Level up any drink recipe with cocktail garnishes — they’re more than just for looks. They can provide form, function, flavor and fragrance, which enhance the drinking experience.
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Garnishes are the key to making gorgeous cocktails that impress. If you’re having a friend over, a cute straw or even a lime wedge on the edge of the glass can make all the difference.
What is a cocktail garnish?
A cocktail garnish is a decoration or embellishment on a drink. Common garnishes are salt or sugar rims, lime wedges and fresh herbs.
Beyond flair, garnishes can also bring aroma and flavor to a drink. Sometimes they are functional as well, such as a straw or stirrer. Some cocktails employ multiple garnishes to encompass all of these qualities.
Why are cocktails garnished?
Garnishes do way more than just look pretty. Because the sense of smell and taste are closely connected, a fragrant garnish can enhance the drinking experience.
“The sensation of flavor is actually a combination of taste and smell. This happens because as you chew, you force air through your nasal passage. These food odors or odorants are detected by receptor proteins on hair-like cilia at the tips of the sensory cells in your nose, which in turn send neural messages to the brain — these two messages are what we would perceive as a flavor or taste.”— Institute of Culinary Education
So as you sip a cocktail, your nose nears the top of the drink, sending scent signals to the brain. If there’s a piece of fruit or an aromatic herb on top, your brain will process these aromas in addition to what your taste buds take in.
It doesn’t have to be super fancy with a lot of visual appeal; even a simple garnish can make homemade drinks feel — and smell and taste — more professional.
Is garnish necessary for cocktails?
Do you need to garnish a drink? No, technically not. A drink can taste great all on its own.
However, garnishes add WAY more than looks to a cocktail. They add fragrance and flavor as well. Not only can you eat some of them, but they can hit the olfactory nerve.
Ice can also be a garnish: It is functional but can also be decorative. It makes the drink cold, but thought and attention to the type of ice used gives a drink sophistication.
Classic cocktails with garnishes
Some of the most popular cocktails are well known for their garnishes. Consider these classics with famous garnishes:
- Martini: lemon twist or olives
- Old-fashioned: orange zest, cocktail cherry, large ice cube
- Margarita: salt rim and lime wedge
- Lemon Drop Martini: lemon twist
- Bloody Mary: celery stick, parsley, lemon wedge
Types of cocktail garnishes
- Produce: Some garnishes can be made from different types of fresh, dehydrated, preserved and pickled fruits and vegetables.
- Botanicals: Fresh herbs, dried spices and edible flowers can be added for fragrance. These are not meant to be eaten, however.
- Rims: A rim of salt, sugar or even sprinkles can add extra flavor, texture and color to a drink.
- Ice: Ice is functional, but it can also be used as a garnish. One can freeze ingredients inside cubes or use different shapes of ice molds to add some wow factor.
- Confections: Think melted chocolate and toasted marshmallows. These garnishes are most common on dessert drinks.
- Non-edible: Decorative garnishes include paper parasols, stirrers and cocktail picks can all be added to drinks for looks only.
When a piece of orange and a cocktail cherry are speared with a cocktail pick, toothpick or bamboo skewer, it’s known as a flag.
A flag is usually made with a slice of orange and a cherry, but it can be modified. Other fruits can be used, like lemon, lime or grapefruit, or it can simply be a piece of orange peel or lemon peel. The cherry could be substituted with another type of berry or a melon ball.
Flags could also be made with vegetables, like a cucumber ribbon wrapped around a chili pepper or a piece of lemon around an olive.
Fruit is a classic choice for an edible garnish. From citrus to berries to slices of other fruits, citrus adds sweet flavor and fragrance.
One of the most popular fruit garnishes for cocktail recipes is fresh citrus. Just about any kind can be used.
