Cocktail Snacks Go Beyond a Garnish

Amy Cavanaugh

A twist of orange in an old fashioned, an olive speared in a martini—classic cocktails just aren’t complete without a garnish. But as bartenders push the limits by balancing gingerbread cookies on the rim of a sazerac or presenting an array of sashimi across a punch bowl, we have to ask: When is a garnish no longer a garnish, but something more?

“This is not something you eat for lunch, but it’s a couple of bites that go well,” says Amin Seddiq of the “bite my cocktail” menu at Washington, D.C.’s Del Campo. “You probably finish the garnish before you finish the cocktail. They’re more complementary toward each other.”

Snack garnishes—larger than a standard garnish but smaller than a paired dish—aren’t simply snacks; they’re ingredients necessary to the balance of flavors in each cocktail. The idea is a natural continuation of classic bar snacks, but presented in a more elegant way than simply served alongside the drink.

“Once you put it on a side plate, it’s more of a pairing,” says Seddiq. “These are not pairings as much as they are an elevation of the cocktail. It’s a great combination of the cocktail scene and the food scene; it’s not just a food pairing or a cocktail pairing. It completes the whole cocktail.”

Snack garnishes are taking off at bars across the country as bartenders develop cocktails with food, frequently in conjunction with chefs. Del Campo features five drinks with snack garnishes, which Seddiq says he and Chef Victor Albisu came up with while they were at a Bloody Mary competition one day.

Drinks Meat Snacks

“We were looking at the garnishes and talking about how ridiculous you can get—there were full chickens and cheeseburgers inside these Bloody Marys,” he recalls. But the experience gave them an idea: “Why not make the drink work around the garnish, so the drink isn’t complete unless the garnish is there also?”

The pair teamed up to create cocktails like the Del Mar, with pisco, Lillet Rouge, smoked simple syrup and cava, garnished with garlicky marinated mussels that hang over the drink on a skewer; the marinade drips slowly into the cocktail, adding flavor ($15, recipe). The Asado, a bourbon drink with black cherry liqueur, grilled lemon juice, peppercorn syrup and a burnt onion salt rim, comes with a juicy grilled hanger steak garnish ($16, recipe).

“The bourbon and the onion salt tenderize the meat, while the meat makes the cocktail savory,” Seddiq says. “The cocktail by itself without the steak is good, but the steak elevates it.”

Though Seddiq worked with Albisu to help develop the drinks, the snack garnishes are prepared to order at the bar; as a result, the drinks take slightly longer to prepare. As for how to consume the drinks, Seddiq says that people can go back and forth, though he usually recommends starting with a sip of the cocktail.

“Then you can take a bite and it’s complete,” he says. “You can see why we did what we did.”

While meat and mussels can be perfect accompaniments to a cocktail, sashimi is another newcomer to the cocktail rim. At Sakerum, the Wandering Samurai, a punch bowl that serves two to three people, comes garnished with a selection of sashimi.

“I wanted to do a dish and drink like this for a long time, where the food can be part of the cocktail and vice versa,” says Gina Chersevani, who created the drink for the Washington, D.C., restaurant. “Obviously things can exist without each other, but it’s awesome you dip the fish into your cocktail. It wasn’t until I really met Chef Khan [Gayabazar] and started playing around with Japanese spices and fresh yuzu for the punch that I was able to do it.”

Gayabazar fills the bowl with crushed ice and tops it with a banana leaf and a selection of sashimi that usually includes yellowfin tuna, fatty tuna and salmon. Chersevani adds the base punch, made with rum, sake, yuzu, pineapple, bitters and a bit of Champagne. Fermented blueberry shrub and two flaming shots of 151 rum, which are overturned into the punch and serve as the sweetener for the cocktail, complete the drink ($50, recipe).

“The cocktail is poured around the base so as not to touch the fish until the guest wants it,” she says. “Yuzu is very acidic, so once you touch the fish to it, it would start a cooking process.”

Chersevani says that dipping the fish into the punch adds “a little effervescence” to it.

“It brightens up the fish,” she says. “It doesn’t have carbonation, but the yuzu and pineapple reacting with the sake adds a little pop of brightness to the fish.”

The sashimi enhances the cocktail in terms of texture.

