Lift your holiday spirits with gorgeous garnishes you can create at home
Holiday libations are every bit as traditional this time of year as dragging a tree inside the house and covering it in baubles, beads and a jillion tiny lights that may or may not actually light. So, why is it that people who meticulously decorate a cookie for this holiday, sip on cocktails dressed just like they were in August?
The answer is in the garnish, that thing too often relegated to a ragged piece of lemon peel or an olive stabbed through its pimento heart. Too often forgotten is that garnishes can take a drink that’s at a party and make it the party.
A few years ago, Robert Simonson, a cocktail writer for The New York Times and contributing editor for the online magazine Punch, addressed the importance of the garnish.
“Once a utility player in the cocktail game, something that contributed to the flavor of the drink, garnishes today run the gamut of functions,” Simonson said. “They are drink porn; they are eye candy; they are artistic flourishes; they are playthings; they are theater, both of the Vegas and absurdist varieties. Only part of the time are they edible.”
Garnishing drinks has a history that goes back to the beginning of cocktails. One theory about the origin of the word cocktail is that the drink maker would stick a rooster’s tail feather in a drink to show it had alcohol. In the 19th century, bar men piled up fruit, set things on fire and even tossed in slices of sausage or freshly shucked oysters.
These garnishes, with the exception of the feather, were all edible and, for good or bad, influenced the taste of the drink. In the 20th century, especially during the height of the tiki bar craze, the garnish discovered its place in the art world. Plastic monkeys, paper umbrellas and all sorts of other non-edible and tasteless — in every sense of the word — gadgets found their way into drinks.
“During my years spent in New Orleans, I used to go to the Insectarium to pick up chocolate-covered grasshoppers and other assorted larvae to garnish the classic Grasshopper cocktail,” said Gina Hasty, beverage director at the Hilton Galveston Island Resort. “Other examples include a vodka martini topped with a float of Champagne and caviar ‘bubbles’ and a gin martini served with smoked baby octopus.”
Dressing up a drink for the holidays can be as simple as sprucing up a traditional garnish. Taking the salt or sugar used to rim some cocktails and adding dried herbs or different colors of sugar gives an old drink a holiday vibe. Using a sprig of rosemary to spear cherries, raspberries or other colorful berries can be like adding a stylized Christmas tree to the spirit.
Having hot drinks this season? The Food Network suggests encasing spices like cloves or allspice in a small sack of cheesecloth, attaching it to a cinnamon stick and plopping it in the hot drink. It’s both attractive and adds spicy new flavors.
That’s also the case with another Food Network idea, lollipop garnishes. While one can certainly use candy canes or similar stick candy, these lollipops are made at home, are simple to construct and can be made in one or many colors and shapes.
“I typically prefer edible garnishes since they are usually a key ingredient in the drink itself,” Hasty said. “However, many bars and restaurants have some fun and memorable signature drinks made with inedible garnishes. Who doesn’t love to take home their little plastic monkeys, swords or paper umbrellas? They’re fun souvenirs and give us something to remember that great experience by. And apparently, there are also some pricey cocktails to be enjoyed that come with gold, diamonds, even car keys. Just put it in a glass, right?”
With the idea that garnishes are eye candy, mixologists have created striking presentations using cut flowers, thinly cut vegetable slices that are then folded like ribbons and held fast by a cocktail pick, and long strands of citrus peel that snake from the bottom of the drink up to the rim where it ends in a berry, flower or tiny bow.
A certain hit at any holiday party is to serve each drink with its own Christmas tree. Gala in the Kitchen, a blog for creative cooking, shows how to make a cucumber Christmas tree using a paper-thin, length-wise slice of cucumber and then folding it accordion-style in a tree shape. A toothpick holds it in shape. The tree’s star is made from a small slice of carrot, which is attached to the top end of the toothpick, and the base is made from a whole, pitted black olive stuck to the other end. The olive is sliced halfway through, allowing it to be placed over the edge of the cocktail glass to hold it in place.
Hasty believes the only rule on garnishes is that they add to the drink, not detract from it.
“The main purpose of a garnish is to complement and enhance the cocktail you’re enjoying,” she said. “Garnishes are vital to the overall experience by stimulating our senses. Imagine a julep without a beautiful crown of mint. It’s the first thing you take in with your eyes before the aroma reaches you and you then taste the bourbon, simple syrup and mint.”
Adapted from a recipe by Gale Gand for the Food Network’s “10 New Ways to Garnish Your Drinks”
2 cups sugar
2⁄3 cup corn syrup
2⁄3 cup water
1⁄2 teaspoon orange extract
A few drops of food coloring (yellow, blue, red, green)
A dozen or more durable cocktail straws, mixers or other long sticks
On a parchment-lined baking tray, lay out lollipop sticks in rows, leaving 2 inches of space between them for fun free-form lollipops.
Combine the sugar, corn syrup and water in a clean, dry, small saucepan — preferably one with a pouring spout — fitted with a candy thermometer and bring to a boil over high heat. Without stirring, cook until the mixture reaches 305 F or “hard crack” stage on the candy thermometer. (While the syrup is cooking, occasionally wash down the sides of the pan with a clean brush dipped in water, to prevent crystallization.) Set up an ice bath in a sink.
When the mixture is done, remove the pot from the heat and dip it into the ice bath for 15 seconds to stop the cooking. Remove the pot of syrup from the ice bath and stir in 1⁄2 teaspoon orange extract. Divide the sugar mixture between 2-4 heat-safe measuring cups. Put a few drops of food coloring in each cup, stirring very gently with a wooden skewer so that the color is evenly distributed. To avoid air bubbles in the finished lollipops, stir the mixture gently in both directions, but be careful not to over mix.
Pour or carefully spoon a little of the syrup around each lollipop stick, creating freeform or specific designs such as stars or trees, covering at least a 1⁄4-inch of the end of each lollipop stick. You can begin with one color and finish each lollipop with additional colors or make a variety of single-color ones.
Re-warm the syrups in the microwave a few seconds at a time if they are cooling too much and setting up. Cool the lollipops for at least 20 minutes, until hard. Lift off the pan and store in an airtight container for up to 1 week, or 2 to 3 days if the weather is very humid.