The Cherry, the Olive & the Lemon Twist: The Cocktail Garnish in Three Acts
Our columnist traces the history and use of cocktail garnishes back to 1600s England.
Some people take a great delight in ornamenting their drinks. For them, a drink without a garnish is only a drink in the same way that a caterpillar is a butterfly. The garnish, deployed with skill and imagination, is what pulls it out of its cocoon and allows it to display its true self to the world. I am not one of those people. My garnishing skills are basic, even perfunctory. But I have them, because as someone obsessed with the history of drinks I must: the art of garnishing drinks is almost as old as the art of mixing them, and while I can ignore history, I can’t rewrite it.
The modern craft of mixing drinks begins in the 1600s with Punch, the first popular mixed drink based on distilled spirits. In 1670, the pioneering cookbook writer Hannah Woolley included a recipe for the drink—the first one on record, in fact—in her Queen-Like Closet. It was simple: claret wine, brandy, lemon juice, sugar, nutmeg. No garnish. Right below it, however, is an almost identical recipe, except instead of “Punch” it’s labeled “Limonado,” and it adds a little water and some of the “pill”—the peel—of the lemon.
Now, we don’t know what you were supposed to do with that “pill,” as Wooley gives no instructions on assembly. Fortunately, the London Diverting Post comes to the rescue with a brief, somewhat awkward set of verses it published in 1705 laying out how to make a bowl of Punch. After addressing the quantities of lemons, sugar, French brandy, white port, water and spice to be used (for those of you who’ve got the urge to splurge, that’s a dozen; two pounds; two quarts; a quart; three quarts; and two nutmegs, plus a scraping of “gore-stone,” whatever that may be—I suspect it’s ambergris, but it’s damned obscure), the poem closes by admonishing that,
A hard-bak’d Toast must in the middle swim,
And Lemon-Peel hang garnishing the Brim.
The “toast” here was a sort of large cookie (see the excellent investigation of the Punch biscuit by the folks at 12 Bottle Bar). It was there because—well, the English had always put something like it floating in their bowl drinks, going back to the days of Wassail and such, when a tableful of Englishmen could be satisfied by something as humble as boiled, spiced beer. It wasn’t there just to look good; it was an integral part of the drink, and the topers ringed around the bowl would compete to fish it out and consume it.
The lemon peel, however, is a rather different proposition. Draping it on the rim of the bowl would in some small way serve to flavor the Punch, as long as part of the peel was dangling down into the bowl. This was hardly using it to its full culinary potential: by the end of the century, Punch-mixologists figured out several ways to cleverly extract the bright-flavored, succulent oil from the peel and make it an integral part of the drink’s formula. Here, though, little extraction would occur and the peel’s interest was primarily visual.
That use marks this awkward little poem as the first milestone on the road to the modern cocktail garnish. Looking at some of the frippery and filigree with which drinks are tricked out these days, I’m not sure if that’s good or bad. If you have to use a tiny clothespin to attach your garnish to the glass, as some bars have taken to doing, it might be time to reevaluate the whole thing. But I digress.
Through the rest of the eighteenth century, Punch was the reigning drink and citrus peel continued to be its proper garnish, one end of each peel being teased out of the bowl and draped artistically over the rim while the other marinated in the Punch. Indeed, according to another not-so-very-good poem, “Brandy,” written by “A Youth” and published in the Gentleman’s Magazine in 1738, James Ashley, who ran the most important Punch-house in London and is the father of modern bartending, hung the spent sour-orange peels he used in the Punches he served “in rows thick-strung” from the ceiling of the bar, as “trophies of…past exploits.”
Those future trophies remained at the cutting edge of drink garnishing until well into the nineteenth century. In the 1830s and 1840s, however, the Bowl of Punch began fading as an everyday thing. In England, it was supplanted by the “Cup,” a pitcher full of wine or occasionally ale, sweetened, flavored, iced and diluted to relative innocuousness. As if to make up for the missing alcohol, these were elaborately decked out with sprigs of mint and borage and such, which served both to aromatize the drink and make it look festive.
