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  • Fred Siggins

All Dressed Up

In defence of the anything-but-humble cocktail garnish. By Fred Siggins.
Sydney cocktail bar Maybe Sammy’s High Tea cocktail comes garnished with a sliver of die-cut nori. Photography by Steven Woodburn.

After many years as a bartender, for me, the raison d’être of cocktails is their frivolity. They have silly names, esoteric ingredients, theatrical constructions and wild creation mythologies. They are inherently unnecessary, and that’s what makes them wonderful. As such, they should also be beautiful. 

London’s Nightjar bars specialise in pretty cocktail presentation, not least the Yorkshire Punch, which is garnished with rosemary, a raspberry, an olive and a custom-branded Yorkshire tea bag. Photography courtesy of Nightjar.

Bars have based their entire identities on the outlandishly presented cocktail. Nightjar, which has venues in Shoreditch and Carnaby in London, for example, makes perhaps the most Instagrammable cocktails in the world. Often looking more like Fabergé eggs than anything drinkable, they’re presented in bespoke glassware with flames and smoke and custom-printed playing cards. The speakeasy-style Eau de Vie (with bars in both Sydney and Melbourne) burnished its reputation with drinks served out of a leg-shaped shaker, and espresso martinis billowing mist. 

But, like anything else, cocktails have their trends. The venues above, while still fantastic places to drink, were at the cutting edge a decade ago. More recently we’ve been living in an era of cocktail minimalism, in which the liquid in the glass is supposed to speak for itself without all the flamboyance. Many bartenders feel that anything too dressed-up recalls the sugary abominations of decades past, when presentation took precedence over quality. A desire to create less waste means the plastic straw is now anathema, let alone the plastic mermaids that once adorned my childhood spiders. And in a bid for cocktails to be taken as seriously as, say, wine or whisky, many bartenders have forgone extravagant aesthetics in favour of a hyper-focus on flavour and ingredients. 

Eau De Vie is known for its Lady’s Leg Cosmopolitan, served in a vintage leg-shaped shaker. Photography courtesy of Eau de Vie.

But the pendulum is now beginning to swing back to the escapism offered by a well-dressed cocktail. Sydney’s Maybe Sammy, currently Australia’s highest-rated bar, sitting at number 15 in the ranking of the world’s best, has made a name for itself as much with over-the-top theatrics and outlandish garnishes as with precisely balanced cocktails. Venue manager Sarah Proietti says the bar’s approach is all about elevating the cocktail experience. “Our bar is more than just a venue for serving drinks,” she says. “It’s a stage where our team members see themselves as performers, dedicated to providing unforgettable experiences. The choice to serve drinks with smoke-filled bubbles, and our signature pink [staff] jackets is a deliberate nod to our playful yet sophisticated style.” Proietti says the bar is about creating an atmosphere “where every drink tells a story, and we offer our guests not just beverages but memorable moments”.

At Melbourne’s Bad Frankie, they take a more dressed-down approach, but with equal dedication to a fun experience. As the first bar in the country to serve only Australian-made spirits, it would be easy for the venue to take itself overly seriously as a haven for local liquid. But with a decidedly tongue-in-cheek attitude, the drinks highlight Aussie larrikinism as much as carefully crafted spirits. “Cocktails are meant to be fun — that’s the whole point,” says venue and operations manager Kieran Ferris. “We could go down that route of a very serious, minimalist look for our drinks, but, at the end of the day, cocktails are about going out and having a good time.”

the Bergamot Bellini at Nightjar Carnaby is topped with a decorative miniature peach. Photography courtesy of Nightjar.

It’s a truism among many bartenders that garnishes should only be used if they enhance the flavour or aroma of the drink, and there’s something to be said for focusing on quality first. Many cocktails have been ruined by a tail-wagging-the-dog approach to form over flavour. But aesthetics are important. That’s why humans wear earrings, arrange flowers and pair crisp pocket squares with three-piece suits. These things serve no practical purpose, but damn if they aren’t delightful. In life and mixology, a little razzle-dazzle just for the sake of it never hurt anyone. 

This is an extract from an article that appears in print in our twelfth edition, Page 70 of Winning Magazine with the headline: “All Dressed Up”. Subscribe to Winning Magazine today.  


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