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Jan 4, 2014 08:38 PM

Martini Garnishes

Alright, I've been thinking a lot about garnishes lately (consequence of having too much time on my hands), and I've been wondering: the olive and the cocktail onion both seem to be garnishes that are only ever used in one cocktail.

How is this? I can think of dozens of cocktails that use citrus twists, cherries, mint, fruit wedges, cinnamon sticks, or other common garnishes, but olives and onions seem to only have one use. To anyone who knows more cocktail history than me, why might this be? Did they used to be more common garnishes, with all other drinks that use them having disappeared? Or were they just bar snacks that someone had the brilliant idea to drop in a Martini?

Also, side note, I notice that even at cocktail-oriented bars, the more I try ordering Gibsons, the more I get told the bar doesn't have any onions. To any other Gibson drinkers: how much luck do you have when ordering at bars or restaurants?

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  1. The traditional garnish for a martini is a lemon peel.

    Garnishes are supposed to take a flavor component of the cocktail and embellish on it.

    savory garnishes are a late 20th century thing. Not about what compliments the cocktail, but just for looks and giggles.

    Traditional garnishes are citrus peel.

    29 Replies
    1. re: JMF

      I feel like the vinegar bite a pickled onion complements a Gibson pretty well, though that's just me. Otherwise I'll alternate between olives and citrus peel.

      Call me a heretic, but sometimes, if I use Cocchi Americano along with vermouth, I'll use an orange twist to complement the Cocchi Americano's orange notes. Though I guess if I make that much change I shouldn't call it a Martini.

      As far as olives being a late 20th century thing, I'll admit, I don't know enough to disagree, but since I posted this I've been doing some looking around myself, and I've found numerous mentions of olive garnishes in the Savoy Cocktail Book. One of them, the Astoria, is literally just a dry Martini with an olive. Few of the other cocktails that use them seem appetizing, though, which would explain why those haven't stuck around.

      Also, I'm almost positive Nick and Nora Charles have got olives in their Martinis in the first two clips of this video, and that also goes back to the 30s:

      But I think you raise an interesting question: Does anyone know what the earliest example is of an olive as a cocktail garnish? Is it a European thing? A Prohibition thing? Now I'm just too curious...

      1. re: A_Gonzalez

        I meant early, not late, 20th century for savory garnishes. I haven't really noticed anything from prior to Prohibition about olives as garnishes before that.

        I'll do a little research and also speak to a friend who is a cocktail/spirits historian about garnishes. (I have to be more careful what I write late night after a few cocktails...)

        1. re: JMF

          I looked through several cocktail guides (Jerry Thomas, Harry Johnson) from the late 19th century. Olives were mentioned only for martini's and gentle riffs on the martini. In these cocktails a lemon peel is squeezed on top of the drink. In the Martyini and Old Tom versions of it, an olive was only upon request, and interchangeable with a cherry! (gag)

          So far, looking through several guides from 1900-1930, olives were only mentioned in Martini's.

          So far no onions mentioned at all, until you get to the 1940 4th printing, 1st edition revised, of Old Mr. Boston, for the Gibson cocktail. (I have a copy on order of the 2nd printing of the 1st edition of Old Mr. Boston but it hasn't arrived yet.)

          1. re: JMF

            JMF, I happen to be working on the design team for a play set in London in 1935. The characters drink Martinis in one scene, and it got me wondering--what would have been the standard Martini garnish in London in 1935? That seems to be around the time things were transitioning from lemon twists to olives. What does your research suggest?

            1. re: curseofleisure

              Lemon peel or twist. Olives had been used as cocktail garnishes for decades, but if it was a really good bar it was probably the lemon.

              I will ask around to see if any of my historian friends agree or disagree.

              1. re: JMF

                the first thin man movie with william powell and myrna loy came out in 1934, and they certainly drank martinis. I thought with olives, but i'm gonna have to take another look before i say with certainty.
                Of course they were in ithe US, not UK.

                    1. re: TroyTempest

                      Great little coupe to serve the martini in...

                      This is my favorite all time scene, he's 8 stories, downstairs in Central Park, hanging out with his son, and Nora needs him to come up stairs:


                      1. re: StriperGuy

                        Love it! I love the sound of a cocktail shaker, and zero in on it whenever I hear one.

                  1. re: JMF

                    My friend Martin (of CocktailDB) came back with this.

