Thoughts on garnish

The garnish seems to be so deeply ingrained in cocktail-culture that I have mostly taken it for granted. However, over the last few months, I have been increasingly neglecting this staple of the drinks-world; I just let the gin do the talking on a familiar canvas of tonic water. I have found myself becoming frustrated with the lime in my G&T and been finding that the garnish is masking the gin, rather than enhancing it.  There are exceptions to this; Sipsmith being the obvious one that absolutely needs that little wedge of lime.

Lime Garnish

Lime Garnish

The more I discard the idea of the garnish, the more thought I have given it and this thinking has raised some unanswered questions. I have always maintained that admitting ignorance is a virtue and, to this end, I feel I have to throw these questions out there and ask for help in getting to the bottom of it all. However, I am struggling to compose any sort of structure around my thoughts, so I’m going to just spew some ideas onto the page and see where we get to, so I apologise in advance if this is a little less coherent than usual.

I can see that a garnish can add a layer of flavour to a drink, even texture and aroma. This can come in many guises and, in some drinks, I think it works very well. For now though, I am just going to focus on the humble Gin & Tonic as I think this is where most of my troubles are occurring.

There seems to be an increasing trend to add an existing botanical as the garnish of a G&T. Cucumber in Hendrick’s and Apple in Caoruun are a couple of such examples. However, if you add a slab of cucumber to a Hendrick’s G&T, how on earth are you meant to appreciate the cucumber in the actual spirit? Can the apple of Caoruun really be detectable and enjoyed when looked-for around slices of red apple floating around the top of a glass? Surely this just overrides the subtleties of a premium spirit.

In a similar vein, most gins contain some citrus botanicals, yet we often cram our G&T with slices of lemon or wedges of lime. Is there not enough citrus between the gin and the tonic? If not, why are there not more gins that are absolutely dripping with citrus?

It all just seems a little short-sighted and unimaginative to me.

Star Anise Garnish

Star Anise Garnish

Surely a better approach would be to add something that compliments the flavours that are already there. Maybe mint or fennel with the cucumber of Hendrick’s, maybe elderflower, ginger or clove with the apple of Caoruun, maybe basil or thyme with the fennel of Death’s Door?

Why stop there, though? Taking things a few steps further, there are many herbs and spices in the gin-spectrum that are are often coupled with meat on the plate. Game is a common choice with juniper and meat comes with its own gelatin. Would gellified drops of meat stock make a good compliment to a G&T? I’ve learned not to judge things without trying them so maybe, next time I do a Sunday roast, I should set aside some of the meat juices to see how it works with a herby gin. Duck with citrus? Pork with apple? Lamb with rosemary?

Madness? Probably. My thoughts on meat-based cocktail garnishes were had whilst eating an absolutely lovely pulled-pork after the navy-strength gin tasting I went to recently; I was a little tipsy at the time.

Potential lunacy side, an even better approach might just be to enjoy the product of a master distiller as simply as possible. A lot of time and effort goes into the creation of a new gin, in some cases years, and being able to fully appreciate that effort seems worthwhile to me. Certainly where a gin is more complex, with many subtleties and flavours, then leaving the garnish out allows you to enjoy the roller-coaster of flavours without hiding it under a blanket of [insert garnish of choice].

I think that gins with simpler flavour profiles and more classic gins are better able to withstand the addition of garnish but I need to be confident that I’m not hiding anything by sticking something else in there. I need to know that the drink will actually benefit from the addition. Most gin cocktails seem to rely less on the flavour of the gin and treat it like just another ingredient, rather than a showcase; in these cases, I don’t think the garnish is a bad thing – I am certainly not anti-garnish. The G&T just seems a bit of a different case to me.

Ultimately, everyone has their own preferences and tastes and these are just my ramblings on the subject; part of my ongoing journey of discovery. What are your thoughts?


Image attribution
Lime garnish: Dinner Series on Flickr
Star Anise: Dana Moos on Flickr



4 thoughts on “Thoughts on garnish

  • October 10, 2012 at 10:49 pm

    Know where you’re coming from. Over-garnishing has reached salad level here in Spain, and I agree that the approach should be counter-point flavours.

    We’ve had the Hendricks top brass in the bar a couple of times and I’ve never served them a cucumber G&T yet (though we were one of the very first to do that more than 7 years ago!). Used basil-infused Hendricks instead with a few other bits and bobs.

    If you’re ever in Barcelona, drop in I think you might be surprised with what we do for our G&Ts.


    • October 12, 2012 at 8:34 am

      I will be sure to pop in if I am ever in that part of the world.

      The suggestion of basil-infused gin sounds excellent. I need to grow some basil – nothing beats it fresh from the plant. I have always thought that mint would work with Hendrick’s and Martin Miller’s, although part of me wonders if it will end up tasting a little too close to Tzatziki or Raita for comfort.

  • October 11, 2012 at 6:34 pm

    With the garnish matching the aromatics, there are a lot of elements that are lost in the distillation process so it is a supplementing. Flavors can be steam distillate added in, distillation proper, and infusion (or combinations therein). Like gins that have rose (notoriously hard to distill in booze and in perfume), for example. Cucumber might be more of an infusion I believe.

    Still, it’s hard to capture every nuance of the aroma. Or the lime wedge on a lime-laden drink will add peel oils that are not present in the juice.

    • October 12, 2012 at 9:14 am

      That’s an interesting point about fractionating the flavour profile by distilling; not one I had really considered.

      Part of me still can’t help feeling that you over-ride the subtleties of the distilled element with the undistilled ingredient and, if the complete flavour is so important to the drink, why distil it at all? Why not add it as a post-distillation essence in order to capture all of it?

      That said, some botanicals add a quality rather than a flavour, so mandarin adds a dryness and liquorice adds a sweetness but neither add significant flavour. Other botanicals, once distilled, have powerful flavours that are unrecognisable compared to their raw form.

      Part of me wonders if my negative thoughts toward garnish are just the restless fidgeting of my inner purist. If your gin is subtle and complex in its own right, why complicate it further? Enjoy it as nature (or, rather, the distiller) intended (he says, pouring tonic water into it). I have always maintained that whisk(e)y is best enjoyed neat and to mix a good one was close to blasphemy, but I have recently tried some amazing whisky (no ‘e’) cocktails that did very well at showcasing the brown-stuff.

      You have certainly complicated things by pointing that out but it is more food for thought; thanks.


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