value out of citrus is more difficult than just lobbing off a slice. "Almost any drink will benefit from a fresh squeeze of citrus," advises Commer. It may sound elemental, he says, but getting a bar to squeeze the fruit before plopping it into the cocktail is an often overlooked step that makes a slice an actual working garnish.

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The importance of the aromatic qualities of citrus is why many pros cut, channel or zest fruits to release the essential oils, often right over the glass. Seger suggests that using fresh-squeezed citrus juice is the single most critical change a larger volume operation can make to improve its cocktail program. "Use lime wheels as the garnish training wheels," he says. Citrus spirals, which range from serpentine swirls that pop up and peak over the edge of a cocktail to interwoven double fruits, make this type of garnish swankier than a simple strip.

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Garnishes lately have been reaching new highs and lows. Francesco Lafranconi of Southern Wine & Spirits of Nevada once topped a drink with a piece of foie gras skewered on a sugar stick, and cupcakes have been known to turn up on the edge of drinks. At Tales of the Cocktail, the annual drinks gathering in New Orleans, Seattle-based bartender Jamie Boudreau of Tini Bigs led a panel called "Introduction to Molecular Mixology" that showcased garnish techniques such as foams, dusts and chips. Boudreau's deconstructed Mai Tai 3000 contained a series of garnishes such as a frozen-dried lime chip, an agar solidified orange-rum cube and an orgeat foam and orange zest. Along with drunken jellied tomatoes, the session also featured technical garnishes such as high-proof gummy bears and cotton candy threads.

Far from such complicated renditions, beverage directors at large multi-unit operations sometimes claim that they can manage little more than the standard garnish. Solutions for adding more flavor and flair often still are available, however. Commer suggests that colored and flavored glass rims easily can dress up drinks.

A prep staff or even a spice company also can make a mix to rim a drink from specialty salts, sugars and spices. On that theme, newly commercialized pre-filled spice grinders offer an opportunity for a simple yet effective upgrade that only requires a twist of the wrist. Almonds, jalapeno peppers or blue cheese can stand in for the pimento in olives and bring character to a cocktail. Pre-made candies and confections also are big opportunities. Commer picked up a favorite from fellow bar consultant Kathy Casey's signature Lemon Meringue Pie; on the drink floats a cloud-like, sweet and crispy meringue--one that easily could be mass-produced for a chain account.

The right garnish often can serve as the link between a cocktail and the cuisine. A shiso leaf in a sake drink or a piece of lychee, pineapple or kiwi fruit in a tropical cocktail can make the connection. Adding dry preserves such as candied ginger or citrus peel slices also can add color, texture and flavor with little or no effort. Similarly, herbaceous or floral-infused sugars and salts can provide the year-round farm flavor in the form of a rim.

Although original garnishes may seem challenging to execute well, especially for large chains, they generally are well worth the time and money investment. A little ingenuity and staff training can make all the difference in the bottom line for operators striving to present polished drinks that can be merchandised at more lucrative price points.

Robin Schempp is founder and president of Right Stuff Enterprises, where she consults on culinary concepts, products, menus and business development.
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Author:Schempp, Robin
Publication:Cheers
Date:May 1, 2009
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