                    "Harry Johnson specifies a lemon twist and either a cherry or olive c. 1888, but he’s of the 1880s school that drops a lot of olives into dubious situations. His Martini used old tom AND red vermouth AND gum syrup AND curaçao. That’s about as sweet as the Martini ever got. Most—not all—Martini recipes (dry or otherwise) up to Prohibition only specify a lemon twist, if anything. The earliest “Dirty Martini” recipe may be the Onion Cocktail c. 1914, which calls for 3-4 dashes onion brine. I don't get the impression it really caught on.

                    I'm still working my way through the Prohibition-era books, but so far I haven’t seen any indication that the Dry-Martini-With-An-Olive archetype began to come into focus until post-Prohibition, so I’d guess 30s at the earliest."

                    "Ok, I just went and did a quick survey through my book pile and I'm going to partially retract the above. Once you get into the 20s (during Prohibition), there’s clearly an “olive school” in development—Hemingway even writes about it. Meanwhile, well into the 1940s and beyond, there remains a school of persons stridently devoted to the twist, so that debate is clearly an old one. So, perhaps the question is when did the olive become the DEFAULT garnish? I would conjecture that happened in the 60s or 70s, when people stopped caring.
                    Note: I haven't done anything close to an exhaustive search, but I did note that Trader Vic’s Bartenders Guide (mid-40s) explicitly mentions the PIMENTO-stuffed olive, so it’s clear that particular item was getting popularized no later than the WWII years.?

              2. re: A_Gonzalez

                Apologies to A. Gonzalez. Just re-read your post where you mention the Thin Man months before i do (see below). Should have checked better.

              3. re: JMF

                Tradition considered, an orange twist wit a classic Martini may be an even better choice than the traditional lemon because one or two dashes of orange bitters is in the Martini, which is what makes it a true cocktail.

                1. re: DrinkinLife

                  Have you tasted a martini with an orange peel? It tastes flat and sweet, with too much orange. On the other hand the lemon peel accentuates the botanicals. I made four martini's during a bartender training for a new restaurant three weeks ago. All four with same recipe (2 oz. Bombay Sapphire East gin, .75 oz. Dolin dry vermouth, 1 large dash/eyedropper squirt (1/8th tsp.) Angostura orange bitters) except for garnish. The garnishes were olive, onion, lemon peel, and orange peel. The orange and lemon peel were the exact same size. All six bartenders, plus several other staff thought the one with lemon peel tasted best, then olive, onion, and orange peel came in last.

                  1. re: JMF

                    Unless it was a blind tasting, the orange peel one may be negatively biased because it it not recognized or traditional. I agree that the lemon peel is best because it brightens the gin and vermouth. Maybe instead of going with the orange peel one can go with a lemon bitters( I have and it is homemade and great) and then the drink makes more sence.

                    1. re: DrinkinLife

                      None of these folks had ever seen or heard of a martini garnished with anything other than an olive.

                      1. re: JMF

                        I agree with your conclusions, but I'm dubious of drawing conclusions from people who've never heard of a Martini garnished with a twist.

                        Please don't revoke my booze nerd card, but I don't like orange bitters in my Martini. Part of it is a conflict with the olive and part because orange is so widely (over-) used, that I prefer to keep the Martini unique -- a popular, dry, savory, non-fruity drink. I would use a twist if I were using orange bitters.

                        1. re: EvergreenDan

                          You would be surprised at how many people, especially in non-cocktail culture areas, still have no clue about properly made cocktails. This includes bartenders and servers in good restaurants, that happen to be in the suburbs of major cocktail cities like NYC.

                          I like to ask people of all backgrounds what they like and dislike in cocktails. The knowledgeable such as high end bartenders/mixologist, and the average person who may have never had a well prepared cocktail. Those far outnumber the ones who have experienced quality cocktails.

                          The past year I have worked with bars/restaurants in Westchester County, which is the county on the border of NYC. There are some very good restaurants, but even the best aren't putting out cocktails up to the quality of the 2nd or 3rd tier of NYC bars just 5-7 miles away.

                          My goal is to educate the average consumer, without overwhelming them too much, and serving them drinks that they can enjoy. If I can also attract cocktail geeks to one of the bars as a cocktail destination, that's good too.

