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How to Garnish Cocktails

This photo demonstrates the importance of garnishes, which are far more than just decorations. (© collage/123RF photo)

Garnishes can add color, texture, scent, flavor, drama and fun to cocktails.

This guide shows you how to garnish with citrus twists, slices and wedges. It also covers olives, onions, cherries, mint, cucumber, celery, fruit sticks, plus colorful flags and hats.

More than Cocktail Decorations

Garnish adds color, drama, texture, scent and flavor. They can also be a lot of fun. It’s one area where cocktail enthusiasts, even the beginners, can stray from the recipe and express their creativity.

If you live in a large urban center with a decent grocer, fruit like strawberries, blackberries, blueberries and raspberries are available all year long. Some specialty grocery stores also have starfruit, watermelon, kiwi, mango and dragonfruit all year long too. That means you can have a lot of fun garnishing and experimenting with some highly exotic ingredients.

The trick is to garnish like a fashion accessory. You want to choose something that enhances what’s already present in the cocktail. So think about the base liquor and other ingredients. How elegant is it and where does it sit on the savory to sweet scale. Now garnish with something that matches the message of the cocktail and enhances its flavor.

It really depends on your style and who you’re trying to impress. Since you’re entertaining, why not go with the best ingredients you can get. That way, your parties will be remembered and your drinks will always make a great impression.

A take away from culinary school, is that gourmet things always come in odd numbers. So when you garnish with something, say olives, it should always be either one or three olives, never two.

The size of the olive matters too. In cheap places you get tiny olives with pimento filling. In fancy hotels you get a large queen size olive without the stuffing. Which message do you want to send?

Keeping it All Together

Something to consider for entertaining is a garnish tray, often found being sold as a condiment tray. If you’re just making one or two cocktails you won’t need it, but if you’re doing dozens cocktails for guests, it can be a real time saver.

A good garnish tray has multiple compartments that are removable, so you can wash and replace the content of one compartment without disturbing the others. It should also have a lid to keep out spills and prevent fruit flies.

The stainless steel garnish trays look smart and they don’t rust from the citrus acid and salty juices. They also allow quick cooling if you place them on ice. Top of the line units, have a space for ice under the garnish compartments, so the ice keeps the garnish cool, all in one self contained unit.

Citrus Fruit

Lime is the most used garnish, followed by lemon and orange. They get cut into cartwheels, wedges, strips, slices and twists.

Since the fruit will be used as garnish, pick the best looking ones. Look for bright, consistent colors, without any noticeable blemishes. (For juicing always select the heaviest fruit with the smallest pores. Appearance doesn’t matter.)

Wash the outside of the fruit with a mild dish soap, or produce detergent and rinse it well with warm water. This will remove any chemical residue, ripening agents, wax and protective oils the farming and shipping industries put on it.

It’s always best to cut citrus garnish on demand, because you don’t want it to dry out or turn bitter, which happens almost immediately. So if you’re going to be busy, prepare all your other garnishes, like olives, onions, maraschino cherries, celery, etc, in advance. That will give you time to cut citrus on demand.

If you absolutely must cut some citrus in advance, prepare the garnishes from the rinds only. This includes twists, zests and strips. Garnishes that cut into the meat of the fruit, like cartwheels, slices and wedges should be done to order.

Orange, Lemon & Lime Cartwheels

Cut the end off the fruit. Cut circular slices about 1/4 inch (6 mm) thick. Split the cartwheel almost to the center, so they can sit on the edge of the glass. This is purely for scent and decoration, as little oil from the fruit gets into the drink.

Lemon or Lime Slices

An alternative to the usual cartwheel is the thin slice. It’s cut circular like the cartwheel, but it’s about 1/8 inch (3 mm) thick. This is intended to float on the surface of the cocktail, instead of being perched on the edge of the glass.

Lemon or Lime Wedge

Leave the ends on the fruit. Cut the whole fruit into two equal halves. Cut each half into four equal sized wedges.

Usually these are given a slight squeeze before being dropped into the top of a finished cocktail. They are also used for muddling in some drinks.

Some recipes call for the wedge as a garnish only and not dropped in. It this case, make a slit about half way into the pulp, so it can balance on the edge of the glass.

Lemon Twist or Zest

This is a piece of citrus fruit rind that’s about an inch or two (3–5 cm) long, by a quarter inch (6 mm) wide. They are best cut to order but can be cut in advance.

If you need a lot of twists in a hurry, first cut the ends off the fruit. Insert an ice pick into the middle of the white pith, and push it half way down the fruit. Rotate the pick towards you to separate rind from pulp. Then do the other side.

Use knife to form a slit and the whole interior pulp will fall away. Now cut the skin into 1/4 inch (6 mm) widths.

