In Cocktail Land, there are two basic types of garnish: there's the functional garnish, and then there's the decorative garnish. The functional garnish adds flavor to a cocktail—a lemon twist or a flamed orange peel, for example.
The decorative garnish is more for show. Sure, it might add a small amount of flavor, but that's not its reason to be there. Mainly, it provides visual appeal and a bit of fun.
Think of all the stuff some joints add to a Bloody Mary. Celery, olives, waffles, shrimp, pickled eggs, beef jerky, spare ribs. (Some places make even a simple cocktail order an ordeal for vegetarians.) How much of that actually enhances the flavor of the drink? Maybe the briny stuff, if you're lucky. No, those bits are there for decoration and festivity (and maybe an attempt to one-up the restaurant next door).
But you don't need to clear out your fridge just to garnish a cocktail. A few simple elements can add some visual pop and maybe a hint of aroma and flavor. Let's look at some good options.
Herbs are a great for classing up a cocktail, especially when carefully chosen. Pick herbs that enhance the aromas and flavors in the cocktail. A great example is a lavender garnish for a martini. Many gins already contain lavender in their mix of botanicals, and even those that don't usually pair well with that flavor.
Some herbs seem to have been invented to pair with spirits: lemon balm and verbena both pair well with rum, for example. Thyme and cilantro match up nicely to tequila. Rosemary and the aforementioned lavender are great playmates with gin.
But don't limit yourself to thinking about the flavors of the base spirit. Think about the background flavors, too. Herbs that carry an anise flavor, for example, pair well with whiskey. Why? Well, think about pastis and absinthe, either of which can be used in the New Orleans classic, the Sazerac. They both carry notes of anise, which marry well with the rye base. Herbs such as anise hyssop and tarragon can pair beautifully with whiskey, if used judiciously.
Edible flowers, blossoms, and buds also make great cocktail garnishes. Many bartenders already use flower flavors in cocktails, in the form of ingredients such as elderflower liqueur, creme de violette, rose water, and orange flower water. Consider flowers that enhance or complement the flavors of the cocktail, or just choose something that brightens up the beverage.
Be careful, though, to buy them from a reputable source, such as a farmers market vendor, rather than picking them on your own. Unless you're a good forager, you might choose something toxic by mistake.
A tall glass, a highball, a thin round of lime. Summer nights.
A little more complicated than a citrus wheel, a flag is a half-wheel of orange (or sometimes a wedge of pineapple) with a cherry speared to it. Flags are normally used to garnish sours and old-fashioneds, but as Chuck Taggart's beautiful photo shows, they're also perfect on Hurricanes.
Have you experimented with cocktail garnishes lately?