Forget about citrus rinds, fuck maraschino cherries, and are you kidding me with those blue cheese-stuffed olives?! Today’s cocktail garnishes are going big-time and becoming as integral to that $15 cocktail “experience” as freshly-squeezed juices, hand-cut ice, and a condescending doorman. Here’s a look at the current state of the genre—from the legit to the lowbrow.

Cotton candy

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Cocktail: Toronto
Location: Nightjar (London)

This entire list could probably consist of this theatrical bar’s most epic garnishes. Some of the most memorable include an origami bird, a lemongrass lollipop, bamboo slivers, dried starfish, absinthe jelly, and a coffee-foam-filled duck’s egg. But their most playful accoutrement is found atop the Toronto cocktail, a bourbon, roasted-pecan maple syrup, and Fernet Branca libation served with a smoking blossom of orange cotton candy (or candy floss as the Brits call it) perched above the rim. (Photo: The Spirits Journal)


Ashes

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Cocktail: The Phoenix
Location: Eastern Standard (Boston)

Naomi Levy, bar manager at Eastern Standard, wanted a burnt-tasting cocktail that literally rises from the ashes. For the aptly named Phoenix, Bols Genever and Santa Maria al Monte are shaken with lemon juice, egg white, and burnt sugar, then garnished with lemon ash. The housemade ash is crafted from juiced lemons that roast for six hours until they turn into a charcoal dust that still maintains a citrus aroma. (Photo courtesy Eastern Standard)

Glitter

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Cocktail: Pisco Disco
Location: Candelaria (Paris)
The best cocktail bar in Paris is in the back room of a Mexican taqueria owned by Americans. So it’s no surprise they’re not afraid to subvert standard mixology tropes. In fact, many of their Latin-inspired drinks come adorned with a head of wheat meant to serve as a color juxtaposition against the liquid in the glass. For the Pisco Disco, though, a blend of Barsol pisco, Aperol, Galliano, housemade orgeat, lime, and Angostura bitters is adorned with edible glitter on top, making for a party in your…eh, I won’t go there. (Photo: Glamour Paris)


“Paint”

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Cocktail: Van Gogh Gimlet
Location: Clio (Boston)

Todd Maul, the former beverage director at Clio and one of the country’s top molecular mixologists, figured out how to deconstruct spirits using a rotary evaporator. This allowed him to turn something like, say, Lillet (an aperitif wine) into a viscous substance which he uses to literally paint the inside of cocktail glasses for drinks like Under the Counter. Other ingredients get a similar treatment in his lab: For the aptly named Van Gogh Gimlet—made with Bols Genever, housemade Swedish punsch, and clarified lime—he uses “citrus paint” to create bright-green brushstrokes of flavor inside the glass. Maul has just left his post at Clio to open a new bar, Cafe ArtScience, and he says, “What I was doing at Clio were baby steps as compared to what is possible.” (Photo: Starchefs)


Graffiti (er…“Street Art”)

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Cocktail: Banksy Sour
Location: Canon (Seattle)

Seattle’s trailblazing cocktail bar employs plenty of fun ingredients in its drinks, from smoked salt, to chartreuse ice cream, to “braaaaiiinnnzzz” in the Zombie for Two. But the most Instagram-worthy garnish can be found gracing the Banksy Sour: ginger lemon-tea Scotch is shaken with Becherovka, fresh citrus, and meringue before the eponymous artist’s “Girl With Balloon” is stenciled atop the froth using Peychaud’s bitters sprayed from an oil mister. (Photo: Canon/Facebook)

Salted Air

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Cocktail: Salt Air Margarita
Location: The Bazaar by José Andrés (Miami)

At his high-end restaurant on South Beach, chef José Andrés culinary whimsy extends to the bar area, where most cocktails come with oddball garnishes. (Last year Andrés even teamed with MIT scientists to design a moving, edible boat garnish.) The Bazaar’s most famous garnish, though, is almost an anti-garnish: air. For the Salt Air Margarita, a classic marg is topped with some foam “air” composed of saltwater and soy lecithin. Forget salt on the rim—this high-tech air is designed to impart the perfect amount of salinity per sip. (Photo: My Last Bite)


Whole Fried Chicken

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Cocktail: Bloody Mary
Location: Sobelman’s Pub and Grill (Milwaukee)

The Bloody Mary has spawned an entire sub-genre of insane garnishes. We’ve followed the arms race to create the most over-the-top version in the country, festooning it with everything from grilled-cheese sandwiches to hot dogs. So far, “The Chicken Fried Bloody Beast” from Sobelman’s is leading the charge. (Photo: Sobelman’s Pub and Grill)

’shrooms

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Cocktail: Truffle Pig
Location: FT33 (Dallas)

No, not those kind, hippie. Instead, the fungi-packed Truffle Pig combines tequila with lemon juice and a honey syrup infused with powdered chanterelle mushrooms. It’s then topped with a flowering shiitake mushroom garnish so big it’ll turn heads across the barroom. (Photo: FT33)


Jerky

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Cocktail: Barbacoa
Location: Rivera (Los Angeles)

You don’t have to be Hank Hill to enjoy getting drunk and eating salted meats, so it’s no surprise many cocktail bars are now garnishing their drinks with a little jerky, too. New York’s PDT was an early trendsetter, using salmon jerky for its North by Northwest cocktail. Napa Valley Grille garnishes its Golden Bloody Mary with a house-made beef swizzle stick (sounds like a fancy Slim Jim to me). And in L.A., Rivera offers the Barbacoa, a smoky mezcal, chipotle, ginger, and lime concoction topped with a small hunk of beef jerky. (Photo: Starchefs)

Candy

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Cocktail: Ocean Blue
Location: Sugar Factory American Brasserie (New York)

Sugar Factory might be the most childish place in New York to get a cocktail outside of your mom’s house (ooh, diss!), but that doesn’t mean its garnishes aren’t kinda spectacular (Gza seems to think so, at least). While this Dylan’s Candy Bar for adults is never going to claim any prizes at Tales of the Cocktail, you have to admit its 60-ounce, sugar-packed booze bombs are pretty cool-looking. And, as we all know, the cheesy lowbrow eventually inspires the sophisticated highbrow. Though I’m not sure we’ll ever see an “elevated” Ocean Blue (Hpnotiq with floating gummy sharks) being whipped up at The Aviary. (Photo: Sugar Factory)


Juniper berries

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Cocktail: Gin Tonic
Location: Atari Gastroteka (San Sebastián)

While the Spanish-food mecca San Sebastián isn’t necessarily known as a cocktail town, one can’t ignore that the city is pumping out the best gin and tonics (or, “gin tonic” as they say) around. With their delicate preparations (tongs are employed) and crazy-ass garnishes (floating juniper berries), places like Atari Gastroteka turn these simply drinks into masterpieces. (Photo: The Boozy Rouge)

Aaron Goldfarb (@aarongoldfarb) is the author of The Guide for a Single Man and The Guide for a Single Woman.