This month’s Mixology Monday topic is “Garnish Grandiloquence,” hosted by Joseph Tkach of the fantastic blog Measure and Stir. This is the first time that I’ve attempted to participate in Mixology Monday and I found this theme to be a particularly challenging topic on which to start. I think the reason it was difficult is that, in my experience, garnishes break down into two categories: simple garnishes like citrus peels that add an important element to the drink and complex garnishes like the sausage and bacon on a stick in a bloody mary that look cool but add very little to the drink. The former category is straight-forward and seems to have very little room for innovation, whereas the latter category just doesn’t seem that important.
After thinking about it for a little while, I did come up with a few ideas. Fire seemed particularly interesting, as I’m sure it was for many people, and I did learn some interesting facts about fire garnishes while reading up on them. For example, I had no idea that lemon extract is used to create yellow flames on a drink as opposed to the blue fire created by 151. I also discovered the concept of using certain burning herbs as a garnish, such as the flaming rosemary twig that apparently garnishes the Mr. Martin cocktail described in this Quora answer. Of course I had to try lighting a rosemary twig on fire, but frankly I didn’t feel that the burning rosemary twig created a substantially different aroma than the unburnt twig. Probably there’s a technique to doing this that I don’t yet understand.
Ultimately, I chose to explore what I’ll call an isolated garnish, which is my term for a garnish that is placed on top of some cover over the top of the drink. The cover prevents the drinker from breathing in the aroma of the cocktail liquid and thus the only aroma comes from the garnish. Examples of this are frequently seen in tiki drinks, especially those served in a coconut and drank out of a straw that pierces the coconut through a small hole. Many tiki mugs also seem to have this property, such as the pictured mug that I picked up at the Okolemaluna Tiki Lounge in Kona, Hawaii.
To explore the concept of an isolated garnish, I conducted a very informal semi-controlled experiment. First, I made two cocktails with fairly different aroma and taste profiles. The first was a basic gimlet, which did not have a strong flavor or aroma. I thought the gimlet was a good choice for this test because it is frequently modified by muddling a leafy herb such as basil or spearmint in the cocktail and might be modifiable in a more subtle way with an isolated garnish. For the second cocktail, I wanted to try something on the other end of the taste/aroma spectrum, and so I chose a cocktail containing Smith & Cross Jamaican Rum, which has a particularly strong funky aroma and flavor. The cocktail that I chose is one of my favorite Smith & Cross cocktails and was created by Allan Katz of Los Angeles’ Caña Rum bar; it is called The Rope Burn.
The Rope Burn
By Allan Katz of Caña Rum Bar, Los Angeles
1 oz Smith & Cross Jamaican Rum
1 oz Aperol
1 oz Bonal Gentiane
Stir and strain into a cocktail coupe. Flame a grapefruit peel over the drink and discard without wiping on the rim of the glass.
I chose to forego the flamed grapefruit peel garnish.
The experiment was a comparison taste test, where the same cocktail was poured into a normal open glass with no garnish (the control condition) and into a closed container with a garnish placed such that it was right under the nose when drinking from the container’s straw. For the first round of tests, we used the gimlet and a variety of leafy herb garnishes that included mint, basil, rosemary, thyme, tarragon, and dill. My wife and I tasted the control cocktail and the garnished cocktail in that order and then discussed whether the flavor was different between the two. Although I obviously knew the liquid was the same in both, she did not, at least initially.
The results were not as interesting as I hoped. The isolated garnish definitely modified the cocktail, but very subtly and similar to what we might expect if we had placed the garnish on an open glass in more traditional fashion. The most surprising result was that we really liked how the tarragon modified the cocktail with a sweet, slightly anise-like aroma. I had never tried tarragon with a cocktail before…definitely something to explore in the future.
The second round test used The Rope Burn cocktail in the control open glass, in a covered container with no garnish, and in the covered container with a mint garnish. The result this time was more pronounced. First, the funky hogo aroma from the Smith & Cross was significantly muted in the closed container, as we might expect. The funky flavor still came through, but it was not quite as overwhelming and definitely more accessible. The aroma of the mint garnish complemented the hogo flavor of the Smith & Cross quite well. In contrast to the gimlet round of tests, each of these three variations in the second round were noticeably different and, while not conclusive, at least suggest future directions to explore.
To make a fancy closed container for the cocktail picture, I cut the top off of a small orange, scooped out the contents, and poured the cocktail inside the orange. There are two holes in the top of the orange: one for a straw and a second in which the mint garnish can be mounted such that it looks like it is growing out the top of the orange. Using an orange doesn’t make any sense in the context of this particular cocktail (a grapefruit might have been better), but I’ve wanted to try putting a cocktail inside an orange for awhile and I think the result looks cool even if it adds nothing to the drink itself.