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Garnish Preparation Tools

Photo of garnishes, cocktail picks, swizzle sticks and napkins that are essential for mixing drinks when entertaining. The confident bartender must know how to use all these items. (© collage/123RF photo)

Everything a bartender needs to make impressive finishing touches.

Here’s all the tools you’ll need to get garnishes ready for cocktails. This article takes a deep dive into cutting boards, knives, graters, channel knives, shakers, zesters, atomizers, and more. You’ll also get insight on cocktail picks, straws, swizzle sticks, etc, right down to the cocktail napkins.

Cutting Board

A cutting board protects counter tops from the knife blade while cutting garnish. A thin 8–12 inch (20–30 cm) one would do the trick. Look for one with a hole in the handle, so it’s easy to hang up.

Avoid the plastic cutting boards that are treated with antimicrobial protection. Those chemicals could have serious consequences in the long term. Stick with a natural, unvarnished wood composite, or untreated hardwood like maple or teak, which have natural antiseptic properties. Use this cutting board for garnish only, not cutting meat, or garlic, or any other purpose.

The board should last a long time if it’s washed with dish soap and rinsed well after every session. When not in use, hang the board up by the handle in a well lit area and let it air dry. This will help prevent any bacteria or mold from ruining the board.

Chef Knife

The chef knife is a basic cook’s knife with a rocker blade that’s usually 8-12 inches (20–30 cm) long. It’s used for cutting garnish, like limes and oranges into things like cartwheels and wedges.

The choice of the knife, its length, shape, composition and handle style are a matter of personal preference. Stainless steel ones in the 8″ (20 cm) range are common in most home bars.

Paring Knife

The paring knife has a 4–6 inch (10–15 cm) blade that’s very sharp and usually pointed. The tip is used for delicate, intricate work, while the blade is used for peeling fruit and vegetables. It can also be used to cut citrus fruit in a pinch, if a chef’s knife isn’t available.

Channel Knife

The channel knife is used to cut citrus rinds into long even strips for garnish. Press firmly and drag it across the fruit, making strips as long as you want.

If you have good knife skills, this can be accomplished with a paring knife, but the channel knife makes the strips more even and therefore more visually appealing. Some of the better ones feature a channel knife and zester combo two in one tool.

Spice Grater

The grater is used for grating fresh nutmeg as a garnish, but it can also be used to grate cinnamon sticks and other hard nuts. There are several sizes of holes, so be sure to get a fine one designed to grate spice, because the larger holes designed for grating cheese are too big to grate nutmeg.

Powder Shaker

Powder shakers can be stainless steel or clear glass like a typical salt shaker. They can range from 4–12 oz (120–350 ml) in size and may include a lid, to help prevent the contents from caking together.

Shakers are useful for adding finishing touches, like when a recipe calls for dusting the top of a cocktail with cocoa. Having several on hand lets you have a variety of ‘toppings’ that guests can use to finish cocktails how they like.

Atomizer Bottle

An atomizer sprays a fine mist of a liquid. They can be FDA compliant plastic, clear, amber or blue glass, with a fingertip cap that you press on to get a fine mist, much like a perfume bottle.

It’s handy to have one of these filled with dry white vermouth. That way if a guest wants a super dry martini, you can make it with straight gin. Then hand them the atomizer so they can apply their own personalized level of ‘wetness’ to the drink.

Another use for an atomizer is when a recipe calls for ‘rinsing’ a glass with a spirit. The old school way is to put crushed ice in the glass, add a few drops of a very expensive spirit like Absinthe, then dump it out, leaving just the residue for flavor.

A better way to ‘rinse a glass’ is to cup your hand around the glass and give it one shot of Absinthe from the atomizer. This provides a slight residue and eliminates wasting very expensive liquor.

Finishing Touches

Cocktail Picks

In addition to a quality garnish, think about the stick, or pick that holds the garnish. It can be bamboo, wood, plastic or steel.

