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Ultimate Garnish Guide

When to use it and when to lose it

You’ll often hear cocktail aficionados talk about garnishing drinks, but isn’t it just a way to make them look pretty? Well, yes and no. A garnish doesn’t just give a cocktail visual flair, it also completes the flavour. Here’s a guide as to what you can use and when.

Citrus peel

The first reference to these garnishes is in the 1862 Bartender’s Guide, by Jerry Thomas. Most of the scent compounds of citrus fruit, the bits that give your lemons, limes and oranges that beautiful smell, are in the skin. Twisting a piece of skin over a drink or rubbing it on the glass rim releases those aromatic oils and because taste is actually 90 per cent smell, you get a good citrus hit on the nose, preparing your palate for the delight to come.


A slice of bitter lime best serves a drink with a sweet but not fruit-based mixer. It works well with soda, coke, sours, bitters and all-alcohol cocktails, such as caipirinha. 


Using a cherry preserved in liqueur dates back to the 1800s, although these days most maraschino cherries are made using more industrial methods. They add a hint of sweetness to traditional, spirit-heavy cocktails, but can also be replaced by a dash of sugar syrup. They work well with coconut flavours too.


Olives add a dose of salt to a drink, martinis in particular, that can help balance the flavour. Three olives are usually used and if you add some of the olive brine it becomes a dirty martini.


Also used for their salty taste, they do a slightly different job than an olive – so much so that if you use cocktail olives in a martini you actually turn the drink into a “Gibson”. Cocktail onions are crisp and piquant and usually preserved with other flavours like turmeric. They’re almost always used in dry gin and vermouth-based drinks and add a sweet but sharp note. Hemingway famously used plain, frozen onions to help cool his drink.


Of course you can muddle mint into a cocktail for a full hit. But if you want a simple way to make your drink look pretty and add a fresh flavour, take a sprig of mint and smack it lightly between your hands. This helps gently release the oils without crushing the sprig.



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