Some bartenders prefer to use discs cut from the side of the fruit, instead of the traditional twist. If this is something you’d like to try, cut a three quarter to one inch (2–3 cm) disc out of the side of the fruit, being careful not to get too much of the bitter white pith.

After the twist or disc is cut, you are ready to garnish the drink. Have the rind facing the drink and the white facing you. Now twist the rind into the drink, so its oil squirts into the drink. Then wipe the lip of the glass with the skin of the rind and drop it into the cocktail. The result is a nice citrus aroma that’s noticeable with every sip.

Orange or Lemon Peel Strips

This is a long strip of citrus rind. If you have good knife skills you can create them with a paring knife. Most bartenders use a channel knife with a V shaped blade, to achieve a nice, even and elegant, looking cut. Vegetable peelers and zesters just won’t cut it.

(An exception to the “make it pretty” rule is the thick and ugly rind, for a nearly extinct drink called a Horse’s Neck. It actually looks better when done with a knife. Just peel the lemon as you would an apple and use the entire rind.)

Once you have your long three to five inch (8–12 cm) strip of rind its time to garnish the drink. Place half the rind into the drink and balance the remainder on the edge of the glass, so half of it sticks out of the drink. A second option is to rub the lip of the glass and drop the whole thing in as if it was a twist.

Flamed Peel

Flaming a citrus peel can add a slight caramel note to a cocktail, but it’s more for dramatic effect than anything else. It takes a bit of practice but once mastered, it makes for an impressive show. Besides, who doesn’t like to play with fire.

Start by cutting one end off the fruit. This lets you stand it on the counter with an even work surface. Now cut one inch by one and a half inch (3–4 cm) discs out of the rind, being careful not to get too much pith.

To flame the rind, strike a wooden match, let the sulphur burn off, and hold it about an inch away from the drink. In your other hand, grab the piece of rind between your thumb and first two fingers, with the skin facing out and the pith toward you. Give the rind a good squeeze and a burst of flame will appear as the oil from the rind gets ignited. Then drop the flamed rind into the drink and take a bow as the crowd oohs and awes.

Cocktail Olives

Go for the large queen sized olive if you can. They say a lot about the drink. One queen size olive is enough. If you opt for the puny, but traditional Spanish Manzanilla olives, put three on the pick, especially if you’re using larger than normal glassware.

Buy the pitted olives without the pimento stuffing. The last thing you want is guest to a crack a tooth on a pit. As for the pimento, most high end bars and lounges don’t serve martinis with it in.

Pimento is a small, mild, red chilli pepper, that’s mashed with gelatin and stuffed into the olive after pitting. The pimento imparts unwanted pepper flavor into the cocktail and holds back brine, which can make a martini taste dirty.

Keep your olives cold, so they don’t warm up the drink. Strain the olive off the juice, unless intend you intend to serve ‘dirty’ martinis and want a splash of olive juice in the drink.

Pearl Onions

The onion is used in the Gibson Martini, but little else. So there’s no need to keep these on hand unless you’re entertaining Gibson fans.

Check the label when you buy them, because there shouldn’t be any sugar, or sweeteners like fructose or glucose in the brine. You want the sour variety for cocktails, which will have water, salt and perhaps wine vinegar as the only other ingredients.

Strain them off the juice before you use them in cocktails. And just like the olives, keep them cold, so they don’t warm up the cocktail.

Maraschino Cherry

Originally the maraschino for garnish was a sour cherry, that was cured in a cherry liqueur. But the great American prohibition put a stop to that, because of the booze content in the syrup. Now what you’ll find in the supermarket as a replacement, is a fluorescent red chemical bomb with little taste compared to the original.

You can get high quality maraschino cherries online and from gourmet food stores. Look for Amarena Cherries, or Luxardo Gourmet Maraschino Cherries. Try them both to see which one you prefer. Better yet do a taste test with these premium cherries and the bright red aliens from the ‘mixer’ section of the supermarket. You’ll never want the cheap ones again.

Like the olives and onions, strain the cherry off the juice, before putting it in a cocktail. Usually its just dropped into the drink, but you can slit it and balance it on the edge of the glass, or poke a skewer through it and balance it on top of the glass.

Be sure to keep the maraschino juice, because it’s used as an ingredient in a few recipes. Plus, if you have the high quality syrup from Amarena or Luxardo cherries, you can make your own cherry liqueur from the juice, and a little brandy, or vodka.

Mint Sprigs

Mint is a fresh herb that’s usually found in plastic clam shells, near the fresh salad dressing in the supermarket. If you have a high end store, you might find the mint sitting out in bunches, soaking in ice water.

