Becoming one’s own bartender doesn’t have to be an elaborate or complicated process. Along with having a few of the necessary tools and ingredients, an easy way to boost cocktail-making confidence and add a creative edge is with garnishes.
Contemporary garnishes among mixologists and enthusiasts are decorative yet simple additions that can elevate, not over-complicate, drinks and other drinks-related at-home bartending projects. For those just dipping their toes into the home bartending game (we see you, two-ingredient cocktails), garnishes are a low-stakes investment with a quick and easy return.
“You eat with your eyes first, and this holds true with garnishes. They should be beautiful and something you want to enjoy,” says Laura Newman, Brooklyn-to-Birmingham transplant and owner of Queen’s Park in Birmingham, Ala. She adds, “But, [do] have a good argument for why it’s there.”
So, liven up those pantry staples and get into the garnish game with these approachable garnishes below — and be prepared to show them off.
Spruce it up with fresh herbs
Sprucing up at-home cocktails with herbs, such as rosemary or mint, is an easy way to elevate a drink’s aroma and appearance. One option is to take three berries of choice (raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries work well) and pierce them with a rosemary sprig. This makes for an elegant garnish in a Gin Fizz, Gimlet, or summer spritzer. Or, consider adding mint to cocktails such as the The Last Summer Fizz and Cadillac Fizz.
“Try to use flavor pairings instead of the more typical or obvious things,” recommends Justin Keys, owner at the Barley Tap and Tavern in Steamboat Springs, Colo. “Use an ingredient that would accentuate the flavor [as] if the cocktail were a meal. For example, a Margarita typically has a lime garnish, but there’s already a lot of lime juice in the cocktail, so it doesn’t add much.”
“What balances that sweet and sour?” […] [C]ilantro can completely change that cocktail.”
Grab a few Gummy Bears
Time for a tasty ode to childhood: Grab a toothpick or cocktail skewer and a few gummy bears. Take the toothpick and skewer four to five gummy bears. These can then grace the glass of a whimsical cocktail. Feel free to play with patterns — who doesn’t love a rainbow?
Salt (or sugar) the rim
An oft-overlooked technique is adding salt or sugar to the rim of a cocktail glass. The process is simple: Rub water, or lemon or lime juice (depending on the flavor profile of the cocktail) around the rim of the cocktail glass. Turn the glass upside-down and rotate it in a small plate of sugar or salt. Powdered possibilities are at your fingertips: Experiment with cinnamon sugar, bacon salt, or even cocoa (consider using chocolate liqueur to wet the glass for this riff).
Express your bitter side
Familiar with latte art? For similar froth, swap milk and espresso for egg white and bitters. Egg-white cocktails such as the Gin Sour, Breakfast Martini Sour, or Storybook Sour are waiting for your barista-esque brushstroke.
To add enviable flair to an egg-white cocktail, make the drink according to its directions, then wait for the foam to settle. Add a few drops of bitters (orange, lavender, or grapefruit, for example) on top. Then, drag the drops across the foamy top of the cocktail with a toothpick for custom decorative designs.
Of course, the pros recommend being mindful of the bitters you choose. “Additions need to complement the flavors in a drink,” Newman says. So, look for egg-white cocktail recipes that already incorporate bitters, and go from there.
Pull out the potato peeler
Cutting and carving citrus into various shapes is a popular garnish technique, but for those who are nervous around knives, a potato peeler provides the perfect alternate tool. Orange, lemon, and grapefruit are all great fruits to start with, but consider ingredients other than citrus, too.
Potato (or vegetable) peelers can also produce elegant ribbons of chocolate by running the peeler along the chocolate bar; and the result (with a steady hand) will be tiny little chocolate curls and shavings, perfect for Mudslides or an Espresso Tim Tam Martini.
Another household option? Scissors. “If you’re nervous around a knife, you can actually use a patterned scissor to put an edge on fruit,” Newman says. “That’s something even my mom can do at home.”
Play with flavors and have fun
While most professional bartenders agree garnishes should complement the flavors in a drink, when making drinks at home, it’s all about experimentation. After all, a crispy slice of bacon became a classic staple in the Bloody Mary. For all you know, that lollipop or cinnamon stick (great for warm drinks like a Rum Hot Toddy) might add the perfect charm.