Plastic cocktail picks are a thing of the past. Bamboo cocktail picks are classy, compostable, and they can double as hors d’oeuvre, or appetizer picks. The high end ones are stainless steel, but they are expensive if your guests lose them, or break their glassware with them, which happens more often than you might think.

Ultimately, the pick that holds the garnish and dresses your cocktail is a matter of personal taste. Some would say it depends on the tone and formality of the party. So think steel for home and formal use, bamboo for bars and lounges.

Last of all, measure your glassware, especially the martini glasses. Be sure the picks you order are long enough. The last thing you want is guests using their fingers, to reach their olives.

Drinking Straws

The drinking straw is more than just a decoration. It allows the guest to transfer the cocktail to their mouth without touching the glass, if they choose to do so. It also acts as a swizzle so they can dilute the drink and mash any floating garnish to their personal preference.

Straws can plastic, paper, metal, or edible materials. Plastic was the most popular material for decades, but now frowned upon, due to environmental concerns. The paper ones get soggy after about 10 minutes. Steel is reusable but too expensive for commercial use. That leaves the edible straws, made from cornstarch and gelatine, as the best choice. You can find them in a range of flavors at online retailers.

As a general rule, drinking straws are included with all drinks, except for when a cocktail is served straight up, has a salt or sugar rim, or is straight liquor, like a martini. If the cocktail has no soda, juice, syrup or dairy, it doesn’t get a straw.

To cut down on inventory, most bars buy eight inch straws and simply cut them in half to make four inch ones for short glassware. For home entertaining, put a little thought into matching the straw color to the drink, and splurge for the flavored edible ones to impress.

Swizzle Sticks

Some recipes call for a swizzle stick which can be plastic, bamboo, wood, metal, or edible like cane sugar and beef jerky. It may have a decorative end that features an animal, hula dancer, star or some other whimsical shape.

Although more decorative and fancier than a straw to look at, the swizzle stick has a couple of important jobs. It can act as a pick to hold garnish and as a tool for the guest to stir ice and dilute the cocktail to their preferred strength.

The most important task of the swizzle stick is to reduce carbonation. Some guests find the zealous bubbles in soda to be too much for the digestive system, because it causes gas and burping. The swizzle stick allows the guest to reduce the amount of CO2 consumed.

For entertaining, the swizzle stick can reflect the theme of the party. So if you’re serving tropical drinks, go for the long ones featuring pineapples, hula dancers and other tiki themes. If you’re doing a fund raiser include a custom swizzle as a little takeaway, or memento of the event. Some people will keep them for years.

Just try to stay away from the single use plastics. Opt for compostable bamboo swizzle sticks instead. Better yet, for home entertaining, use washable metal ones, or surprise someone with a cane sugar one in their tropical drink.

Cocktail Napkins

The reason that bars and lounges don’t use coasters anymore, is because people swipe them as souvenirs. On top of that, they’re impossible to clean properly and end up stained, or looking gross, in a matter of days and have to be tossed anyway.

Enter the humble paper cocktail napkin or serviette. It’s the most neglected and overlooked element of the cocktail. It wipes spills, protects table tops and even fixes lipstick. It is the final finishing touch, that can say anything from dollar store to elegance at a glance.

For entertaining, look for thick, plush, white napkins that are decorated with some sort of embossing on the paper. A step up would be colored napkins that match the theme of the party. Just be sure they are color fast so the ink doesn’t run and ruin your countertops and tables.

On the high end would be custom printed napkins. They could feature the sponsor of the event, the team logo, the location name, the charity cause, or images and colors of seasonal traditions.

A good strategy is to place piles of napkins on tables, countertops, piano, or anywhere else a that guest is likely to park their cocktail. They will save your furniture from the dreaded water stains that are impossible to remove. You’ll also want a big stash of napkins them in an organizer caddy on the bar and on the snack table, so your guests can find them easily.


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