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Why Garnish a Cocktail?

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We garnish a cocktail to complete its taste and presentation! The last step of many classic and contemporary cocktail recipes is to add a citrus peel, fruit wedge, maraschino cherry, onion, or olive. This garnish adds a bit of variety to the drink’s appearance while also subtly changing its taste and smell.

Like many other elements of cocktail history, the exact origin of garnishing libations is unknown. It’s thought that traditional juleps and cobblers, two classes of drinks popular a couple centuries back, might have been responsible for their introduction, but even that’s not clear.

Peel back

We do know that the first surviving reference to citrus peel garnishes appears in Jerry Thomas’s 1862 Bartender’s Guide. However, he doesn’t explain the technique, so it’s safe to assume that it was a common practice by that time.

It’s easy to see why—on a chemical level, most of the scent compounds that characterize an individual citrus fruit are stored in its skin, not in its juice. As a result, twisting a piece of peel over a drink releases these aromatic oils. Since any flavor experience is made up of a combination of taste and smell, this garnish adds a citrusy tang.

At this point, another debate begins: Should the peel be dropped into the drink or into the trash? By dropping it in, any pesticides, wax, or dust gathered on the fruit’s skin is introduced to the drink. Further, any pith left attached to the garnish will introduce bitter compounds into the drink that can change its flavor.

Luckily, most of these problems can be avoided by gently washing the fruit in warm water before use. Leaving this type of garnish in the drink allows a tiny amount of oil to dissolve in the alcohol. The rest will slowly rise to the top, giving the drink more complex layers of flavor.

Cherries and onions and olives, oh my!

Using cherries in cocktails dates back to the 1800s. Originally, maraschino cherries were Croatian marasca cherries preserved in maraschino liqueur. The expense and hassle of importing these tiny fruits was exorbitant, so producers began substituting local cherries and other liqueurs to cut back on costs. By the start of Prohibition, chemicals had replaced the liqueur entirely.

Cherries add hints of sweetness to traditional cocktails. If you don’t have any on hand, try substituting a dash of maraschino liqueur or simple syrup to balance your drink.

In contrast, cocktail olives and onions add a hint of salt to different classic beverages. Though their origin is murky, a substitution for their presence is not. If you’re not a fan but find yourself with an unbalanced tipple, try adding a drop or two of salt tincture.

Hit the Lab

The Horse’s Neck is the only cocktail known to be named for its garnish. When made correctly, the peel of a whole lemon should twist around the drink’s other elements which drinkers of yore thought resembled the curves of a horse’s neck.

Interestingly, this drink first appears in George Kappeler’s 1895 Modern American Drinks as a nonalcoholic beverage. Here, the recipe called only for a lemon peel and imported ginger ale. As time passed, drinkers added whiskey or brandy and called it the Horse’s Neck With A Kick. This version became more popular than the original and eventually usurped its name.

For people drinking at home, the biggest challenge in building this cocktail is the garnish. Some experimentation may be necessary to place it perfectly.

Horse’s Neck

2 oz whiskey (preferably bourbon)
4 oz ginger ale
Whole lemon peel for garnish

Pour ingredients into a highball glass over ice. Garnish with a whole lemon peel.

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Courtesy New District
Say ‘Cheers’ to the Holidays With This 24-Bottle Wine Advent Calendar
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Courtesy New District

This year, eschew your one-tiny-chocolate-a-day Advent calendar and count down to Christmas the boozy way. An article on the Georgia Straight tipped us off to New District’s annual wine Advent calendars, featuring 24 full-size bottles.

Each bottle of red, white, or sparkling wine is hand-picked by the company’s wine director, with selections from nine different countries. Should you be super picky, you can even order yourself a custom calendar, though that will likely add to the already-high price point. The basic 24-bottle order costs $999 (in Canadian dollars), and if you want to upgrade from cardboard boxes to pine, that will run you $100 more.

If you can’t quite handle 24 bottles (or $999), the company is introducing a 12-bottle version this year, too. For $500, you get 12 reds, whites, rosés, and sparkling wines from various unnamed “elite wine regions.”

