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In Bars & Clubs

Garnishing with fire adds a bit of mystery to Bryant's Candlelight cocktail. (PHOTO: Whitney Teska )

The art of the garnish is alive and well at Bryant's


"Bar Month" at OnMilwaukee.com is back for another round! The whole month of February, we're serving up intoxicatingly fun articles on bars and clubs -- including guides, the latest trends, bartender profiles and more. Grab a designated driver and dive in!

Most bar patrons don't give a second thought to the odds and ends that decorate their drink unless said accents are directly in the way of getting at the alcohol.

For bartenders like the ones at Bryant's Cocktail Lounge, 1579 S. 9th St., those odds and ends can make a big contribution to a drink's overall flavor and presentation.

While there are some garnishes that are purely decorative, a lot of them are there to set up the "drink experience," according to the lounge's owner, John Dye.

"If someone's taking a drink, it's the first thing that they'll smell and that kind of adds to the taste of the drink," he explained. "Without the garnish, it's noticeably different."

Because the garnish is there to enhance the tastes in the drink's composition, the type of garnish that goes on a drink is usually derived from the same family of flavors.

"Generally if something's more, say, on the citrus end -- and this isn't always true -- it will have a citrus garnish. The most common functional garnish you'll see is probably a lemon twist, and you'll find it in a cocktail like an Aviation or some types of martinis," said Dye. "It's because the oils of the lemon kind of coat the top of the drink."

Experienced bartenders can improvise when choosing how they garnish some of their more original creations, but even the most skilled professionals have to default to the occasional standard.

"There are definitely certain drinks that have certain garnishes, and there are some drinks that shouldn't be garnished," said Dye. "Things can be mis-garnished, too. If you added a lemon twist to a really bitter cocktail, which a lot of people want to do, it actually takes away from the bitterness of the drink."

It makes sense that the elaborate Bryant's menu has its own set of rules, too.

"There are some drinks here that have always been garnished the same way," said Dye. "There's a funny drink here called The Green Eyes that's garnished with two olives to look like eyes, and a lot of our ice cream drinks will have really specific garnishes. Whatever goes on top usually goes with the flavor of the drink, so it kind of varies, but those are very specific."

Bryant's also has a long history of unique inedible garnishes. Possibly the most well known, fire garnishes add a definite "ooh" factor to a standard drink decoration.

"Fire is really a neat sort of garnish that they've been doing here for years and years, and that just adds to the kind of mystery of the drinks," said Dye. "There used to be some really elaborate garnishes here, giant fans and things like that. They were really interesting, but those types of garnishes aren't even available anymore."

Much like some of their drink ingredients, the staff at Bryant's occasionally reinvents some of the more traditional garnishes.

"The cherries are a real traditional garnish that's changed a lot over the years," said Dye. "We garnish a lot with those, but we also have brandied cherries, which are probably similar to what maraschino cherries were back in the old days."

Classic or invented, the garnishes at Bryant's run the gamut from simple and elegant to complex and ornate.

"Sometimes more is more, but sometimes less can be more. It absolutely depends," said Dye. "I think they're all unique, just the fact that we do garnish. We have one bartender, Eric, who's just starting to bartend but he's always been really into garnishes and he does these really elaborate, chef-type garnishes that are really neat."

While the intricacies involved in garnishing a drink have diminished over the years, Dye noted that the bar culture has begun to resurrect the lost art.

"I think a lot of people are kind of getting back into it. It's kind of come full circle," he said. "You're starting to see better garnishes, more of a view toward quality. I think just in general, people are kind of getting back into caring a little bit more about their cocktails and what they're serving."

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