Years ago, I was reciting a recipe from memory to a female relative. I finished listing the ingredients and instructions and concluded, "Garnish and serve!" To which she replied, "Are you gay?!"
The cocktail garnish may be a bright piece of fruit, or a briny olive or sometimes something much more fancy. What is the history behind their use and what do they say about the drinker?
A cocktail garnish is an ornamental item that adds appeal to a cocktail. In case of fruit wedges, slices, or twists, the garnish adds a bit of juice or citrus oil to the drink. Likewise, an olive or onion in a Martinilends a whisper of savory flavor to those drinks. And of course, there's the bright red cherries common to drinks such as the Manhattan. These add sweetness and color to an otherwise drab-looking brown drink. Other common edible garnishes include sprigs of mint or other herbs and the smorgasbord of salty or pickled items (often added to a Bloody Mary.) Enjoy our Make-Your-Own Bloody Mary Bar today and tomorrow, 12PM - 5PM.
Not all garnishes, of course, are food items. Umbrellas, plastic animals, fancy straws, and plastic swords are among the incredible inedibles that serve as garnishes. And in fact, one tale of the origin of the word cocktail comes from such a garnish: the story goes that during the Revolutionary War, folks would garnish mixed drinks with feathers from the tail of a rooster, or a cock's tail. (Incidentally, while this story is colorful, it's almost certainly apocryphal, so if you want to tell it to your friends, just know it's probably bullshit.)
One of the easiest, most common garnishes for cocktails is the twist. No matter what type of rind you use (lemon, lime, grapefruit, etc.) the basic idea remains the same. A twist is a tool for expressing citrus oil into a drink. Squeeze the peel over the surface of the cocktail, rub the colored side (not the white pith) around the rim of the glass, and either drop the peel into the glass or discard.
Drinkers who drink drinks with twists are SEXY and ADVENTUROUS.
Olives & Onions
Olives and onions are classic bar staples used to add a savory quality to a drink. The history of these garnishes is, again, hard to pin down. Don't laugh at the booze historians, though, please. I'm sure you've forgotten things that happened while you were drinking, and what else is cocktail history but a record of things that happened in bars?
Drinkers who drink drinks with olives and/or onions are MYSTERIOUS and KINKY.
The use of cherries in cocktails dates to the 1800s. Originally, the maraschino cherry wasn't the neon red thing you see in jars in the grocery store. Maraschino cherries, initially, were simply marasca cherries from Croatia, preserved whole in maraschino liqueur. But marasca cherries from Croatia needed to be imported from, well, Croatia, and this was expensive, so manufacturers started making them here, swapping in native cherries and liqueurs other than maraschino. By the time of Prohibition, the liqueurs were left out entirely, and the cherries were chemically dyed and preserved. Artisanal cherries are available from several producers (the deep red Luxardo ones are delicious).
Drinkers who drink drinks with cherries are PLAYFUL and SUBMISSIVE.
Finally, a Word of Advice
When you're at home, you can do what you want to with your own garnishes. If you get crazy one night and just eat every last cherry out of your fridge, that's your prerogative. But please, please, please, when you're out at a bar, don't ever pick garnishes out of the bartender's supplies. Seriously.