- lemons: including lemon wedges, lemon twists, lemon wheels/lemon slices
- oranges: most common is orange zest and orange slices
- other types of orange: think blood oranges, clementines, mandarins and tangerines
- limes and key limes: including lime wedges, lime wheels/lime slices, lime twists
- grapefruit: such as grapefruit slices and grapefruit zest
- kumquats: these little gems are perfect for cocktail picks (try this kumquat mule)
Citrus can also be prepared in lots of ways. You can…
- cut wheels to float in the drink
- cut wheels to add to the rim
- peel zest
- cut wedges for the rim
- make citrus twists, cut thick or thin
- dehydrate citrus
- candy citrus peel
- candy slices
- char with a kitchen torch
- mix the zest to make citrus salt
- mix the zest to make citrus sugar
- twirl into rosettes, on a cocktail pick
- fold into S-shapes, on a cocktail pick (such as in the French Blonde cocktail above)
- freeze juice into ice cubes
Fresh berries are a gorgeous garnish. You can also flash freeze berries for a frosted look, as I did in the frozen sangria recipe pictured above.
Smaller berries like blueberries, raspberries and blackberries can float on top of the drink, while larger ones like strawberries are usually sliced or halved. You can also freeze berries in ice cubes for a totally different look.
Here are some sweet berries to try in your next cocktail:
- strawberries: whole (on a pick) or sliced
- fresh cherries: different from cocktail cherries (which get their own section!)
- Maraschino cherries: the bright red, sweet kind as seen in the Shirley Temple
Then there are cocktail cherries! I love these sweet gems for their deep, sweet flavor. They are cooked in syrup and then jarred for use in cocktails. Types of cocktail cherries include:
- Maraschino cherries: These bright red cherries are frowned upon by many bartenders, who prefer the darker, more flavorful types below…
- Luxardo cherries
- bourbon cherries: I love to make these homemade!
- brandied cherries
- Bordeaux cherries
- Amarena cherries
Other fruits can be preserved in syrups and are excellent in cocktails. A friend recently gave me cocktail blueberries which I am itching to try in a Manhattan, and I’ve also enjoyed preserved strawberries.
Other fruit garnishes
Beyond citrus, berries and cocktail cherries, other types of fresh fruit garnishes can work well for drinks.
Some fruits can be sliced and arranged into a fan, as I do with apple slices in this apple cider mimosa. Melons can be shaped into melon balls and skewered on a cocktail pick. You can also use a cookie cutter to cut fruit slices into cut-out shapes or a
- watermelon: melon balls, slices, cubes — you’ll love this watermelon mojito and mimosa
- cantaloupe melon: melon balls, slices, cubes
- honeydew melon: melon balls, slices, cubes
- pineapple: slices, wedges, fronds/leaves — see the fronds in action on the jungle bird
- mango: slices, cubes
- peaches: frozen slices, fresh slices — try a peach smash or fuzzy navel
- apples: vertical slices, horizontal slices, fans
- pomegranate arils/seeds
- pears: vertical slices, horizontal slices, fans
- cucumbers: sliced, spears, ribbons — try the ribbons in a Pimm’s Cup cocktail
Fruits that brown easily, like bananas and apples, don’t work as well as others, but they can be done. Here’s how:
- Bananas are often used in tiki drinks, often halved and cut to resemble a dolphin, but this has to be done just before serving.
- Apples and pears should be spritzed with or soaked in lemon or lime juice to prevent them from browning.
Veggies make great garnishes, especially for savory cocktails like Bloody Marys. In fact, you can use all of the below as a Bloody Mary garnish if you like.
You can cut veggies into smaller pieces and skewer them on a cocktail pick. You can also use a veggie peeler to make some into ribbons. This works really well with rhubarb; see this rhubarb cocktail.
