The first ever garnish was, apparently, the tail feathers of a rooster. The story goes that US soldiers, fighting in the Revolutionary War in the late 1700s and perhaps feeling a little exuberant from toasting a good day on the battlefield, stole a rooster and put its feathers in their drinks.
Today, it’s unlikely you’ll find your drink garnished with freshly plucked feathers. But there’s as good a chance you’ll find a burger, fries or something equally insane on top of your Bloody Mary as you’ll find a celery stick or olive.
“I had a whole pickled octopus in a drink once,” says Tom Egerton, World Class National Finalist and bar manager at Eau de Vie in Sydney. “The drink was a riff on an Old Fashioned, made with squid ink, saline and gin. The idea was noble, but the execution was not.”
So what’s the deal with edible garnish? Is it meant to enhance the flavours in the drink, or is it more about aesthetics and fun?
“It’s both,” says Piotr Kuzmicki, World Class National Finalist and assistant bar manager at Melbourne’s Lui Bar. “Think about the pineapple wedge on a Pina Colada. There are already pineapple flavours in the drink, so eating the pineapple garnish will enhance those flavours. But it also makes it look exotic and beautiful.”
“Garnish should help to sell the story of a drink, and the whole feeling behind it,” Egerton adds. “It should inform and extend the narrative of the cocktail.” He lists examples from Eau de Vie, such as The Aviator, garnished with a cloud of blue fairy floss and topped with a tiny paper plane; and the Popcorn Flip, which comes with a side garnish of caramelised salted popcorn.
It’s true that garnish can go too far. “I ordered a drink once that was presented in a Chinese noodle takeaway box, and there was a layer of fake noodles on top that I had to fight through,” says Egerton. “The narrative was there, but it was overpowering. It became more about the garnish and less about the drink.”
Kuzmicki prefers classic garnishes – olives, cocktail onions and twists of citrus. “Call me outdated,” he says, “but because we eat and drink with our eyes first, my favourite garnish is edible flowers. It’s an exotic, delicate presentation.
“It depends on the drink, but for me, less is always more. You should focus on the drink – not what’s on the side,” he adds.
If you’re making cocktails at home, feel free to be as subtle or as ostentatious with your garnish as you like. But remember, “The point of garnish – when it’s edible – is to add to the overall presentation of the drink,” says Egerton.
This article is presented in partnership with World Class.