With both products, each bottle is numbered, so you know exactly what you should be drinking every day if you really want to be a stickler for the Advent schedule. Whether you opt for 12 or 24 bottles, the price works out to about $42 per bottle, which is somewhere in between the “I buy all my wines based on what’s on sale at Trader Joe’s” level and “I am a master sommelier” status.

If you want to drink yourself through the holiday season, act now. To make sure you receive your shipment before December 1, you’ll need to order by November 20. Get it here.

[h/t the Georgia Straight]

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Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
A Brief History of the Pickleback Shot
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Wally Gobetz, flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

It's sour. It's briny. For some, it's nauseating. For others, a godsend.

It's the pickleback shot, an unusual combination of drinking whiskey and pickle brine that has quickly become a bartending staple. Case in point? Kelly Lewis, manager of New York City's popular Crocodile Lounge, estimates she sells at least 100 pickleback shots every week.

Pickleback loyalists may swear by it, but how did this peculiar pairing make its way into cocktail culture? On today's National Pickle Day, we hit the liquor history books to find out.


As internet legend has it, Reggie Cunningham, a former employee of Brooklyn dive bar Bushwick Country Club, invented the shot in March 2006. He was half bartending, half nursing a hangover with McClure's pickles, when a customer challenged him to join her in doing a shot of Old Crow bourbon whiskey followed by a shot of pickle juice as a chaser. As he nostalgically tells YouTube channel Awesome Dreams, "the rest is history."

Cunningham went on to introduce the pairing to more and more customers, and the demand grew so much that he decided to charge an extra dollar per shot, just for the addition of pickle brine. After that, the mixture spread like wildfire, with bars across the world from New York to California and China to Amsterdam adding "pickleback" to their menus.


Two shot glasses topped with small pickles.

Neil Conway, flickr // CC BY 2.0

Sure, Cunningham may have named it the pickleback shot, but after reviewing mixed reports, it appears pickle juice as a chaser is hardly novel. In Texas, for example, pickle brine was paired with tequila well before Cunningham's discovery, according to Men’s Journal. And in Russia, pickles have long been used to follow vodka shots, according to an NPR report on traditional Russian cuisine.

Unfortunately, no true, Britannica-approved record of the pickleback's origin exists, like so many do for other popular drinks, from the Manhattan to the Gin Rickey; it's internet hearsay—and in this case, Cunningham's tale is on top.


Not sold yet? Sure, a pickle's most common companion is a sandwich, but the salty snack and its brine have terrific taste-masking powers.

"People who don't like the taste of whiskey love taking picklebacks because they completely cut the taste, which makes the shots very easy to drink," Lewis told Mental Floss. "Plus, they add a bit of salt, which blends nicely with the smooth flavor of Jameson."

Beyond taste masking, pickle juice is also a commonly used hangover cure, with the idea being that the salty brine will replenish electrolytes and reduce cramping. In fact, after a famed NFL "pickle juice game" in 2000, during which the Philadelphia Eagles destroyed the Dallas Cowboys in 109 degree weather (with the Eagles crediting their trainer for recommending they drink the sour juice throughout the game), studies have seemed to confirm that drinks with a vinegary base like pickle juice can help reduce or relieve muscle cramping.


While core pickleback ingredients always involve, well, pickles, each bar tends to have a signature style. For example, Lewis swears by Crocodile Lounge's mix of pickle brine and Jameson; it pairs perfectly with the bar's free savory pizza served with each drink.

For Cunningham, the "Pickleback OG," it's Old Crow and brine from McClure's pickles. And on the more daring side, rather than doing a chaser shot of pickle juice, Café Sam of Pittsburgh mixes jalapeños, homemade pickle juice, and gin together for a "hot and sour martini."

If pickles and whiskey aren't up your alley, you can still get in on the pickle-liquor movement with one of the newer adaptations, including a "beet pickleback" or—gulp!—the pickled-egg and Jägermeister shot, also known as an Eggermeister.


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