                          The three most popular drinks at the place I worked with most recently are a traditional Sazerac using several types of Rye depending on what is available, a semi-traditional New York Sour (using ruby port instead of red wine and mixing it in, plus egg white), and the most popular, a non-traditional old fashioned using Tuthilltown Half Moon Orchard gin and house Quince syrup (run through a lab centrifuge), and very small amounts each of house Grenadine, Rothman & Winters Apricot liqueur, and Angostura bitters; for a complex and not sweet drink.

                          1. re: JMF

                            Why the centrifuge? Could one make this with membrillo and shake it for a good variation?

                            1. re: DrinkinLife

                              The centrifuge is used to separate the clear syrup from the house made puree of fresh cooked quince. If you use puree or membrillo it can be clumpy, sometimes gritty, and always opague. With a not so pleasing mouthfeel. An Old Fashioned is a stirred drink. It should be clear, or at least only slightly translucent, and feel clean in the mouth.

                              The shaken version isn't anywhere near as good as the stirred version. Also the presentation is very different. Shaken it would be a cocktail, but not an Old Fashioned.

                              In this case, the Old Fashioned is served in a double old fashioned glass over 1 large piece of hand carved clear ice.

                              The pics are from a local article, not the best.

                              1. re: JMF

                                The centrifuge makes drinks like this and in general "avent garde" cocktail jump the shark and is why you have so many people at the bars you consult for never get into learning about the classics or regard learning about it productive because those in the industry have tried to make complicated what is simple. I'm sure that drink is nice and maybe great but I'm pretty sure Don Draper, if real and presented with it in a metting would say keep is simple, elegant, and only a minute to make. And don't make home bartenders after a long day cone home and pull out there centrifuges! There is a reason the Black Tuxedo has lasted 90 years.

                                1. re: DrinkinLife

                                  Isn't the fact that most people don't have a centrifuge at home all the more reason to feature the sorts of drinks that make use of them at bars and restaurants?

                                  I mean, on one hand I do feel like there are bars that use the "avant garde" angle as more of a gimmick to distract from otherwise mediocre mixology. But to be fair, this quince Old Fashioned doesn't sound like an example of that at all. It sounds like a very tasty, and pretty simple drink to make, and it the centrifuge part is pragmatic, and something I'd imagine you could still enjoy the drink without ever knowing about.

                                  (Also, I think Don Draper, if given his choice of drink, would prefer half a bottle of Canadian Club, probably before lunch, so I feel like he might not be the best guy to ask)

                                  1. re: A_Gonzalez

                                    You could make the quince syrup without the centrifuge just using gravity filtering. But it would have to be done in the fridge overnight, and the yield is much less.

                                    Bartenders have been making syrups, tinctures, etc. for over 200 years. Lots of time with equipment and ingredients the average person doesn't have at home. That's one reason why you go to a bar to drink. There are things that you can get there that you might not have or want to make yourself at home.

                                    Folks don't have to know how something is made. They just want something that tastes good. By using a $10k lab centrifuge that I got on ebay for $300, I can make clear syrups and other stuff, AND the solids can be used in the restaurant kitchen. Membrillo as a result of quince syrup is an example.

                                    So by using a piece of equipment I can then easily make a syrup in quantity, then make it shelf stable by canning it, and make ingredients for the kitchen.

                                2. re: JMF

                                  Here's another pic. On the left is a traditional Sazerac served on a large ice chunk, on the right is the Gin Quince Old Fashioned, and in back is Violette's Dream. An aged white rum and violet liqueur sour made with egg white.

                                  1. re: JMF

                                    JMF -- You know I love you, and you know I'll drink just about anything, but that Violette sour looks ghastly. I might have to put a bag over it's head before I drink it.

                                    I wonder if you could make it as a shaken drink with the citrus, then dispense the egg white foam from an ISI or something.

                                    1. re: EvergreenDan

                                      The Violette's dream cocktail actually looks really cool, and tastes great. When first poured it is all foam, then it slowly separates into a lovely steely gray/purple drink, with a super thick foam. This pic was taken before it fully separated, just five to ten seconds after pouring. I actually ask folks not to drink it until the drink has fully separated, about 30 seconds. I tell folks that Violette is dreaming of Christian Grey... A dark, sexy dream full of light clouds and dark, gun metal steel. ;-)>

                                    2. re: JMF

                                      Those all sound pretty awesome. It looks like there are getting to be so many cocktails that use violet liqueur that pretty soon I might be able to justify buying a bottle of it.