If there are several bunches of herbs, be sure you grab mint and not basil, because they look similar to the untrained eye. Just rub a leaf between your thumb and finger, then smell it. There should be a fresh minty smell on your fingers if you grabbed the right stuff.

It’s ok to leave mint sitting out, soaking in ice water until you need it. The lower leaves are used in recipes calling for mudded mint leaves. Save the pretty top most sprigs for garnishes.

Before dropping the mint sprig on top of the finished cocktail, snap it lightly between your fingers, rub it, or put it on the back of your hand and give it a smack. This slight bruising will release a pleasant minty aroma, so the cocktail not only looks pretty, but smells great too.

Celery Stick

Celery sticks are used in tomato based drinks like the Bloody Mary. Unless you’re planning to serve tomato drinks, there’s no need to keep it on hand, unless you enjoy munching on it.

You should be able to find fresh celery at just about any grocery store. Look for small, bright, young green stems. Avoid the mature, wide, white stems as they can be bitter.

After cutting the celery, removing the wilted top and white part at the bottom, wash it and store it upright in a plastic container that has some water in it. If you keep it cold, the celery will keep fresh for days.

Some bars like to serve the celery with a few leaves attached to the top. Although the leaves are inedible due to their texture and bitterness, it does make the drink look more attractive.

Cucumber Spear

Cucumbers are gaining popularity as a savory garnish in the cocktail world. If you have a recipe that calls for them, look for the Long English variety, which is usually shrink wrapped in plastic.

The Long English has thin edible skin and is considered seedless, but some bartenders still remove the innermost white area when cutting them into sticks. Usually you’ll see them as long spears with the skin on, but cartwheels and wedges are also common.

An alternative to the Long English is a shorter, sweeter variety often sold as the Japanese cucumber. It’s a much smaller diameter than the standard fruit, but it has a milder, sweeter taste, with a satisfying seedless crunch. They also hold up well in cocktails, or if you need to cut them in advance.

Pinwheels, Flags & Hats

This decorative garnish uses and orange cartwheel and a maraschino cherry. It’s called by different names, but they really amount to the same thing.

Cut the middle part of an orange into 1/8 inch (3 mm) thick cartwheels. Skewer each cartwheel at a 90 degree angle through the rind. Then push the skewer through the cherry and onto the other side of orange rind, forming an orange curl around the cherry.

These are usually made to order to prevent discoloration. Once the cocktail is ready, balance the pinwheel, using the skewer as a brace, on the edge of the glass.

Fruit Sticks

These can range from the basic two piece classic, to shish kabobs of several exotic fruits. You can get as elaborate as you want, but usually you’ll stick with the basic, unless you’re trying to impress someone really special.

Cut the mid part of an orange into 1/4 inch (6 mm) thick cartwheels. Cut the cartwheels in half to make half circles. Now assemble the fruit stick by taking a maraschino cherry and skewering it through. Now attach the cherry to the half orange slice by piercing it half way through the rind.

When it comes time to garnish the completed cocktail, make a small slit in the middle of the orange. Now balance the completed fruit stick on the edge of the glass.

Instead of the orange, other fruits such as pineapple may be substituted on tropical drinks. And if you get asked, add a little paper cocktail umbrella. It’s such a little thing to make someone happy.

Whipping Cream

Whipping cream isn’t very common as a garnish. Since it spoils quickly, there’s no need to keep it on hand unless you plan on making drinks that call for it.

Although you may be tempted to buy a can of the stuff, or hit the freezer section of the grocery store for some chemical compound, refrain from that if you can. Nothing tastes as good as real whipped cream.

Start with heavy cream that’s 30-36% fat. It will usually say whipping cream right on the carton. One pint will be enough, unless serving a large crowd, as whipping cream doubles in size when whipped.

Chill the whisk attachment from your immersion blender and the mixing cup for 10 minutes in the freezer. Add cold whipping cream to the chilled cup. Whip on medium speed until it starts to thicken. Add vanilla, or any flavorings in a steady stream while continuing to whip. Now whip on high for about two minutes or until stiff peaks form.

Put a cap on the cup and store it in the fridge. It will last a couple of days. Remove the whipped cream from the fridge as needed and put a large dollop on top of the cocktail just before serving.


Nutmeg is a popular garnish on many hot drinks and cream cocktails. It’s the seed of a tropical evergreen tree. When purchased whole, its egg shaped, anywhere from 1/2–1 inch (2–3 cm) long and comes in a package of 6-8 seeds.

When ground fresh it smells earthy and herbaceous, reminiscent of walking in a forest after a summer rain. The taste is waxy, with a slight bitterness, like a distant cousin of cinnamon and cedar.

If you buy nutmeg already ground, it will have lost much of its flavor. That’s why fresh nutmeg seed is always grated to order, over top of the finished cocktail just before serving.


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