And here we come to the seventh and final installment in this series, and possibly the most enjoyable one. Tinkering with a recipe is fun, and showing off your technique is great, but it’s that moment where the recipient first lays eyes on the completed product that differentiates between the ultimate assessment of “That was tasty” and “Wow!”. People may be able to fall in love with each other slowly, true, but when it comes to drinks it’s love at first sight or not at all. Or, to paraphrase Megamind’s best line, what’s the difference between a drink and super-drink? Presentation!
We’ve already addressed the first step in the process – having proper glassware handy. And while this might seem to go without saying, the Bartender will emphasize it anyway – your serving glass should be clean, dry, and free of chips or cracks. Always hold the glassware by the stem, if you can – it keeps unsightly fingerprints off of the part that actually displays the drink.
The next part of the equation is the drink itself. If it’s a shaken cocktail, things are pretty simple – although a popular trick is to add a dash of egg white to create a pleasant white froth at the top. (Pro tip: For more tropical-flavored drinks, coconut milk will do the same without the danger of salmonella poisoning.) Certain drinks, however, will create a layered effect when you build them over ice; as you learn the relative densities of different ingredients, you can add them in the proper order to create that graduated-color look that’s always impressive. (Just remember to offer the recipient a straw or a swizzle stick!) If you’re making a drink with herbs of some sort, be extra-enthusiastic with your muddling – smaller pieces that tear off will float in the liquid and often look quite striking.
Finally, however, there is the pièce de résistance, the part where the aspiring bartender can really show their creativity – the garnish. From the classic maraschino cherry to a mouse painstakingly carved from a single radish, the garnish is often the most visually interesting part of the cocktail, and therefore what really grabs the recipient’s attention. Invest in some toothpicks (or, even better, long metal cocktail picks), and start experimenting. For tropical drinks, chunks of fresh fruit are always pretty, especially when speared on a paper umbrella. If the flavor is more herbal, try floating pieces of fresh basil on the surface, or garnishing with a sprig of rosemary. Candy is also fun and eye-catching, especially for sweeter drinks: There’s the classic peppermint stick in a cup of hot chocolate; you could try floating a sour gummi on the surface of that liquid Jolly Rancher, or spearing a fun-size Snickers bar for that chocolatini. Even purely decorative garnishes still add visual interest to your creation.
When you have a frothy surface (either from a cream-based ingredient or whipped cream topping), you can sprinkle a spice atop it: freshly-grated nutmeg or ground cardamom both look emininently classy. Be careful, though – spices will add a surprising kick to your concoction, so don’t overdo it, and make certain that the flavors are complementary!
In this endless garden of possibilities, do keep in mind that not every garnish has to be fancy or complex. Indeed, there’s a reason some of the simplest creations are the most iconic – serving a Manhattan with anything other than a single maraschino cherry might well make you a victim of mob justice in certain circles. The Bartender recently was impressed by a drink designed to taste fruity, spicy and Christmasy; the garnish was simply a pick strung with small dried cranberries and golden raisins. Simple, striking, elegant.
But there’s also nothing wrong with letting your inner Lady Gaga go hog-wild. Maybe incredibly elaborate and colorful garnishes will be your trademark. Maybe you’ll be known for your riffs on the classics. Perhaps you’ll find ways to create minor works of art out of common household objects. Experimentation is fun – but when you unveil your creations to the “oohs” and “ahhs” of the recipients, you’ll start to see where the real joy of bartending lies.