Monday, February 21, 2011

On Citrus and Drinks, Part II: Garnishes

Citrus garnishes have a time honored role in mixed drinks as both a decorative flare, and a subtle, but important element in a well-made cocktail. There is plenty of information readily available on how to properly create citrus garnishes from sources much more learned than myself.  As such, rather than re-invent the wheel, I am hoping to point out some useful resources and offer up an opinion or two as to my own personal preferences and leave it at that.

One of the best known citrus garnishes is the lemon twist. If available, the tool of choice to create a lemon twist is what's called a channel knife, which is a tool with a v-shaped bladed edge to it that can be used to cut a steady length of zest away from the lemon.  Some versions of this tool are standalone versions, such as this one from the Boston Shaker, or its somewhat fancier counterpart here. The other common example is the combination zester and channel knife, such as this one from Oxo.  I don't have much advice as between them other than as with good knives, make sure it's sharp, otherwise it's useless.  Bartender Jamie Boudreau has a number of excellent instructional videos on creating citrus garnishes, the first of which addresses twists, or spiral zests here:

I have little to add, other than the fact that spiral zests or twists are often the garnish of choice when dealing with a drink that is served in a wine glass or flute, such as the French 75, though you will also see it plenty in drinks served in cocktail or martini glasses, or in a few instances in high ball glasses (less so for drinks served in rocks glasses). The question of whether to place the garnish in the drink itself after extracting the oils onto the drink and glass is a matter of taste; by design, dropping in the twist adds a bit more bitterness to the drink, so the rule of thumb is to pretty much adjust to your audience. Thus, if the imbiber's preferences are unknown, it may be best to let the drinker drop it in.

As a final note, if you are lacking a channel knife, fear not. You can create a viable twist with a good paring knife, though you may want to start with the next variation: the "fat twist."

A fat twist is made by cutting away a layer of peel from a lemon (or orange) with a paring knife or vegetable peeler. Again, Jamie Boudreau provides some great instruction:

I find that if you need to get to a twist without a channel knife, cutting a horizontal cut fat twist first and then slicing off a thinner piece is one of the easiest ways to go. Also, if you are looking for a reliable vegetable peeler that won't set you back too much, the Kuhn Rikon swiss peeler is a good bet in around the $4 range.

Another technique you'll see with citrus garnishes is the flamed peel, usually done with orange peel. This technique basically involves squirting the orange oil over a match and into the drink, which creates a great flaming effect. The rule of thumb is to cut a nice, thin peel and use fresh, thick skinned fruit. Jamie's technique can be seen here:

For another take on these 3 techniques, you can also check out the following video from Imbibe Magazine:

You'll notice that there was no mention of limes so far in this discussion of twists and peels. As I mentioned in my first post on the topic, limes aren't as commonly used for their peel because the taste is too overpoweringly bitter. Instead, you tend to see sliced lime as the method of choice for lime as a garnish. With that, I leave you with 2 last videos from Jamie Boudreau for the basic bar lime garnish, as well has his fancier take on it:

Cheers, and happy twisting!


  1. Dropped peels aren't necessarily just for aesthetics. Some peels especially grapefruit keep kicking out oils onto the surface of the drink (normally the spray of citrus oils on top of the drink gets sipped off after a few sips) so the aroma will last from the beginning to the end.

    Plus, dropping the twist breaks up the monotony of yet another brown drink and allows a bit more artisty depending on what shape the garnish is cut, knotted, or curledinto.

  2. Awesome post, I want to check out a couple of your other messages. Thank you!