Why Garnish a Cocktail?


We garnish a cocktail to complete its taste and presentation! The last step of many classic and contemporary cocktail recipes is to add a citrus peel, fruit wedge, maraschino cherry, onion, or olive. This garnish adds a bit of variety to the drink’s appearance while also subtly changing its taste and smell.

Like many other elements of cocktail history, the exact origin of garnishing libations is unknown. It’s thought that traditional juleps and cobblers, two classes of drinks popular a couple centuries back, might have been responsible for their introduction, but even that’s not clear.

Peel back

We do know that the first surviving reference to citrus peel garnishes appears in Jerry Thomas’s 1862 Bartender’s Guide. However, he doesn’t explain the technique, so it’s safe to assume that it was a common practice by that time.

It’s easy to see why—on a chemical level, most of the scent compounds that characterize an individual citrus fruit are stored in its skin, not in its juice. As a result, twisting a piece of peel over a drink releases these aromatic oils. Since any flavor experience is made up of a combination of taste and smell, this garnish adds a citrusy tang.

At this point, another debate begins: Should the peel be dropped into the drink or into the trash? By dropping it in, any pesticides, wax, or dust gathered on the fruit’s skin is introduced to the drink. Further, any pith left attached to the garnish will introduce bitter compounds into the drink that can change its flavor.

Luckily, most of these problems can be avoided by gently washing the fruit in warm water before use. Leaving this type of garnish in the drink allows a tiny amount of oil to dissolve in the alcohol. The rest will slowly rise to the top, giving the drink more complex layers of flavor.

Cherries and onions and olives, oh my!

Using cherries in cocktails dates back to the 1800s. Originally, maraschino cherries were Croatian marasca cherries preserved in maraschino liqueur. The expense and hassle of importing these tiny fruits was exorbitant, so producers began substituting local cherries and other liqueurs to cut back on costs. By the start of Prohibition, chemicals had replaced the liqueur entirely.

Cherries add hints of sweetness to traditional cocktails. If you don’t have any on hand, try substituting a dash of maraschino liqueur or simple syrup to balance your drink.

In contrast, cocktail olives and onions add a hint of salt to different classic beverages. Though their origin is murky, a substitution for their presence is not. If you’re not a fan but find yourself with an unbalanced tipple, try adding a drop or two of salt tincture.

Hit the Lab

The Horse’s Neck is the only cocktail known to be named for its garnish. When made correctly, the peel of a whole lemon should twist around the drink’s other elements which drinkers of yore thought resembled the curves of a horse’s neck.

Interestingly, this drink first appears in George Kappeler’s 1895 Modern American Drinks as a nonalcoholic beverage. Here, the recipe called only for a lemon peel and imported ginger ale. As time passed, drinkers added whiskey or brandy and called it the Horse’s Neck With A Kick. This version became more popular than the original and eventually usurped its name.

For people drinking at home, the biggest challenge in building this cocktail is the garnish. Some experimentation may be necessary to place it perfectly.

Horse’s Neck

2 oz whiskey (preferably bourbon)
4 oz ginger ale
Whole lemon peel for garnish

Pour ingredients into a highball glass over ice. Garnish with a whole lemon peel.