Have you ever ordered a cocktail that comes with a whole meal cantilevered from the glass? Or aflame? Served in a coconut atop a lagoon? The garnish is (by definition) decoration or an adornment. However, garnishes also add depth of flavor and often tell a story as well. Garnish trends, much like food trends are ever-changing. In this social media-soaked environment the garnish provides the talking point and the camera-readiness that a simple cocktail may lack.

There are two main camps in the modern bar’s garnish realm, the over the top variant, or a stripped down, artistic compliment. Whichever end of the spectrum, garnishes are exciting and bold adding another elemental look, feel and flavor that foreshadows the experience inside the glass, (or coconut), depending on context. This concept has come a long way from a canned olive with a plastic pick.

With that said, the hardware used with garnish has changed too. Ditched are plastic sticks and straws, the #nostrawplease campaign against plastic straw waste is working to eradicate those, so they’ve been replaced by vintage metal picks, mini wood clothespins, and paper, metal or glass straws. Even kitchen “waste” has its place, with bartenders utilizing stems and leaves that may normally be refuse turned into “green” zero-waste garnish. In fact, cocktail guru and bar owner Trevor Frye banned garnishes entirely from his newest establishment Five to One, opting instead for his house distilled aromatics filled atomizers. He maintains that “We developed a program that cuts down dramatically on waste in the bar industry while providing consistent flavors to our guests.”

Citrus has been used as compliment alcohol basically since the beginning of time. Specifically, it pre-dates the 1862 Bartender’s Guide by Jerry Thomas, which described that The oil and scent of citrus is stored in the peel adding depth of flavor, but including the pith can make a drink bitter.” On the same tip, computer-aided food and flavor pairings are at our fingertips… just plug in a base flavor (like gin), into an online app (like Foodpairing®) and it will provide complementary flavors based on scientific and olfactory properties.

For the WOW factor, going bold is as simple as serving a cocktail injected into an ice orb, served with a hammer and sickle to break it open. Or a smoky dram served under a cloche to contain the smoke… flambé or the opposite, a presentation with dry ice. The shock and creativity are both enticing and conversational, and when the taste follows suit, it’s magical. The counter to this is the spirit forward, perfectly stirred (using the back of the spoon, for the ideal swirl) in a cocktail mixer and deposited into a chilled vessel. Or, hand-cut clear ice blocks that melt so slow, the cocktail retains all integrity. 

“Twists are so passé,” according to Liza B. Zimmerman in an article she penned for Liquor.com. The remedy for a passé twist can be elevated simply with a creative cut, twirl or chiffonade. Added to ice, or punctuated thrice, fresh fruit, citrus peels and savory herbs add depth. Edible flowers add style but often lack in substance. Yes, orchids are edible, but they may impart a grassy, bitter taste like endive, which may or may not be the intended flavor profile. Preferred are herbaceous accompaniments like mint, rosemary, thyme, basil and sage.  

Salty and sugary accented rims are festive and can impart both color and flavor to the composed libation. When used in moderation they create an exciting layer that the imbiber controls and can experiment with, enhancing a kind of collaboration. On the premise that life imitates art, then the use of aromatic bitters, and food coloring swirled with a toothpick indeed imitates popular Cappuccino art. A bitters drip on a froth-topped drink adds visual interest and infuses flavor. Bitters know no bounds. Salty, sweet, sour, bitter, savory and umami the little drops are like a bartenders salt and pepper, imparting both depth and character.

Trends aside, a good cocktail like a good meal must taste as good as it looks and vise versa, so what’s in the glass should never be overshadowed by what’s on the glass.