Brews & Spirits

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Shatbhi Basu: What’s in a garnish?

What’s in a garnish? Each little embellishment must reflect the ideology of the drink.

Those who have learnt from me will tell you that I have a thing for garnishes. They will tell you how my eyebrows rise when I see a drink leaving the bar without one – or the wrong one. Or how I may occasionally pick one off the glass and throw it at them!

Just how annoyed I get when they are lazy with a garnish, or not invested enough. Even sneer at their infinitely minimalistic approach. Especially when they look so pleased with themselves at their super clear drink over the crystal glass ice sphere. So very naked!

In my book as a bartender, it is always going above and beyond the customer’s expectations that defines you. Putting thought not only into the drink but also its visual canvas. Making it impactful in both the way it tastes as well as to the eye.

Funny thing this: chefs are going out of the way, almost obsessive and in some cases excessive, in the way they garnish. Bartenders, on the other hand, are shying away from it, presenting their drink with almost pristine clarity.

I think a garnish is so much more than just prettiness. It offers a perspective; an opportunity to offer complementary or contrasting colours, flavours or textures that enhance the drinks and the experience, adding a value that is not measured by price alone.

Awakened artist

A garnish may be simple while still speaking out. Or it may make a very bold statement. It may be delicate and tentative, or full of humor. It can be celebratory, with a dusting of gold and silver – or sustainable with fruit or spice dust.

It challenges creativity and makes one push one’s abilities to allow for a visionary prowess that awakens the artist within us. Delicious with patisserie and confectionery, crunchy with crumble, fragrant with floral!

Dancing berries in a fizzy Gin&Tonic with a touch of fresh basil; or a curry sprig and dust on a Southern Whiskey Sour. A white chocolate bark sprinkled with toasted hazelnuts; or a simple Kit Kat on an Espresso Martini; while a zatar-dusted bocconcini sits on an Extra Dry!

A Passion Whiskey Sour with mango rosemary foam; or a Pineapple Gin Sour with guava chili foam. A Litchi Martini with pink rose air; or simply a bruised kaffir lime leaf on a Pink Gimlet.

How about a Blueberry Cheesecake Shake with ginger biscuit crumble and vanilla marshmallows? Or a Coffee Caramel Shake with salted popcorn? A peanut butter and chocolate shake with chikki crumble? Or simply fruit lemonades with fresh thyme, basil, mint or sage?

Just a simple flower can look up at you with a smile too. A slice of freshly cut orange, grapefruit or apple can do the same. They bring a whoosh of colour, aroma and flavor that elevate experiences – and that matters more than anything else.

I’m happy to see some serious innovation too by a few: using edible rice paper and digital printing to advantage. Beautiful images, even pictures of customers on the drink appearing like magic!

The one I liked the most was a barcode on rice paper you could scan to take you on a journey into farming wonderland to see the ingredients in the cocktail being picked off the trees (you know who you are!!).

What’s in a garnish, they ask me? What’s with your hair gel? Your eye make-up? Your cologne? Your shiny shoes? Your visible labels? This is me, seething even though I’m smiling. Steely eyes and all that. How’s that for a night out? Who do you want eyeing you? I think they feel me.


 A garnish challenges creativity and makes one push one’s abilities to allow for a visionary prowess.


Dressing up

It takes me back to when I sat behind a desk and did interviews. Observed each applicant as they walked in; made note if their shoes were polished, shirt was ironed well and cuffs were clean. Were they well groomed and carried themselves well? Did they have good body language?

The way they presented themselves impacted the impression they made before their CV did. Much like my drinks did. Using a sparkling glass, no finger smudges, a clean napkin or tissue and a crisp coaster beneath the glass.

The mixer fresh and bubbly, and a stirrer on the side. Or a cocktail, in its perfect receptacle, with the garnish just so, complementing or contrasting its colour, a canvas of aroma, and flavor evoking pleasure in the eye of the beholder even before the sip could.

Dressing up the cocktails I mixed taught me to present myself better, knowing that an impression made would take me on the path I wished quicker, while making me more confident in showcasing my knowledge. My body language was better for the confidence and imbued in me a sense of quiet authority over the subject I was talking about.

Even while very young, when I made a beginning to my independent career, it was this understanding that helped me step up and realise the importance of personal presentation. It also worked for me while behind the bar: the same body language and confidence gained me respect not just from my peers but also from the multitudes of people for whom I mixed drinks.

I’m a bit laid back now in the way I dress. My friends tell me I can wear rags and carry them like they cost a million. They’re being nice – they like me! But I am most definitely not lazy in the way I dress my drinks.

Each one must look great. Each little embellishment must reflect the ideology of the drink. A naked drink might well be a naked you: careless and open to being disparaged. Let’s make an impact. Invite the right attention. Like the blue pencil under my eyes and the sunglasses atop my curly mop!