Cocktail Garnishes Are For More Than Just Looks

Cocktail garnishes are having a moment: The world's most expensive cocktail, a martini that rings in at a cool $20,000, is topped with a one-carat diamond. Others have edible gold; one New York City bar tops drinks with plastic dinosaurs and toy soldiers. As bartenders push the envelope, it can be easy to think garnishes are exclusively aesthetic.

But many garnishes, even crazy-seeming ones, actually have an important function to the drink itself. Customers are now ordering espresso martinis with parmesan cheese on top: Believe it or not, the deep umami of the aged cheese helps round out the bittersweet qualities of the coffee and liqueur.

This can be a business decision, too. In fact, a significant reason some bars use eye-popping drink toppers is to set their business apart, especially on Instagram. With homemade Oreos, popcorn-infused rims, dehydrated fruits, and more, edible garnishes are becoming more complex, partly to generate social media buzz.

Next time you order a cocktail — or make one at home — pay attention to the garnish. More likely than not, there are hidden but important culinary reasons that recipes call for them.

How to use edible garnishes correctly in your next cocktail

If you ignore your cocktail's garnish, trust us: You're doing so at your own peril because they can make or break your drink. The right garnish can be the difference between an average cocktail and a good one — or a failed one.

Cocktail garnishes fall into a few major categories, and using the wrong one could ruin your cocktail. If your cocktail needs a zesty bump, add a twist of lemon, lime, or orange peel. To add some salty savoriness, pop in a briny olive or cocktail onion. For a deep sweetness or to tone down the harshness a bit, a maraschino cherry could do the trick.

When selecting a garnish, taste your cocktail-in-progress to see what flavors could be enhanced or balanced out. Mixologists say sweet garnishes can temper sourness, bitterness, and spiciness, and bring out hidden salty qualities. Sour flavors amplify salty qualities as well as savory ones and can help tone down excess sweetness or bitterness.

Luckily, there are plenty of ways to get creative with more elaborate garnishes without sacrificing edibility. Some bartenders, for example, give martinis a salty boost with lupini beans, which have a buttery, pickle-like quality. So take a sip and use garnishes to tweak as needed. Cheers!