Is it just me, or are cocktail garnishes getting bigger? “Barkeep, one dirty martini, hold the appetiser.” At BKK Social Club, ranked third in Asia’s 50 Best Bars 2023, I ordered the Hand of God, a bartender’s recommendation based on my likes of negronis and boozy drinks.
A few minutes later, he returned with my drink, set it down before me, and then crowned it with a palm-sized bar of chocolate. “This must be a mistake; I only ordered the drink, not the snack,” I told him. “Oh, this is a garnish of handmade milk chocolate with candied orange pieces,” he explained. “I suggest you bite it, sip the drink, and let the flavours meld together.”
As he suggested, I did just that. Sure, there’s a definite chemical reaction, almost as if the chocolate is a foil for its flavour, but life-changing? Not so much. I’ll give a shoutout to the free chocolate bar, assuming it’s actually on the house.
This isn’t the first cocktail to be accompanied by a snack. Smoke Bar at Barangaroo House started a frenzy when they added a chicken salt martini to the menu, garnished with a sliver of deep-fried potato. According to Jai Lyons, head bartender at Smoke, the delicate potato tuile adds texture and crunch to what would have otherwise been just another variation of a dirty martini. Lyons tends to maintain a minimalistic and clean approach, believing that such garnishes add to the quality of the drink without overshadowing the overall experience.
As for curating that experience, Lyons boils it down to asking a simple question, “What do I want the garnish to do for the cocktail?” If it is for an aroma or scent, then he might use an aromatic herb, or he will make an oil that will also add texture. “I think it’s a bonus if the snack enhances the cocktail.”
Global bar consultant and bartender Matt Whiley of Re, a trailblazing no-waste bar in Sydney’s trendy South Eveleigh precinct, echoes the sentiment that garnishes should serve a purpose. He believes that while they can be decorative, they should “add flavour and aroma and contribute to the overall look and feel of the drink.”
Whiley sees garnishes as a way to enhance the drama of a drink. “I’m a big fan of edible garnishes to elevate a drink,” says Whiley, who is known for turning Murray Cod fat into a salty, briny martini or roasted sweet potato into sake.
Adding drama to the drink isn’t purely for the sake of enjoyment; bartenders are using them as a marketing tool, a way to bring consumers into the bar.
“Instagram and social media, in general, require something eye-catching, which is one of the reasons we’re seeing more ‘pretty drinks’, but I like to think there’s an in-venue pleasure too,” explains Whiley, suggesting the demand for attention on social media has driven bartenders to explore creative garnishes that capture the imagination. On the other hand, Whiley says, “a martini served with a twist or an olive is one of life’s greatest pleasures. I don’t think this will ever change.”
George Bekarian, head mixologist at Cardea in Barangaroo, is known for his ornate garnishes and beautifully understated cocktails and glassware. For Bekarian, sometimes a drink requires something classic; other times, it needs a garnish to match the explosive taste of the cocktail.
“I, personally, like to implore the ideology of “beauty in simplicity,” he says. “I use my garnishes to complement the character profile of the cocktail, be the supporting cast in a sense, and let the drink be the star of the show.”
Maybe Sammy, consistently ranking at the pinnacle of the World’s Best lists and recently claiming the top spot in the Top 500 Bars 2023 awards, is renowned for treating cocktails as a true art form. From being served in opulent gold pear vessels to featuring captivating smoke bubbles, the bartenders at Maybe Sammy have not only mastered mixology but also perfected the art of theatrical presentation and social media allure.
Despite the over-the-top reputation of the bar and its drinks, Stefano Catino, co-owner of Maybe Sammy, believes that the primary purpose of a cocktail garnish is to enhance the overall experience. “I’m not a fan of chocolate with my cocktail, and I don’t think an accompanying snack is what makes the cocktail great,” he explains. It all comes down to the quality of the recipe and the execution of it that makes it memorable.
Maybe Sammy’s latest menu, Mirage, is a theatrical performance made up of fourteen cocktails that took the team four to six months to complete, tirelessly working to get every flavour and every combination right. It’s by far the most technical cocktail menu in Sydney, and according to Catino, garnishes were far from an afterthought.
“It’s never a case of just popping on a garnish at the last minute and hoping for the best. Any garnish has been tested numerous times, and it’s quite likely we’ve gone through many different forms of it before we land on the final version,” Catino says.
“We also look at how the cocktail is served and whether we can build on the layers of the story of the cocktail by serving it in a more interesting form of glassware, or incorporating something like smell into the execution.”