Cocktail Garnishes: The Basics

standard March 7, 2016 Leave a response

A delicious cocktail is a beautiful thing, but an attractive one is something special. Adding visual interest and even a touch of style, cocktail garnishes are a standard component to most mixed drinks. In this post I’ll cover basic cocktail garnishes to help you take your drinks up a notch at your next home happy hour.

What is a Cocktail Garnish?

Plain and simple, a cocktail garnish is an ornamental item used to add character and a bit of flavor to a mixed drink. Ranging from subtle to ostentatious, they can be as simple or complicated as you prefer. And while there’s no single “right” way to garnish drinks, some standard practices do apply. But once you have a handle on the basics, you’re welcome to let your freak flag fly.

A Disappointing HistoryColonial Cocktail Garnishes

If you’re interested in the history of the cocktail garnish, you’ll be disappointed. Legend has it that the original cocktail was adorned with a feather and the first surviving mention of the garnish appeared in Jerry Thomas’ classic 1862 Bartenders Guide, but the rest is left to speculation.


Cocktail garnishes can vary widely, but are most easily classified into two types: edible v. inedible. Commonly comprised of citrus fruits, vegetables and savory items, edible garnishes receive most of the attention, while inedible garnishes like umbrellas, straws and even sparklers have become more popular. Recently the changing aesthetics of the cocktail garnishes have been fueled by competition between bars, but let’s try to keep it simple shall we?

Basic Cocktail Garnishes

With simplicity in mind, there’s a wide range of basic drink garnishes that you can easily prepare at home. Easily done and without complication, these can be used to enhance any drink with minimum effort.


Individual Fruit & Vegetables

There’s not much guidance I can give you here except to say that there are a number of cocktails that include a simple sweet or savory garnish. Of course the Maraschino cherry is popular for the Manhattan and Old Fashioned crowd, while few Martini and Gibson fans would pass up their traditional olive or onion. Thankfully there’s little preparation needed for these, except perhaps the occasional toothpick to hold it all together, but I think that’s your call.
Vegetable Garnish



Using herbs as a cocktail garnish adds an attractive element and unique flavor to many different drinks. Certainly herbs should be cleaned and selected carefully, but did you know that you need to spank your herbs to extract the best aroma and flavor? Simply place them in your hand and slap your hands together before placing them in your drink.
Herb Cocktail Garnish


Citrus Twist

The basic citrus twist is commonly used to impart light flavor to a cocktail and can be created using several different methods. However cutting a piece of zest from a fresh lemon is by far the easiest approach. Sure you can get very fancy, but why? No matter if you use a knife or a peeler, it’s important to minimize the amount of the bitter white pith taken when you cut the twist.

Once cut, the zest is twisted above the cocktail to express the oils onto the cocktail and the remaining fruit rind can be either rubbed around the rim of the rim of the glass and either inserted into the drink or discarded.

Citrus Twist Garnish


A wedge is a section of cut fruit that can be either placed on the rim of the glass, or squeezed and placed into the cocktail. A simple compliment to many drinks, the wedge is often cut as 1/8th of an entire fruit with an additional incision made in the middle of the wedge to make placement on the rim easier.
Lime Wedge Garnish

 Fruit Wheel

Primarily used for ornamentation, the wheel is a sliced fruit or vegetable that’s placed on the rim of the glass. Occasionally combined with other items, the fruit wheel is often removed before consuming the drink. Afterall, it kinda gets in the way of drinking….
Fruit Wheel Garnish


Flag garnishes are somewhat loosely defined, but we feel that the comprise both vertical items like celery, scallions and pieces of fruit combined on a skewer with items like skewered berries that are placed at the top of the glass. Great for creating a dramatic visual impact, Flags can also be used to indicate what’s contained within the drink. Needless to say this definition is squishy, but that’s all we got.
Flag Cocktail Garnish

Rimmed Glass

The process to rim a cocktail glass is pretty basic, but you can choose the quick & easy way, or the “right” way. The Quick & Easy Method is to moisten the rim of the glass with liquid (e.g. water or fruit juice) and place the overturned on a small plate containing the desired material. This will adhere the salt or spice to the rim, but it will be included inside the glass and affect the flavor of the drink. The Right Way is to prepare the glasses in advance by moistening the outer rim of the glass and then gently rolling it through the material at an angle to prevent anything from getting into the glass.

Frankly I’m lazy and probably default to the quick & easy method, but I don’t want to steer you wrong.

Rimmed Cocktail Glass Garnish


Thankfully garnishing your cocktails does not need to be complex, but there are definitely some basics that you should keep in mind. Firstly it’s wise to make sure that you keep the basic supplies on hand to ensure that any cocktail you create can be served correctly, but beyond that use this guidance to create your own unique style.


Suburban adventurer, beer lover and Cocktail Novice, Bill has a variety of interests including cooking, blogging and "bad" surfing. If you're keen to connect, give him a shout on Twitter.