Homemade cocktail garnishes - our top picks
For the home bar of your dreams.
You’ve told the bartender what you’d like and a square napkin has been laid gently in front of you. Moments of excitement pass, until the martini stem lands perfectly on top. The glass is cold, you can see that the gin and vermouth has frosted over from being stirred down to diluted perfection. The olives glisten from their salty brine. Personally, I’ve always been weak at the knees for a Dirty Martini. This will be gone in 60 seconds – no more.
I’ve awoken from my ‘propped at the bar’ dream. I know I won’t have an exchange like this for quite some time and yet I haven’t lost my love for the implicit balance and charm of a cocktail. If that means I’ll have to learn to make them myself, then God knows I have the time.
A garnish can often be the final piece. The literal maraschino cherry on top. A garnish is only required should it encompass one of the following; it is edible, it adds a complimentary whiff of aromatics, or it creates an additional flavour. Like most things in life, if it’s there to simply look pretty, it’s probably not worth your time.
My bar pantry is fitted with the following garnishes that don’t expire and make me feel chivalrous about preparing myself a strong drink…
It is easy to dehydrate fruit by simply using your oven. Set the oven to its lowest temperature setting. Cut wheels of lemons, limes, oranges, grapefruits or blood oranges into wheels approximately half a centimetre thick. Lay them on a sheet of baking paper and gently “cook” them until all of the moisture has evaporated. Generally, 6 hours should do the trick. Store them in an airtight container and they will last for months. Other fruits that work really well are thinly sliced pineapple, strawberries and apples.
A savoury garnish is as important as any (back to that martini dream). Small white onions and cucumbers make great toppers to a bloody Mary. The most important part about pickling is acquiring good quality veg. Start by filling sterilised jars with your veg of choice. You can then add a combination of the following: peeled garlic cloves, thyme, black peppercorns, bay leaves, mustard seeds, chilli and coriander seeds.
In a pot, add 150ml of water and 150ml of vinegar. Any vinegar is fair game – white, apple cider, white wine and rice vinegars all work well. Steer clear of balsamic or malt vinegars. Bring to the boil and stir in 1 tablespoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of sugar until dissolved. Pour this in the jar ensuring that all veg are covered with the vinegar. Store in the fridge and they’re ready to use in 2 days. There’s no harm in making too much, pickled veg are the perfect friend to a cheese toastie!
While it’s not theoretically a garnish, a lot of cocktail recipes will call for simple syrup. For this, add 150g white sugar to 150ml water. Bring to the boil while stirring to ensure all sugar is dissolved. This will make you 250ml of simple syrup.
Ginger syrup is made by blending up about 100g of fresh ginger and bringing it to the boil with 250ml simple syrup. Cool, then strain. This features in a classic Moscow mule, dark and stormy or just with rum and soda!
Honey syrup is killer for anything with whiskey, gin, and for those in need of a medicinal warmer. Combine 150ml of honey with 50ml of water until dissolved.
I’m sure I was inebriated on lemon, lime and bitters as a kid. The Angostura Bitters label has been branded in my childhood memory as an icon of a special occasion. Essentially, bitters can be made using just about anything. The process requires the extraction of flavours from ingredients by steeping or infusing them with high proof alcohol – that is at least 48%ABV – a little vodka works a treat. I’ve found the best way to create your own blend of bitters is to steep each ingredient separately and then make a blend of your desired flavours. Alternatively, you can blend ingredients in one jar and steep them together.
Gather your ingredients and add to a small jar. Pour in your high proof spirit to cover the surface. This will sit for about two weeks and will need to be shaken daily to extract as much flavour as possible. Then strain the ingredients through a cheesecloth into a sterilised jar and create your blends.
Some of my favourites are:
-Coffee bean, vanilla pod and cacao
-Lemon peel and black pepper
-Lavender, juniper berry and rosemary
-Orange peel, star anise and cinnamon stick
To sweeten, add sugar syrup or honey to your bitters as desired. Shake the blend with the sweetener until it dissolves. Strain one more time and then transfer into dropper bottles. These bitters will add depth and complexity to your beverage in just 2 or 3 drops.
The problem with most fresh garnishes is that they often don’t keep well. Unless of course they are rooted in soil. I think the most useful and versatile selection of herbs for cocktails are mint, rosemary, and tarragon. These herbs don’t like to be planted together, so make sure they get their own pot, a little bit of sunshine, and a slurp of fresh water. If you manage to keep your herbs alive, your garnish will not only provide vibrant flavours for your cocktails but will also serve you time and time again, even if you’re left with a stump after just a few hours of drinking. They are critical to G&T’s, Mojitos, Southsides, and your homemade bowl of pasta.
Other important things to note when operating your home bar
Give it a name! It’s good to separate work from play.
Make sure the ice trays are in good rotation.
It’s handy to have fresh citrus in the fruit bowl – stock up.
Swizzle sticks are fun (except those made out of plastic).
Straws are for suckers.
Always, always taste before you serve!