- celery sticks/celery ribs
- cherry tomatoes
- grape tomatoes
- cherry peppers
- hot peppers: like jalapeños or red chili peppers
- carrot sticks
- shishito peppers
- cucumber slices
- green beans
- carrot sticks
- bell peppers: fresh or roasted
- pepperoncini peppers
- baby corn
Pickled veggies are equally beloved in savory cocktails, as they bring their briny, salty flavor and aroma with them. Here are some top pickled garnishes:
- green olives: plain or stuffed with pimento, garlic or jalapeño
- blue cheese stuffed olives
- black olives
- marinated olives
- pickled peppers
- pickled cucumbers
- dill pickle spears
- quick pickles
- cornichons: AKA baby pickles
- pickled okra
- pickled jalapeños
- cocktail onions: the classic garnish in the Gibson cocktail, which is similar to a martini
- pickled carrots
- pickled asparagus
- pickled beets
- pepperoncini peppers
Green herbs and bright flowers are a great way to add color to a drink. Here are some of the best botanicals you can try.
Herbs can be added in one elaborate leafy bouquet or with a small sprig of just a few leaves. You could also freeze herb ice cubes. Here are the top herb garnishes for cocktails and how to use them:
- rosemary: fresh sprigs, candied, charred — try this rosemary champagne cocktail
- mint: fresh sprigs — try them in a mojito
- thyme: sprigs — try it in a gin & tonic
- basil: leaves, sprigs
- parsley: great for Bloody Mary mix
- sage: leaves
- lemongrass: stems
- lavender: flowers/sprigs, dried that’s sprinkled into a drink
- tarragon: sprigs
- cilantro: sprigs — great for savory drinks like the Bloody Caesar
Flowers — yes flowers! — can also make gorgeous garnishes and flavors to add to a drink. Think lavender syrup or elderflower liqueur. Most flowers have a flavor similar to their fragrance, but some are surprising. Check out this list of edible flowers for more about what they taste like.
Some flowers can be used as garnishes on a drink, frozen into ice cubes or dried and then used to make syrups and sugars, like this lavender sugar rim.
Before you freeze them into flower ice cubes or use them to garnish a drink, be sure they are edible flowers. Not all flowers are edible. Some flowers are poisonous, so you want to be careful which flowers you use. Also, keep in mind that you should never eat flowers that have been treated with pesticides.
Here is a shortlist of flowers you can use for garnishes:
- roses: dried petals work too — try a rose white hot chocolate or rose cocktail
- miniature roses
- orchids: try them on tiki and tropical drinks like a mango daiquiri
- bee balm
- elderflowers: so good on an elderflower gimlet or elderflower French 75
- honeysuckle: so sweet and honey-like — use it on this honeysuckle cherry smash
- hibiscus: great for jamaica margaritas and agua fresca
- zucchini blossoms
We’ll count spices as a botanical since they were technically plants once. They add cozy spice to tons of drinks, either when used to make the drink or added as a garnish.
Because they are dried, whole spices can be toasted or slightly burnt with a butane torch. Try a smoked old-fashioned by burning crushed cinnamon sticks or adding a flaming cinnamon stick for a garnish.
You can also use ground spices, but they can leave a gritty texture and don’t spread very nicely over top of a drink; they work better in a sugar or salt rim.
- cinnamon sticks: Add one to mulled wine for a pretty effect
- cinnamon sugar rim: It’s so easy to make your own.
- star anise
- grated nutmeg: Use a microplane and do so just before serving
- candied ginger
- whole cloves
Made from botanicals, bitters can add a visual element as well as fragrance and flavor. The whiskey sour is most famous for its bitters garnish, but it would also work on any foamy egg white drink, like a clover club.
Bitter are is often dropped with precision on top of egg white cocktails, which have a foamy layer on top. You can leave them as circle-shaped drops, or use a toothpick or cocktail pick to drag the dots to form hearts or other shapes.
I know this one sounds weird, but hear me out. Cheese can be used as a garnish on a Bloody Mary, and you can also make sweet creams to go on sweet drinks. Make sense now?
- cheese cubes
- mozzarella pearls
- whipped cream
- boozy whipped cream
- sweet cream
- scoop of ice cream
- scoop of gelato
Meat & seafood garnishes
Some cocktails can have meat as their garnish. Usually these are savory cocktails, but there could be a sweet-and-salty thing going on, too. And if you were using a bacon-washed bourbon, for example, a bacon garnish might be just the perfect thing.
