The lemon twist is a cocktail basic but I recently recognized that I have no understanding of what makes a good one. So one evening I set out to do a little research on this ubiquitous barroom staple. Little did I know that it would be a bit more involved than I expected… After visiting just a few websites it became clear that there’s no “right answer,” so I’ll offer my interpretation. You’re welcome to straighten me out in the comments below.
Sight, Scent & Flavor
In short, the lemon twist serves several different purposes in cocktail by adding a visual appeal, scent, and flavor. Creating a sense of anticipation prepares the consumer for an enjoyable experience, while the citrus scent prepares the senses for the experience and the flavor is what delivers. Frankly I’m still trying to train my tastebuds to appreciate the use of a lemon twist in heavier cocktails, but they’re getting there. I guess I’ll just have to do some more experimentation…
Through research and personal experience, I found that there are a couple different styles of lemon twists that include:
- The Basic – Used in an assortment of different drinks, the basic lemon twist is a floating garnish consisting of a wafer-thin piece of lemon peel. This style adds a significant aroma and flavor by floating the citrus oil on the surface of the drink and rimmed surfaces.
- The Spiral – Offering more visual flair but a little less flavor, the spiral twist resembles a spring and tends to be much more delicate. In addition, it requires a bit more effort to pull off.
So the selecting the proper style of lemon twist depends on the balance of flavor and visual appeal needed for the cocktail. Of course you can default to a recipe, but why not “live on the edge?”
How to Make a Lemon Twist
Once you’ve selected which style you’d like, there are a couple techniques that will make the entire process quick and simple. I’ll break it down here:
- Get Freshly Washed Organic Lemons
Fruit of all types are often treated with pesticides and food-grade wax. I won’t bore you with all the nauseatingly detailed research I gathered – you need to trust me on this one. Start with washed organic lemons.
- Assemble the Necessary Tools
Depending on which style you’re after, you’ll need the right tools. The basic lemon twist requires either a paring knife or a vegetable peeler. Sane people that want a spiral twist should have a lemon zester; insane people can use a paring knife, but I wouldn’t recommend it.
- Apply the Desired Technique
Ok, this decision can be based on the cocktail, personal taste or the need to get fancy. So far I’m feelin’ the basic lemon twist but if you want to venture into the tricky stuff, that’s up to you. Just remember, you’re working without a net:
The Basic Lemon Twist
Using a paring knife, gently slice off a thin oval of peel; the cut should be as shallow and even as possible so as to get a minimum of white pith. One alternative approach is the use of a vegetable peeler. I don’t know if this is considered kosher, but if you’re not handy with a knife you’ll probably be better off.
The Spiral Lemon Twist
Sticking to the sane method, start with a lemon zester that includes a channel knife (see photo). Holding the fruit firmly, apply the channel knife to cut the top layer of the peel in a spiral around the lemon. Do your best to remove the zest and as little of the pith as possible. Once you’ve obtained a piece of the desired length, the piece can be wrapped around a skewer or similar item to create a tighter spiral.
Frankly I’ve been amazed at what a simple lemon twist can do for a cocktail. The smell and the taste of the lemon oil is a big upgrade and really ads a nice touch on so many cocktails, so get going.
If you’re interested in learning more, here’s another great post by author Michael Dietsch: Cocktail 101: How to Garnish with a Citrus Twist
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