Meanwhile, American drinkers had gone in another direction, away from communal drinks and towards individual ones. Coincidentally, the first of these to gain popularity also used mint sprigs. The Mint Julep, first recorded in Virginia in 1770 and perfected by 1807, when the iced version first appears in print, was distinguished by the relative forest of mint American bartenders crowned it with. There to delight the eye as much as the nose and the palate, the mint performed the same dual role as the borage and whatnot in the Cup and the citrus peel in Punch.
By the 1830s, however, some American bartenders thought the Julep wasn’t living up to its full potential as an item to be gazed upon. African-American bartenders in the South, both free and enslaved, earned a particular reputation for the way they would erect towering cones of shaved ice atop their Juleps, with flowers at the crown and a forest of mint poking up through the sides with berries and little wedges of orange and pineapple nestled on little ledges in between the sprigs. Indeed, the large Julep that Jim Cook, the famous black bartender at Richmond’s Exchange Hotel, made for the Prince of Wales when he visited that city in 1860 was the only thing he remembered from his time there.
The Julep wasn’t the only American drink to slide across the bar bedecked in style. By the 1830s, it was joined by drinks such as the Cobbler, with its half-wheels of orange artfully arrayed at the side of the glass, and the Fix, a sort of short glass of Punch served on ice and topped off with “fruit in season,” as described by Jerry Thomas, a New York bartender with extensive experience at bars around the country who published the first bartender’s guide in 1862. For the next half-century, the American art of the garnish would be defined by those fruits or berries in season—strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, and bits of orange and lemon and pineapple were standard, but occasionally one finds oddities such as tamarinds or fresh cherries or squeezed-out lime-halves. Unlike the citrus peel and the various sprigs, these garnishes had very little influence on the flavor of the drink; they were there primarily to delight the eye. For the most part, with the above exceptions, the artistic garnish took as its canvas the so-called “fancy drinks,” a large and amorphous class of bartenders’ showpieces that tended to come and go without achieving much traction.
Eventually, though, even the Cocktail, a workhorse of a drink mostly intended to be tossed off standing at the bar on your way to work, edged out the Julep as the preeminent American drink and began to get into the garnish game. Unfortunately, without a Pike’s Peak of snow ice, or even ice at all (the Cocktail wasn’t regularly iced until the 1850s), there was little foundation upon which to build an impressive ornamentation. Even when the Cocktail did get iced, that wasn’t much better, as the fancier bars, the ones who could be expected to go in for elaborate garnishing, began straining their Cocktails off the ice, leaving them cold and clear and without anything on which to rest an eye-catching garnish. Nonetheless, bartenders worked with what they had.
In 1862, Thomas gave regular and “fancy” recipes for the Cocktail, the only difference between them being that the fancy one was “strained in a fancy wine glass, and a piece of lemon peel thrown on top, and the edge of the glass moistened with lemon.” Some bartenders even went so far as to take that lemon-moistened rim of the glass and roll it in sugar. In fact, Thomas also included the “Crusta” in his Cocktail section, an ultra-fancy, New Orleans variant of the Cocktail where not only is the edge of the glass frosted with sugar, but it also encloses a thick band of lemon peel over which the drink must be sipped.
Back in 1731, when James Ashley opened his London Punch House, one of the ways he shook up the profession of dispensing drinks was by offering to make any quantity of booze into Punch, down to a “half-quartern”—two ounces. Before that, the standard minimum purchase was a quart. If you bought this half-quartern of brandy, rum or Batavia arrack, the three spirits he stocked, the women who tended bar for him would present you with a glass holding about six or eight ounces of Punch. We have to assume that this was garnished in proportion, and had its own strip of orange peel. This means, of course, that when it came to the Cocktail, at least, the American bartenders of the 1860s had advanced the art of the garnish not at all.
In the 1876 second edition of his book, Thomas at least made that scrap of lemon peel work for a living, when he instructed that it be “twisted to express the oil.” But it wasn’t until 1890 that the Cocktail’s garnish would break new ground. First, though, the Cocktail itself changed, when bartenders began incorporating vermouth into what had previously been a drink composed of straight booze and only small amounts of bitters, sugar and other accents. That happened in the 1880s. At first, they scratched their heads at how to garnish the new drinks that came out of the encounter. The conservative ones stuck with the twist of lemon peel that had worked so well with the Fancy Cocktail (so well, in fact, that it was no longer a sign of fanciness in a cocktail, but was part of the standard recipe). The anonymous bartender who revised Thomas’s book in 1887, two years after his death, clearly felt that that twist was inadequate, but could come up with nothing better with which to garnish his Manhattan and Martini recipes than dropping a quarter-slice of lemon into the glass. This was neither particularly attractive nor helpful to the flavor of the drink.