- candied bacon
- pizza bagels
- cheeseburger sliders: not one of the weirdest Bloody Mary garnishes I’ve seen, surprisingly
Rims for cocktails
Next up is the rim. You probably already know the rim garnish from the margarita. When you order one, the server usually asks if you want sugar or salt. But beyond those two ingredients, there are lots of other ways to add flavor to drinks.
Salted rims are a delicious addition to many cocktails, as salt helps to tamp down sweetness. You probably know salt rims best from margaritas, but you can try them on other cocktails too. Bloody Marys enjoy a flavored salt, while a coarse salt works better for a paloma or daiquiri.
- margarita salt: made with dried lime zest
- Tajín: a brand of chili lime seasoning
- Bloody Mary salt: blended with spices for flavorful sips
- salt and pepper: add a sprinkle of freshly-cracked black pepper
The sweet rims are a delightful addition to many dessert drinks. You can use plain sugar on a margarita or try another one of these sugary rims on sweet cocktails.
- granulated sugar
- margarita sugar (lime sugar)
- cinnamon sugar
- brown sugar
- colorful sprinkles: try them in the birthday cake martini
- chocolate sprinkles
- colored sugar
- crushed Oreo cookies
- crushed graham crackers: so good on s’mores cocktails
- other crushed cookies
- chocolate syrup
- crushed candy canes
- caramel sauce
- butterscotch sauce
- toffee bits
- shredded coconut
- melted peanut butter
- chopped nuts: such as peanuts, hazelnuts or almonds
Sweet garnishes don’t end with sugar rims. Baked goods like cookies, scoops of whipped cream and drizzles of sweet sauces all add extra sweet flavor and major pizzazz to a dessert drink.
- chocolate rim
- crushed cookies
- rock candy swizzle sticks
- grated chocolate
- whipped cream
- marshmallows: toasted if you dare
- graham crackers
- maraschino cherries
- homemade sugar cubes
- scoop of sorbet
- scoop of ice cream
- sugarcane straws
- cookie sticks: e.g. Pocky
Honorable mention: If you want a little sparkle in your cocktails, edible glitter can be stirred into a drink or added to a rim salt. It’s not flavored — it just makes the drink shimmery.
Yes, ice can be a garnish too. As it melts, it can add flavor to the drink or it can water them down, changing the booziness. But it can also be decorative. Here are some great ways to use ice in a cocktail:
- large ice cubes
- large ice spheres
- small balls of ice
- crushed ice: piled on top like a mint julep
- ice with berries frozen inside
- frozen berries: as the ice
- juice ice cubes
- tea ice cubes
- coffee ice cubes
- ice with herbs frozen inside
- ice with flowers frozen inside
- stamped ice
- ice made in decorative molds: like diamonds or roses
If you’re looking for a glass decoration that isn’t edible, you’ve got tons of choices. These garnishes are purely for decoration or dramatic flair, though some have function. Most of these are even better when paired with fresh fruit garnishes, herbs and others listed above.
- paper straws
- metal straws
- curly straws
- plastic drink stirrers: also called swizzle sticks
- bamboo skewers
- decorative cocktail picks
- paper umbrellas
- mini clothespins
- candles: see this birthday cake white Russian
- flags: Not the same as the fruit flag. These are miniature flags like the ones you wave.
- plastic swords
- sparklers: Yes, the firework kind. These are similar to fancy birthday candles.
- plastic animals/toys: Common in tiki bars. These are attached to the rim of the glass.
Holiday cocktail garnishes
For the holidays, there are lots of ideas you can implement in holiday drinks. Try one of these:
- pomegranate seeds
- fresh rosemary
- red and green apples
- crushed candy canes
- grated nutmeg
- red and green sprinkles
- shredded coconut
- gingerbread cookies
- sugar cookies