                                      But one question: I always thought a traditional Sazerac was served in a tumbler without ice, and without the peel in the glass? Or is that just a trend?

                                      1. re: A_Gonzalez

                                        No, you are right. But in suburbia folks look at an inch of booze in a glass with nothing else and go what da f*@k!? So I use a large chunk of ice that won't dilute the drink, and leave the lemon peel in for looks.

                              2. re: EvergreenDan

                                I can understand about not liking orange bitters in a martini. Many places use too much. Or use the wrong combination of bitters, to gin and vermouth.

                                The variables are pretty huge. There are a lot of good gins. I'm still figuring out what combinations I like best, looking at the 1/2 dozen orange bitters now available, plus the 1/2 dozen best dry vermouth's as well. Then if you look at bitters in general, instead of just orange, you have several dozen very good ones to choose from.

                    2. For martinis (gin), olives or a lemon twist. For Gibsons, pickled onions. It's the law.

                      Many years ago, at the Museum of Fine Arts cafe in Boston during an exhibition of Japanese art, my mother ordered a martini and got it with a maraschino cherry. She was speechless.

                      3 Replies
                      1. re: sr44

                        I'm with JMF. A lemon peel. Anything else is covering up the taste. IMO of course.

                        1. re: sr44

                          Take a look at what I wrote above. A cherry was an option in a martini back in the late 1800's.

                          1. re: JMF

                            I nearly had a stroke when I read that. The red cherry floating in the clear cold liquid was quite lovely, but...

                        2. I know of no other cocktail* that is truly dry. Not sour. Not sweet. Not sweet-and-sour. Dry. I don't think savory garnishes complement sweet and/or sour drinks.

                          While I like a lemon peel just fine, I think a good olive is more interesting.

                          *Yes, I'm ignoring unpopular drinks like a dry Manhattan, and plain spirits (which are usually not garnished).

                          17 Replies
                          1. re: EvergreenDan

                            If a dry Manhattan is an unpopular drink, I must not be as cool as I thought I was ;-) Then again, I'd never put an olive in a Manhattan, no matter how dry.

                            But I'm with you, finding a drink that's both olive-friendly and palatable seems like a tall order. For now I think I'll be leaving them in the Martinis as well.

                            1. re: A_Gonzalez

                              So you drink rye + dry vermouth + bitters? That seems both unpopular and cool.

                              1. re: EvergreenDan

                                More often I go with bourbon if it's a dry Manhattan, but for the most part, yes, whiskey + dry vermouth + bitters. I used to think I didn't like Manhattans, but I eventually realized that most whiskies I drink just don't blend well with sweet vermouth, so I adjusted accordingly.

                                1. re: A_Gonzalez

                                  OK, so I am out of Gin, but i do have dry vermouth, Bourbon and bitters. I'm going to try one of these tonight. Do you use angostura bitters? I've also got some orange bitters.

                                  1. re: TroyTempest

                                    I use Angostura bitters, but I'll use an orange peel for a garnish if I have an orange handy.

                                    Now that you mention it, using both Angostura and orange bitters might work; I think I might have to do some experimenting myself tonight.

                                    1. re: A_Gonzalez

                                      So, I made one of these tonight with what i had in the house. The cupboard is getting pretty bare. 2 oz Evan Williams, 1 oz Dolin dry vermouth, healthy dash angostura, lemon twist.
                                      All in all it was not a bad drink. I can see why you like it. Tonight i think I liked it better than a sweet vermouth and bourbon (no rye in the house) manhattan. But i'm only an occasional manhattan drinker.
                                      I might try one again on occasion, but usually i like my bourbon or rye on the rocks and i save my dry vermouth for martinis (and cooking).

                                      1. re: TroyTempest

                                        Rye + dry vermouth + Campari 2:1:1 = Old Pal. A great drink, in my opinion.

                                          1. re: EvergreenDan

                                            So Rye + sweet vermouth + campari = boulevardier. What's Rye + 1/2 dry, 1/2 sweet vermouth? Perfect Old Pal? Perfect boulevardier? Something else entirely?

                                            1. re: PSZaas

                                              looks like the proportions are different.
                                              Negroni is typically 1:1:1 while the old pal is 2:1:1

                                              1. re: PSZaas

                                                A Boulevardier is with bourbon.

