“Cocktails are a perishable, in-the-moment thing,” says Craig Mrusek, bartender at Station and cocktail writer (pen name Dr. Bamboo) for Bachelor Pad Magazine. Bar visits with Craig (you may have seen him behind a number of bars, including Verde and Tender) are a lesson in attention to detail; not only to what’s in the glass but what’s on top of it. Garnish is one of the first things meant to draw the customer’s attention. It’s a highlight of the experience, providing a little panache. Mrusek believes that these last little moments of care in placing the garnish can be the key to a great drinking experience. In terms of time spent, he says, “The rewards far outweigh the efforts.”
There are three reasons to garnish a drink: visual appeal, aromatics and, potentially, as an edible end-of-drink treat. Firstly and most obviously, garnish can really boost the eye-candy aspect of a well-made cocktail. Mrusek, who’s also an illustrator, tries to balance the color, spacing and proportion when choosing garnishing components. He opts for contrasting and complementary colors over monochrome, and often takes a more aesthetic approach to the placement of elements. He does admit that proportion goes right out the window when it comes to tiki. “You can put a party store on a tiki drink,” he says.
Aromatics are also important. This is the reason bartenders smack mint between their hands (please stop yelling “smack that” at them) and rub lemon peel over the rim of the glass. These techniques release oil, allowing the garnish to express and add another component. Much of flavor expression is based on what people can smell (try holding your nose next time you eat something). And the way humans process smell is strongly linked to our amygdala and hippocampus, two brain areas that process emotion and memory. This makes smell a powerful tool in the kit of any bartender.
Finally, there’s the fact that garnish can be delicious. “Always assume that the customer may eat the garnish,” says Mrusek. Feel free to crunch into that cucumber wheel. So help me, I will dig that Luxardo cherry out of the bottom of my glass.
Conversely, a wilted, unbalanced or subpar garnish can tarnish a drink as much as it might have helped it. “If you’re willing to put something on there that doesn’t look good, to me that says you don’t care,” says Mrusek, “If I’m someone who’s coming into a bar willing to pay 10, 11, 12 dollars for a drink, the garnish better be spot-on.” He does, however, make exceptions. He acknowledges that much of the time, customers completely disregard the garnish, and that each person has specific preferences. Environment also matters. “If you’re working at some bananas volume bar on Carson Street, I don’t expect you to do that,” he says, laughing.