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Take Your Cocktail to the Next Level with These Glorious Garnishes

A drink topper is more than just decoration—each adds its own flavorful flourish.

cocktail garnishes
Photography by: Meredith Jenks

We eat with our eyes first, and drink with them, too, which is why cocktail garnishes are just as important as the liquid inside the glass. A sprig of fresh mint, lime twist, or even a crispy strip of bacon are so much more than pretty add-ons. Cocktail garnishes add flavor and enhance the undercurrent of a drink. A cocktail without a garnish is like turkey without gravy—it's good, but it's just missing that something special. Here we explain the main categories of cocktail garnishes and the drinks they pair best with.

 

Related: How the Margarita Became Everyone's Favorite Cocktail

 

Citrusy

Twisting zest over a fruity drink imparts its oils onto the surface for a pleasant aroma and a slightly bitter edge. A lemon twist or orange peel also adds a pop of bright color against muted orange-y colored cocktails. Use a small paring knife and cutting board to carve and shape that perfect citrus twist or wedge. You can float the citrus peel in the whiskey, which will infuse subtle essential citrus oil in every sip, or rub the colored side of the twist on the rim for a fresh pithy punch. A Negroni wouldn't be the same without a strip of orange zest, and a lemon twist is essential to the rye-based cocktail that's the official drink of New Orleans, the Sazerac.

 

Salty

Salty olives and astringent onions are a classic garnish in a dry gin Martini. These briny garnishes lend a savory, lip-smacking bite to this classic drink. While green olives are the most common garnish, stuffed olives with blue cheese, pimento cheese, or nuts are also popular and a fun way to add unexpected flavor and texture to your drink. The earliest formal recipes for martinis appeared in the late 1800s, calling for equal parts of dry gin and dry vermouth. Bitters were a popular add-in beginning around 1906 all the way through Prohibition until the 1940s. Now, they’re seeing a resurgence. Vodka took over from gin as the spirit of choice for the martini in the 1970s but gin is regaining popularity today. Whether you like your martini with gin or vodka, shaken or stirred, a slightly salty garnish is a must.

 

Sweet

Sweet garnishes like cherries are best for a variety of colorful cocktails including a Manhattan, Old-Fashioned, or Daiquiri. A clasic Manhattan calls for bourbon, sweet vermouth, Angostura bitters, and of course a cherry on top. Stay away from the unnaturally red, artificially flavored maraschino cherries. Instead, try Italian Luxardo cherries, which have a deep purple color and bath in a rich syrup, or homemade maraschino cherries. We also like Jack Rudy Bourbon Cocktail Cherries.