“The fish adds a little oily component to the cocktail, like when you add olive oil to drinks,” she says of the rounded mouthfeel. “It’s a touch of flavor, but mostly adding fat to the cocktail.”

Chersevani loves the idea of cocktail snacks. “One, I love the fact that you can give somebody something to eat and drink right away; we fulfill both needs,” she says. “And two, it brings the bar and kitchen together, which I love. I think more restaurants and more people should experiment more with their chefs. Not just chef-made syrups, but really something together. One doesn’t exist without the other.”

Sugar and Spice

New York’s Saxon + Parole offers several cocktails with snacks, including a maple-walnut sazerac served with walnuts on the side, and a gingerbread sazerac garnished with a house-baked gingerbread wafer.

“What we do is simple, pretty and elegant,” says head bartender Masa Urushido. “Every season, we have a different sazerac on the menu: Richard Berman, one of the bartenders, came up with [the gingerbread sazerac]. He created a gingerbread cordial with ginger, spices and cane sugar molasses. Then we thought, ‘Why don’t we bake gingerbread in-house as a garnish?’”

The drink, made with cognac, rye, Cointreau, Peychaud’s and gingerbread cordial, is paired with a piece of the gingerbread laid across the top of the glass ($15, recipe). It’s stamped with “RHB,” Berman’s initials (Urushido says stamping the bar’s name on it would be “a little too much” for the bar’s elegant style). The flavors of the cookie and cocktail mirror each other.

“When you eat the gingerbread, it brings out the flavors of the ginger in the sazerac,” Urushido says. “All the elements of the gingerbread are in the cocktail: bready notes from the rye, fruitiness and sweetness from the cognac, and cloves and spice in the cordial. But it’s not really until you take a bite of the cookie that you realize—this [cocktail] is gingerbread.”

At Brooklyn’s Belle Shoals, general manager Alberto Miranda turns to a classic bar snack—peanuts—to enhance an old fashioned. The drink has two variations—a peanut old fashioned made with peanut-washed whiskey served with regular peanuts, or old fashioned-flavored peanuts served with a regular old fashioned ($8, recipe).

“Cocktail peanuts are something many bars do, but we wanted to make it more special,” Miranda says. For the peanut-washed whiskey, he uses half rye and half straight corn whiskey with spicy notes that mimic rye, but is cleanly flavored and takes on the flavors of the peanuts. For the old fashioned peanuts, he says, “We go a little heavy on the seasoning. They’re definitely on the salty end if you just eat them by themselves, but when you pair them with the cocktail, it seasons the cocktail. The Angostura and orange zest harmonize the cocktail.”

In a Pickle

Cocktails aren’t the only type of drink that get a snack garnish—at Los Angeles’ Here’s Looking at You, the Time Card Special consists of a bottle of Miller High Life with a jar of pickleback sorbet (recipe). Allan Katz says he hit upon the idea while visiting an ice cream shop serving a dill pickle sorbet.

“I was totally knocked out by it,” he recalls. Katz and Danielle Crouch, the cocktail directors for the bar, and another friend tasted the sorbet and realized it would go well with whiskey.

Katz asked Pastry Chef Karla Subero to make the sorbet. “They brought me a sample of the dill pickle sorbet,” she says. “I was like, ‘let’s take this one step further and make it a savory dill pickle.’ So with the addition of chile flakes and black peppercorn, it tastes like a savory dill pickle but works really well with the whiskey.”

Subero made the pickleback “juice” with peeled, seeded English cucumber, vinegar, chile flakes, black pepper, citric acid, lemon juice and salt.

“You blend that until smooth, but you don’t strain it,” she says. “You want the cucumber solids in this recipe, otherwise the alcohol and gellan gum won’t bind to it and it falls apart.”

Gelatin and gellan gum give the sorbet the proper texture before it’s spiked with whiskey.

“It’s taking the shots and putting them in a different form,” Katz says, noting that he goes back and forth between taking a sip of the beer and a bite of sorbet. “I like to save the last couple ounces to pour it in the jar and then slurp that back, getting every last bit of the spice out.”

While the garnishes can vary wildly, when creating a snack to garnish a drink, bartenders agree there’s one thing to keep in mind—“If the garnish doesn’t complement the drink, it doesn’t make any sense,” Urushido says. “When we do these edible garnishes, the drink and garnish complement each other.”

Amy Cavanaugh loves all kinds of dips.

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