Dressing Up Cocktails With Toys and Tulle
August 19, 2015
Originally published in The Wall Street Journal
Filed under: Cocktails / Food & Dining
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Across New York City, bartenders are dropping pigs and fish into drinks. And customers love it.

Drink garnishes traditionally have been safe standards such as olives, cherries or lemon twists. Now, they are taking a more playful turn.

Williamsburg's Extra Fancy keeps a collection of miniature cookie cutters, in shapes like pigs and hearts, to use for citrus zests. The bar at Daniel Boulud's namesake Daniel serves its Golden Girl cocktail in a gold-rimmed coupe accessorized with a delicate swatch of ballerina-inspired tulle. The Eddy's Bedrock Fizz drink arrives with fresh meringue and a sprinkling of Fruity Pebbles cereal.

Although there isn't a unifying theme among these toppers, staffers at bars across the city are looking for ways to make drinks more visually memorable and, perhaps, generate bait for cocktail Instagrammers.

Toys1.jpg

"We do garnish service instead of bottle service," joked Barbara Sibley, creative director at the Holiday Cocktail Lounge in the East Village, which has a rotating collection of plastic garnishes, from mini pinwheels to toy soldiers to a menagerie of dinosaurs and fish.

"We have to keep them out of arm's reach, because everyone wants a toy," added Danny Neff, Holiday's bar manager.

And the animals do make regular appearances on social media in images uploaded by Holiday's customers.

"There are edible garnishes which all serve a purpose," Mr. Neff said. "A lemon or orange zest brings out an astringency and rounds out the cocktail. When you have a cocktail that doesn't really need one, what's the problem?"

Mr. Neff estimated that on a busy weekend night, about 60 to 70 toys will be given out to customers, who take them home.

"I never find [the toys] on the floor," he says.

Garnish inspiration can come from anywhere. For bartender Rael Petit, it came from street art.

Lot 45 in Bushwick sits on a block that has turned into a destination for street-art enthusiasts. It is fitting then that Lot 45's signature Street Canvas Cocktail is emblazoned with a stenciled bitters garnish. The image, of revolutionary Che Guevara, is a nod to the two Latin American spirits, Singani 63 and Solbeso, in the drink.

Mr. Petit, Lot 45's beverage consultant, once owned an art gallery where he watched New York stencil artists in action.

"l learned how to do [stencils] by seeing them," Mr. Petit said. "Instead of doing murals, I decided to do it on cocktails."

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Mr. Petit uses his own mix of homemade bitters concocted from turmeric and carrots to create his "street-art cocktails." He spray-paints the design on to a canvas created with egg whites. The stiff froth has a surprising longevity.

"You sip this drink, and the drawing will stay all the way to the bottom, as long as you're using a straw," he said.

Mr. Petit estimated he has about 150 drink stencils, ranging from "Thriller"-era Michael Jackson to boxer Manny Pacquiao to images made in collaboration with other visual artists.

"It's art, so art is always imperfect," he said.

New York is far from alone in serving inventive garnishes. Acclaimed bars like Chicago's the Aviary and London's Nightjar and Artesian bars present drinks that incorporate a splash of culinary theater, such as garnishes with balloons and glowing boxes with dry ice.

"It's not just a cocktail. It's an experience," said Anthony Granzo, a bartender at Daniel. "It's a $15 drink for five minutes of happiness. It's all about emotion."

The next evolution of drink presentation will focus on things beyond just ingredients, according to Mr. Granzo.

"What do we do now and for the future? [We] push the details for the cocktail, not just what's inside," he said.

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