                                                A 1794 is with rye and mole bitters (a great drink).

                                                An Old Pal is with Rye and DRY vermouth.

                                                So if you did Rye, Campari, Sweet, and Dry (4:2:1:1) I guess I'd call that a Perfect Old Pal. Add mole bitters and call it a Perfect 1974.

                                                The Negroni template (spirit, amaro, aromatized wine) is powerful indeed.

                                                The Old Pal is much drier than a Boulevardier. Sip and contemplate.


                                                1. re: EvergreenDan

                                                  Hmm. I started making 'em with rye, after reading your post here: , but maybe I misread your intention, and just lucked into a drink I liked. In that post you recommended upping the whiskey percentage, so I did that too, and liked it better than the equal proportions of the Negroni. Did I misundersand you altogether?

                                                  1. re: PSZaas

                                                    I didn't mean to imply that rye + Campari + sweet vermouth = Boulevardier, but rather than I like that combination better than with bourbon. Sorry if I incorrectly implied that it was a Boulevardier.

                                                    These are all similar and related drinks. I find it is hard to make a terrible drink with the Negroni template, and many variations/permutations are good and sometimes great.

                                                    1. re: EvergreenDan

                                                      the other day i was craving a negroni, and had only gin and campari, no sweet vermouth. But i did spy a bottle of tawny port (forget the brand) that i had, and it was a pretty nice substitute. Is there already a drink like this, Dan?

                                                      1. re: TroyTempest

                                                        I doubt it, but I'm not a historian. The Negroni formula is bulletproof. 1 part spirit, 1 part aperitif amaro (Campari, Aperol, Cynar, etc), 1 part aromatized wine (or fortified, in your case).

                                                        I'd think the port would make it a touch heavy. I might split the wine part 50/50 with dry vermouth.


                                                        1. re: EvergreenDan

                                                          To be totally honest, i probably put 2 parts gin, 1 part everything else

                                                          1. re: TroyTempest

                                                            That's a really skewed ratio, which might work OK in this case. Last night I tried:
                                                            1 oz Rum Agricole (JM blanc)
                                                            1 oz Campari
                                                            1/2 oz dry vermouth
                                                            1/2 oz PX sherry.

                                                            Nice, but a touch syrupy. I'd double the spirit next time, bring my ratio to 1:1 spirit to everything else.


                              2. An aperol spritz and other similar aperol or campari-based drinks are sometimes served with olives as a garnish. It's the salty and sweet effect, I guess.

                                5 Replies
                                1. re: Olalliebear

                                  Is this in Italy? Interesting and unappealing. Of course sometimes unappealing tastes turn out to be favorites -- like Campari itself.

                                  1. re: EvergreenDan

                                    In a fancy cocktail bar in New York that I worked in. It was a fairly common request for that drink, I do believe mostly by Europeans (of course, it was often Europeans that ordered an aperol spritz to begin with).

                                        1. re: Olalliebear

                                          I know Maxwell and Natasha, and a few other bartenders there.

                                2. I have often received an olive in my Bloody Mary.

                                  8 Replies
                                  1. re: melpy

                                    I have received enough stuff to snack on in some bloody marys that i didn't need an appetizer.
                                    Including in one drink alone:
                                    pickled onion
                                    I probably forgot something

                                    *suspended above the drink itself on a skewer

                                    1. re: TroyTempest

                                      Bacon and cheese? Are you sure they didn't confuse your Bloody Mary for a hamburger?

                                      1. re: TroyTempest

                                        I had a bloody mary over the weekend that had:

                                        a pimento stuffed olive
                                        and a crab leg!

                                        When the waitress overheard my two boys arguing over who got the olive, she brought over a ramekin with 4 more for them to share!

                                        It was a wee bit ridiculous. ;-)

                                        1. re: tzurriz

                                          Great story and what a nicely prepared cocktail ta boot!

                                            1. re: tzurriz

                                              Like a king crab leg? Was this Bloody Mary made with clamato?

                                              1. re: TroyTempest

                                                No, I wish it was a king crab leg. It was a little snow crab leg, but still quite tasty. No clamato - tomato juice, tabasco, worcestershire, a bit of horseradish, pretty normal drink except for the surprise crab leg.

                                                1. re: tzurriz

                                                  I have had a spicy old bay rim in some versions.