What was needed was something as new as the vermouth. I don’t know who found the answer, but he or she must have found it in 1890. The New York Herald caught onto it in March of 1891, when a downtown bartender laid it out for one of the paper’s reporters:
“There’s no use trying to sell cocktails nowadays if you can’t throw in the cherry. The craze is not exactly a new one, but I never knew it to be so widespread before. You will hardly find a barroom between the battery and Harlem, except off the main thoroughfares, which does not boast its bottle or can of cherries.”
The maraschino cherry—the fruit in question—first appears in American newspaper ads the year before, so the craze can’t have been so very old. As a garnish for the new style of cocktail, it was perfect: it was always in season, as a European specialty it had the cachet of imported goods, and most importantly it would sink right to the bottom of the little, stemmed glass the drink was now being served in and not bob about like fresh fruit tended to do. There, it would lie in wait until the drink was dispatched. Then, as the Herald’s bartender explained, it “gets in its fine work and tickles the palate of the man eating it to such an extent that he forgets all about any bad taste of the liquor and is about ready to order another cocktail just for the sake of getting the cherry.”
Maraschino cherries had only one problem as a garnish, besides the fact that, being imported, they were also expensive: made by preserving pitted cherries in the thick, cherry-based maraschino liqueur, they were very, very sweet. That worked fine with a drink such as the Manhattan, which had a sweet edge from the (sweet) Italian vermouth that went into it. It also worked fine with the Martini, as long as that was made of gin and Italian vermouth. In the middle of the 1890s, however, the sweet Martini began to fall out of style, in favor of the Dry Martini, mixed with the dry French version of vermouth. The cherry did not sit well in the bottom of that glass.
The problem did not go long without a solution. The newspaper Brooklyn Life laid it out in April, 1896: “A recent fad is to place an olive, instead of the usual cherry, at the bottom of a cocktail.” Conscious of how odd that sounded—cocktails had never before been garnished with savory items—the author adds, “this sounds rather less inviting than a test will prove…and the effect as one tastes the olive after draining the cocktail is pleasing.”
The pitted, pickled olive—which had precisely the same advantages as the cherry—caught on just as quickly as the cherry did, although at first there was some confusion as to where to use it: for a couple of years around the turn of the century one finds the occasional dry drink with a cherry and sweet drink with an olive. But in general things sorted themselves out.
Emboldened by these successes, bartenders tried to expand on them. The two greatest successes were with the savory garnishes. The first, an incremental one, was from 1897, with the “Pim-Ola” or “pimola,” which was nothing more than one of those olives stuffed with a little strip of roasted Spanish pimiento pepper. The second one, the pickled pearl onion, took a while longer. This appears to have first surfaced in 1912 in Seattle, where United States District Judge Cornelius H. Hanford had such a firm habit of ordering his Dry Martinis so garnished that the combination was known locally as a “Judge Hanford Martini” (only later would it get amalgamated with the Gibson Cocktail, which originally had no garnish at all).
As popular as the cherry, the olive and, to a lesser extent, the onion were, there were still plenty of drinkers who preferred the old lemon twist with their cocktails. Beyond that, however, there was little that worked: no amount of monkeying around with things such as trumpet-of-death mushrooms and English pickled walnuts (huge, black things that nestled in the glass like a basketball in a Punch-bowl) could make the public accept them.
In fact, give or take a pineapple stick in an Old-Fashioned or two, American drinkers came out of Prohibition and into World War II with the same garnishes they had in 1910. Now, I would say that clearly somebody was doing something right, back then in the 1890s and 1900s. Others, however, might say that clearly there was a failure of imagination on the part of American bartenders and drinkers. They are the ones pinning dehydrated persimmon slices to the edges of their glasses with tiny clothespins.