Cocktails may originate as culinary creations, but a drink’s eye-candy factor also comes into play. Early drink garnishes ranged from basic and utilitarian to madly baroque. Dustings of nutmeg and sprigs of mint enlivened the aroma and flavor of punches and Juleps, and citrus arrays and piles of fresh berries transformed simple Cobblers into ornate fruit-stands of color and composition. As the cocktail matured, though, such touches became more modest. A simple twist or slice of citrus satisfied most drinks’ visual demands, while brandied or maraschino-preserved cherries also appeared as colorful accessories. And in the early 20th century, the green olive began its ascendance to icon status, the Martini’s toothpick-speared garnish achieving immortality in countless neon signs and clipart files.
The tiki takeover that began in the 1930s added orchids, ice cones, pineapple fronds and dancing flames to the garnish game. and as today’s cocktail renaissance continues to change the bar, such touches have merged into the mainstream, with herb gardens’ worth of greenery joining ornately carved citrus peels and fanciful fruit sculptures in the modern garnish arsenal.
At Maison Premiere in Brooklyn, New York, bartenders have tightened their garnish game to such a degree that the drinks have become veritable works of art. “When we first opened, we didn’t have a unified mindset of what Maison drinks should look like,” says bar director Will Elliott. “We soon realized there was something special about the space, and the drinks wound up amplifying that effect as we put heavy design into the garnishes.”
New drinks are evaluated not only for flavor and balance, but for how they’ll appear, so a process of trying different glassware and ice, and experimenting with assorted aromatics and visual touches, becomes a part of a drink’s development. “We realize the power of the interested eye—the curiosity of a guest looking across the bar or across the room,” Elliott says. “if a drink looks stunning from 25 feet away, they’ll call a server over.”
Here are five drinks that best illustrate the garnish philosophy at Maison Premiere.
Barber of Seville
“This drink was a happy accident,” Elliott says, the product of experimenting with seemingly disparate ingredients and finding a common ground, with the nuttiness of sherry meeting the spice of whiskey. “I wanted to make this drink smell like walking into an Italian bakery in the morning, with marzipan, baking spice and citrus.” a paper umbrella provides not just a colorful touch, but a surface on which aromatics can be added—in this case, shaved candied Marcona almonds and a stack of citrus-peel shards, which add an arresting fragrance to the finished drink.
The Campari-soaked pineapple wedge, fanned pineapple leaf and skewered cherry garnish on Maison’s Jungle Bird have helped elevate the drink to celebrity status within the cocktail world. The best part? Snacking on the garnish once the drink has disappeared makes the cocktail both interactive and delicious!
Maison Mai Tai
“We really love tiki cocktailing, but we do it in a different way than a lot of bars,” says Elliott. “We’re trying to reimagine these drinks in our own space, both on a flavor level, and with garnishing.” For Maison’s approach to the classic Mai Tai, Elliott tweaked the rum selection and opted for alternate glassware to the typical double-rocks glass. This also opened the opportunity for finishing flourishes, adding pineapple or banana leaves to the mix, along with parasols and colorful orchids.
Elliott tinkered with variations on this obscure classic cocktail for several months before finding the key to its puzzle when considering the appropriate glassware. “I needed a glass that could allow you to stick your nose in and sniff the absinthe,” he says, leading him to choose a snifter—and this had an added benefit of creating a broad surface of foam on which to perform a little bitters-based artistry.
Winter Pimm’s #14
A new variation on the Pimm’s Cup appears seasonally at Maison Premiere, which inspires the restaurant’s bartenders to regularly re-imagine the drink. For this version, fresh mint offsets the rich flavors of bourbon and grapefruit, as well as the color and aroma of dried rosebuds in the garnish.
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