Creating Instagram-Worthy Garnishes
The first way a customer experiences a cocktail is with their eyes. These days, with more and more people finding bars through Instagram and other social media outlets, visually appealing cocktails are more than just nice to have—they can be magnets for drawing people in. That’s something that Nikki McCutcheon, the beverage manager for TAO Group in New York, understands and uses to her advantage.
McCutcheon oversees the wine lists and cocktail programs at the TAO venues in the Moxy Times Square Hotel, including Magic Hour Rooftop Bar & Lounge, Legasea Seafood Brasserie, and Bar Moxy. We caught up with McCutcheon to talk about her essential garnish tools and how to create attractive garnishes at high-volume bars.
How does the garnish play into creating a new drink for you?
Finding the right garnish is always a big part of the creative process because everything is posted online and shared on social media. It has to be a visually appealing cocktail—you can’t just have a simple lemon or lime anymore.
When we’re crafting cocktails, it’s not just the liquid that’s in the glass; it’s the glass itself and the garnish. That’s part of the whole work of art that the cocktail is. A lot of people go to specific bars because they say, “Oh my gosh, I saw this wonderful cocktail posted online or in a magazine and now I want to try it.” It goes a long way.
What are your tips for making eye-catching garnishes that you can also do at high volume?
I think a really good fruit peeler and a channel knife are the go-to behind-the-bar tools that you’re reaching for most. What we do at Legasea is we have a really cute grapefruit rose that we make by pre-peeling a bunch of grapefruit, twisting them tight, and skewering them. If you look at it from the side, you see this pretty rose shape. What’s nice is you can pre-batch them for high volume, because a lot of the time, other really intricate garnishes are hard to do on the fly when you’re doing like 400‒500 cocktails a night.
You want something pretty, but also something that makes sense that you can execute well. We also have this really cute bird—we call it a little lemon bird. We again just use a fruit peeler, make a bunch of lemon peels, cut the edge of them diagonally, put a little slit in the middle, and fold it in half. Put it on a Martini glass, and it looks like a little bird.
What garnish tools do you think aren’t being used enough?
I think zesters and channel knives are the least used. I think a lot of places have moved away from them because it does take a while to get a channel knife really in there to get a nice lemon or lime zest to put in a Martini glass or on a swizzle stick.
With the zester, you can zest anything from citrus to hazelnuts to chocolate in the fall and winter seasons. I think it goes a long way to making the cocktail special.
Do you have any favorite ways to make an eye-catching garnish that doesn’t require too many tools?
I think people are getting more creative with things they batch, like making different ice cubes. We’ve made ice with pomegranate in it and it’s really visually appealing, and people are using good ice molds to make square cubes. And then there’s using dried florals and things you don’t have to make right there, but are visually appealing on top of the bar and in a drink.
Try one of McCutcheon’s drinks and garnishes for yourself.
Brazilian Strawberry Blonde
- 1.5 oz. Bacardí
- .5 oz. cachaça
- 1.5 oz. strawberry syrup
- 1 oz. lemon juice
- Lemon bird peel (for garnish; see McCutcheon’s steps above)
Preparation: Build ingredients in tin; strain into a Martini glass. Garnish with lemon bird peel.
- 1.5 oz. Avión Silver Tequila
- 1 oz. lime juice
- .5 oz. Demerara
- 2 dashes Angostura Bitters
- Jarritos (to top)
- Grapefruit rose (for garnish; see McCutcheon’s steps above)
Preparation: Build ingredients in tin; strain over fresh ice into highball glass. Top with Jarritos. Garnish with grapefruit rose.
Meet Nikki McCutcheon
Nikki McCutcheon is a native of Rochester, New York. She began her career in the hospitality industry during high school working for a friend’s family business, where she learned the ins and outs of operations as a busser, server, and hostess.
In 2009, Nikki moved to New York City and earned an associate’s degree in advertising and marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology before switching gears and studying hospitality and business management at St. John’s University, where she received her bachelor’s degree. Throughout her schooling, McCutcheon worked at the popular sports bar Brother Jimmy’s as a server and at TAO Uptown as a hostess. In 2012, Nikki moved to TAO Group’s Dream Downtown and assumed the position of maître d’, and eventually moved into a management position. In her new role, Nikki began to take on additional responsibilities and discovered she had an interest in beverage.
In 2015, as her passion for beverage grew, McCutcheon began studying for her sommelier license, and was certified by the Court of Master Sommeliers in 2018. Having built an exemplary knowledge of wines and mixology, McCutcheon recently developed a wine and spirits class called Sips in the City and hosts the biweekly classes at Moxy Times Square. Today, she is a beverage manager for TAO Group and oversees the wine lists and cocktail programs at the TAO venues within the Moxy Times Square Hotel including Magic Hour Rooftop Bar & Lounge, Legasea Seafood Brasserie, and Bar Moxy.