Samui Wining & Dining
Is Presentation Everything ?

The world of cocktail garnishes.


22Cocktails abound in every bar you go into. And we probably indulge in them more when on holiday than at any other time. I can’t imagine you would pop into your local pub back home on a freezing February night and ask for a Pina Colada. Not unless you were Del Boy from ‘Only Fools and Horses’.

    Nevertheless, when you do order a cocktail what are your expectations? Well probably that it will take a few minutes to make. But what about the actual look of the drink and the garnish in particular. It might come with a straw, some fruit hanging off the side or actually inside a fruit like a pineapple. If it’s a Martini then maybe there’ll be an olive or two or, if you go back a few years, perhaps a maraschino cherry on a stick. Some places will put a plastic swizzle stick in or even light a sparkler and plonk that in. You really have to ask yourself why they do it. Do they even know themselves or is it just because it’s always been done that way. And do you really care?

      Some full-time professional drinking friends of mine would suggest that if it can’t be drunk don’t put it in the glass. And modern chefs have the same opinion when it comes to garnishing food; if it can’t be eaten and doesn’t complement the dish, don’t put it on the plate. On the flip side, those that work in the cocktail business would argue differently. One cocktail barman I know is adamant that, “They say people eat with their eyes. Well, they drink with them too.” Okay, I can accept that, to a point. But if a cocktail has to be ‘prettied up’ an old piece of fruit isn’t going to do it for me. And neither is a plastic stirrer.


There are only a few
things in this world that
should be inserted in
your nose, and straws,
swizzles and cherries
aren’t on the list.


      Now I haven’t been to every bar on the island: if you include all the stand alone bars, resort bars and restaurants there’s probably well in excess of a thousand places to get a drink on Samui. But I have been to a lot; if you could collect bar-miles like air-miles I think I would be classed as a ‘very frequent flyer’. And I have been known to indulge in the odd cocktail, purely in the name of research you understand. And, to be honest, I am happy when the drink is mixed, put in a glass and placed in front of me. Any foreign objects hanging in, on or around it are swiftly removed. There are only a few things in this world that should be inserted in your nose, and straws, swizzles and cherries aren’t on the list.

       That said, there are a couple of places on the island that particularly pride themselves on their cocktails. Q Bar, in Chaweng, has more than a hundred to choose from and a whole host of ways of serving them. And RockPool, at Karma Resort, take a rather scientific approach to their cocktails. They feature drinks using molecular mixology whereby the fruit is grilled daily. This alters the DNA within the fruit and in turn drastically alters the flavour profile as well as caramelizing its natural sugars. I’ve tried quite a few of their cocktails and like what they are doing. And they are focused on the actual drink itself, albeit with a touch of showmanship thrown in.

      Out in the world, the major capital cities tend to front the running in cocktail trends. Dale DeGroff who, for many years, ran the bar at the Rainbow Room, New York City says one single garnish almost created a career for him. His signature garnish is a twist on the twist, so to speak. As he squeezes the twist’s citrus oil into a cocktail, he flames it. “In the darkened bar, there would be this explosion of light,” he says. “It was a marvellous piece of theatre. And flaming the twist added a caramelized orange flavour to the cocktail.” Paul Harrington, the author of ‘Cocktail: The Drinks Bible for the 21st Century’, and the cyber-cocktail expert ‘The Alchemist’ (, agrees wholeheartedly about the importance of a great looking cocktail. “The garnish is very important,” he says. “It provides a visual accent. Like a woman wearing a hat, it makes the cocktail stand out in a crowd. And it also adds an additional level of flavour.”

      At Seattle’s Andaluca, a popular Martini is finished with a few drops of an edible gold dust more often used to decorate cakes. “It gives it a lava-lamp look,” says Kathy Casey, the Seattle-based food & drink designer who created it. At Fat Mama’s Tamales in Natchez the ‘Knock-You-Naked Margarita’ is dressed up with multi-coloured tinsel-topped stirrers. And at the Bloody Mary bar in Chicago, guests are given skewers loaded with almost every conceivable garnish for their Bloody Mary, including two types of cheese (Swiss and mozzarella), salami, pickles, radishes, three types of peppers (red and green bells as well as pepperoncini, a tiny pickled variety) and, of course, celery. Now we are getting into the realms of a darn good breakfast!

      Swizzle sticks and other objects used to decorate cocktails and drinks are also inherently collectible. In fact, there’s at least one swizzle-stick collectors’ club, and of the 58 swizzle sticks currently being offered for sale on eBay, the auction website, the highest priced one, a ‘wooden girlie swizzle stick’ from the 1940s, is listed at $35. So maybe you should keep those swizzle sticks after all, though do watch out for edible sugar cane sticks that will surely mess up your jacket pocket

      In the end, like most things, it’s all a matter of taste. And if using marinated or caramelized fruits to enhance the flavour of a drink works, then I’m all for it. In the same light, if you like your drink to look attractive, then great. I think bar owners will reflect in their drinks the type of bar they are, and the kind of customer they want to attract. And we as consumers will go to the types of establishments that suit our style. See you down the pub for a pint of Pina Colada then?


Johnny Paterson


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