It’s hard to pin down who thought of putting garnishes on cocktails, but for a long time, it lingered as an afterthought—some mint leaves and lime and orange wheels lying at the edge of the bread plate, almost as perfunctorily as they were added. A shift became palpable when roughly five years ago, cocktail culture’s global boom trickled down to India, coinciding with the rise of sensorial dining in the country. Bartenders began smoking rosemary, and mason jars filled with dehydrated fruits started appearing on the bar counter. Now a renaissance comes on the heels of a heightened and studied approach towards mixology that’s determined to make the garnish indispensable.
From salt air foams willing a breezy afternoon in a fishing village into imagination, and wafer papers (edible paper made from potato starch and olive oil) mimicking LSD blotters and indigenous artworks, to embellishments fashioned out of mini desserts, like doughnuts—the cocktail garnish has become a work of art. “The focus is on embracing creativity. We craft our flavoured salts, experiment with chef’s techniques, and even explore the realm of edible papers. While there seems to be a resurgence of molecular gastronomy, I personally emphasise balance. I prefer to keep it simple, ensuring that the garnish enhances the overall experience, whether through flavour or by making the drink visually stunning,” says Sujan Shetty, beverage manager at Slow Tide, Goa, a sea-facing bar.
Their upcoming cocktail menu, “The Who”, which launches on 17 December, is an ode to the eponymous English rock band. Drawing abstractly from the surprise element of the band’s secret gig at Anjuna Beach in the early 1990s, there’s a drink that’s adorned by an upside-down mini cone squashing a blob of spicy pineapple jam into the carved ice. It adds “a creative touch to both the taste and aesthetics” of the rum and yogurt-washed pineapple pandan soda drink. It’s just one among many of the Goan bar’s peculiar creations. And they aren’t alone.
At Mumbai’s Slink and Bardot, the mezcal-and Aperol-based Sunset At Slink is part of a menu that pays tribute to the nearby Worli Koliwada fishing village. It comes with “salt air”: salt and fresh orange juice aerated in a hand blender, creating “light and salty bubbles”. Caprese—a tequila-based cocktail at the agave-speciality Goan haunt, Barfly—sports a mini-salad as a garnish, made with basil, burrata and tomato. Similarly, Mumbai-based Mizu adorns their signature coconut-washed gin and Campari negroni with a “coconut macaroon-esque biscuit”; at Mumbai’s Napoli, the savoiardi or ladyfinger biscuit, comes speckled with Parmesan atop their Melodia di Caffe, a take on the espresso martini.
At the newly opened Muro in Bengaluru, there’s Eat Your Art Out, which comes with an edible paper printed with tribal Sohrai art from central India, and Heat of the Moment that’s topped with a ball of steel wool and grated Cuban cigar, offering an “olfactory” experience. The Reverse Breakfast, their take on the espresso martini, is complemented by a mini doughnut that tastes like coffee. “The idea is that you drink your breakfast and eat your coffee,” says beverage manager Sahil Essani . “Mixologists are realising that garnishes can be a handy tool to elevate guest experience. It helps with aesthetics...but it can be more than just an accessory,” he adds, summing up the trend that’s ushered in a new era in cocktail garnishes—one where they are more than just a cherry on top.
Suman Mahfuz Quazi is the creator of The Soundboard, a community dedicated to gourmands in India.