Is Garnishing a Cocktail Gilding the Lily?

The wedge of dragon fruit tilted the cocktail placed on the table. And it was annoying. The drink, one of the beverages offered at a tequila cocktail competition this weekend, was lip-smacking good without it.

It was gratuitous window dressing and it required instructions from the bartender about the best way to consume the drink, which included a Creamsicle wedged on sugar cane -- and the garnish. While he had specific directions for the sweet swizzle stick, he said I could eat the dragon fruit whenever. This is more than topping a Corona with a small lime wedge, although even that's lame. The citrus does little more than make that summer piss water palatable.

Arnold Wayne Jones, lifestyle editor and restaurant critic for the Dallas Voice was present at the shindig. While holding a drink with St. Germain elderflower liqueur as an ingredient, he said, "Garnishes can be superfluous to a drink, just complicating it. However, I think a garnish that incorporates an element of the drink -- say, a few elderberries dropped in a drink that uses St. Germain -- are a nice visual reminder of what you are tasting. They kind of complete the circuit, so to speak."

Not all bartenders like to embellish. One of the tequila-based cocktails that evening had it right. Aside from a slice of jalapeño thrown into the shaker, a seedless slice was dropped into the finished drink before being passed to me. The heat added an extra punch, one ideal for the cool and windy evening it was.

Some drinks must be accompanied with a garnish. "A whiskey sour must always have a slice of orange and a cherry. A vodka tonic needs a lime," said Daniel Bristol, director of bar operations and lead instructor at the Dallas Bartending School in Lewisville.

He added that things get tricky when it comes to creating a new cocktail. "Specialty drinks seem to have exotic ingredients for style. Presentation is important. But looks don't always work," Bristol said with a chuckle when he learned about the dragon fruit.

However excessive and impractical the inclusion of a wedge of dragon fruit -- a weighty, prickly food with reddish-pepper skin -- its use in a tequila-based beverage isn't without logic. Dragon fruit (or pitaya) is native to Mexico. Its cultivation in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Okinawa give the cactus an exotic quality that turns heads and makes consumers feel cool. Its internal feel is akin to kiwi and its flavor is slightly sweet. Pitaya is also an ideal palate cleanser. Dragon fruit is cool.

It simply wasn't practical in the application. Thankfully, high-end establishments like The Cedars Social take a methodical approach in the use of garnishes. Sometimes, they have a touch of whimsy, like the mixed berries in the Tranny Love. Sometimes, restraint comes into play, with the addition of nothing more than a few mint leafs.

Ultimately, there is no official protocol. "It depends on the venue and the training," concluded Bristol.

Follow City of Ate on Twitter: @cityofate.

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