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5 Pantry Garnishes for your Cocktails

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Who needs pantry garnishes for your cocktails? With many of us working from home or otherwise sequestered, we’re making it through the week making our own cocktails. Whether you’re making your own, building mocktails for yourself or the kids or having internet happy hours with friends, that little garnish on the glass may be all that’s separating us from complete social breakdown.

So what happens if that little jar of cherries or olives runs dry? You open your pantry or fridge and see what you DO have. Many times you’ll have the means to create a great garnish if you use a little creativity.

Because cocktails are generally served in small portions – around 4 to 8 ounces, every element matters. The garnish matters for two main reasons. 1) appearance. Humans love food that looks good. A great garnish can save a mediocre cocktail just by suggesting more time and care was put into the creation of the drink.

And 2) aroma. Many of the things we use to garnish drinks add an aroma to the cocktails. Whether it’s expressed peel from oranges or lemons or strip of cucumber for a gin drink, smell is incredibly important. A large portion of our sense of taste comes directly from our ability to smell. Enhance the aroma of a cocktail and you’re improving the perceived taste of the drink.

If you’d like to test this yourself, have someone make you two cocktails that are exactly alike, except that one has a garnish (or test this on someone who hasn’t read the article). See which tastes better to you. Odds are, it’s the more that’s more visually appealing AND has a little more scent or aroma on it.

So let’s look at 5 types of garnishes you can find in your pantry: citrus, nut, spice, grated food, dried fruit.

Citrus Garnishes

Citrus garnish options

Citrus garnishes are simple and fast. Chances are you’ve got an orange or lemon laying around. To keep citrus fresh I tend to keep it in the fridge rather than out on the counter. So check your counter or fridge and you’ve got the easiest of pantry garnishes to add to your home cocktail.

Your options for a citrus garnish are many. You can create a citrus peel/twist, an citrus wheel or a simple wedge to add to your cocktail. Remember that if you are using a citrus peel, squeeze the piece peel side outward toward the cocktail to express the citrus oils over the top of the drink.

Nut Garnishes

Nuts as garnishes

If you’re like me, you’ve always got a range of nuts in the pantry. The simplest method is to lightly toast some nuts on the stovetop in a large non-stick pan. It’s hard to put a skewer through a nut without breaking it unless you get it right out the oven, so instead, I float them on the surface of the drink or let them rest on the top surface of the ice.

If you have spiced nuts — I always have sweet/spicy pecans on hand — these are great additions to any whiskey cocktail, especially one with some peaty flavors in it.

One note of caution, some nuts like hazelnuts or peanuts may still have remnants of skins on them. Or if they’re seasoned, they may have small particulates that will shed when they float on the surface of your cocktail. If you’re picky about floaters in your drink, choose your nuts and their seasonings carefully. Just because you’re using pantry items for cocktail garnish doesn’t mean you’ll sacrifice the appearance of your cocktail.

Make sure you’re not using heavily salted nuts. The salt from the nuts will affect the taste of the cocktail. Lightly salted nuts are probably fine, but heavy salt added in to a cocktail can distract from the flavors and affect balance.

Spices

Dried spices as garnishes

Dried spices like cinnamon sticks, star anise and whole nutmeg are perhaps the easiest pantry garnish for a cocktail. Simply plop one in your cocktail and you have an aromatic and visually appealing accent to your drink.

One easy way to take it to the next level is to use a kitchen torch to lightly toast or heat the spices before placing them in the drink. If you’ve run out of fuel, rub the spice briskly between your palms to heat it just before serving it. This warms the essential oils creating those aromas and reactivates the spice just as you’re using it for garnish.

Coffee/Tea leaves

Coffee and tea as garnishes

Most of us start the day with coffee or tea, and both of these staples can be a visually and aromatically appealing garnishes. For coffee, just the scattering of a few whole beans on the top of a cocktail can bring the whole drink together. Coffee beans work best on cocktails that either feature coffee or other bitter elements. Something like a negroni or boulevardier can easily stand up to the bitterness and assertive smells of coffee beans as a garnish.

Loose leaf tea, because of its size, is a little harder to use effectively. In general, it will do wonders either sitting atop the foam of a egg-white sour or adhered to the rim of a cocktail with a short smear of simple syrup. In those situations it easily elevates a ho-hum cocktail to extravagant.

Avoid sprinkling tea over cocktails where it mixes readily with the spirits as it can quickly overwhelm the flavor of the cocktail and muddy the look of a spirit-forward cocktail with small bits of tea floating about in it. Loose leaf tea is great in spirit infusions but because it’s made of leaves it can make the spirit look grainy or cloudy unless well-strained. It will do the same to any drink it’s added to if left to sit for a long while.

Dried Fruits

I’ll admit I found a good bit of dried fruit when cleaning out our pantry the first week of our quarantine in the house. Dried fruit is not as aromatic as fresh fruit in adding scent to the overall cocktail. However, warmed a minute or two with a kitchen torch or in the microwave, you can reactivate the essential oils still present in the fruit. Just be careful not to scorch it.

Dried citrus is lovely atop a whiskey old fashioned or Manhattan, and dried apricots or figs both look gorgeous on a skewer over a cocktail in a martini or coupe glass. If you want a color contrast, match the dried fruit with some high quality cherries. Remember that when working with pantry garnishes for cocktails the combination of a couple of garnishes together can improve the visual interest of the garnish in the cocktail.

While small, dried cherries, raisins and cranberries can all be skewered on a pick and placed in a cocktail to enhance both the flavor and the visual appeal of the cocktail.

More Pantry Garnishes Forthcoming

I’ll have more ideas for pantry garnishes for cocktails coming up in the next week, so keep tuned. You’ve got more in your pantry and fridge than you think you do for creating beautiful and tasty cocktails and garnishes.

By on March 24th, 2020
Picture of Heather Wibbels, Cocktail Contessa, pouring a cocktail

About Heather Wibbels

Heather Wibbels is a whiskey enthusiast (Executive Bourbon Steward, no less) with a passion for cocktails. She loves researching and designing cocktails, drinking cocktails, and teaching cocktails. Mostly whiskey cocktails, given her Kentucky location

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