For approximately half a year, the Rebel Bartender worked at one of the wineries in the Sonoita region of Arizona – yes, we have wineries, and multiple areas of them, at that! One of the products we regularly demonstrated were these: wild hibiscus flowers, candied in syrup. And while the salesmanship of the winery staff was certainly above par, the fact that we sold so many of these probably had more to do with the product itself than anything about our demonstration.
Like many great ideas, it’s simple enough at the core, but endlessly versatile. Pour a flute of champagne and drop one in the bottom along with a bit of the syrup; you have an instant cocktail fancy enough to serve at a party with less than a minute of preparation. Drain a few and use for color and sweetness in a salad. Use as garnish to any cocktail with a sweet/floral character. Or – as more than one returning winery customer admitted to doing – grab a fork and eat a few straight out of the jar for dessert. (They’re quite tasty, if a bit sweet – the jar claims “raspberry and rhubarb flavors”, but the Bartender always felt they resembled a Fruit Roll-Up in both texture and taste. Perhaps a bit much on their own, they complement the dryness of champagne nicely.)
Really, their only downsides are their rarity – the Bartender has only found them in specialty stores and gourmet food shops – and their price. A small jar (eleven blossoms, give or take) tends to run $10-$12, and a large one (50 blossoms) closer to $40. Theoretically, they don’t spoil, but after about six months in the fridge the Bartender lost the remaining half of her large jar to fermentation, so if you work with yeast in the kitchen at all and don’t have a large party planned, the smaller jar might be a better investment. Or you could take the remaining blossoms with some champagne to a sunset picnic on top of a mountain and impress your friends with a beautiful and delicious dessert. A
Picture of Wild Hibiscus jar ganked from wholesalegourmet.net. Picture of hibiscus at sunset taken by the Rebel Spouse atop Mule Mountain, Arizona.
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.