LEFT AND RIGHT: Bentley crystal martini glass, Ralph Lauren ($125). Special order, 200 S. Broad St., 215-985-2800. CENTER: 12-piece mini bowl set, The Cellar Serveware ($20). Macy’s, 1300 Market St., 215-241-9000
By late afternoon on the first Sunday of the month, my apartment tends to smell like some sort of exotic embalming studio. The acrid fumes of vinegar hang in the air and make my eyes water, and the faint perfume of saffron simmers underneath all of it, lending it sweetness and depth.
The resulting aroma can only be described as that of a particularly intriguing mothball. The first time I pickled my own cocktail onions, my neighbors probably assumed a 90-year-old with a chemistry set had moved into the building.
But that room-permeating stench is a small price to pay for the result: An infinitely better, far more complete Gibson than I would ever get with store-bought onions. Fortunately, restaurants and bars all over the area have begun to pay as much attention to their garnishes as to their spirits.
“It’s always been my feeling that the garnish should enhance the drink, not merely accessorize it,” explains David Howard, general manager at Manayunk’s Gemelli (4161 Main St., 215-487-1230) and one of the masterminds behind its beverage program. He should know: From house-pickled cocktail onions to lemon twists cut to order with a channel knife to the intricate work of thin-slicing cucumbers to line a glass for a Pimm’s Cup, Gemelli is at the fore of what is fast becoming the cocktail-garnish revolution.
It’s a trend that is the logical next step in cocktail culture. Cocktails, like food, go through phases, with various facets taking turns in the spotlight. Following several years of exploration of artisanal spirits and authentic mixers, the current focus on garnishes completes the transformation of drinking into the serious business it always should have been—or, rather, that it once was.
We are seeing this happen all over the region at a surprisingly wide range of restaurants and bars. The Four Seasons (1 Logan Sq., 215-963-1500), for example, takes full advantage of resident mixologist Michael Haggerty’s crackling inventiveness and keen eye for detail. He spends his time working to “creatively make well-balanced cocktails that keep with the times.” That, he says, is the role of the mixologist in today’s drinking culture, and it affords him the chance to craft drinks that not only will please guests, but also will play into the overall culinary environment of the hotel. “I like to draw from the kitchen a lot,” he says. “I’ll take flavors that I know work in the kitchen and then try to make those work in a cocktail.”
To that end, he frequently visits the hotel’s rooftop garden; last summer he used fresh lemon thyme for a cocktail and garnished it with a handmade candied thyme spear. One of my favorite cocktails this year was the hotel’s Hendrick’s martini with muddled English cucumber and a truffle-salt rim. And the almond-stuffed cherry that garnishes the new Manhattan makes all the sense in the world—and is infinitely more interesting than the traditional, cloying maraschino.
This focus on garnishes, of course, has continued to evolve, and it has had a very real impact on other aspects of local libations. The Dandelion (124 S. 18th St., 215-558-2500), Stephen Starr’s pitch-perfect evocation of the classic English pub, features a Dark and Stormy with homemade ginger syrup; the mixologists at Smith & Wollensky (210 W. Rittenhouse Sq., 215-545-1700) painstakingly stuff oversize Spanish olives with rich blue cheese for each Bombay Sapphire martini. And then there’s Paramour (139 E. Lancaster Ave., Wayne, 610-977-0600), the standout new restaurant in the Wayne Hotel. Here the make-your-own Bloody Mary bar is redefining “the morning after” with its mind-boggling range of cocktail accoutrements for the homemade Mary mix, including vegetables (some of them pickled right there), 20 types of hot sauce, garnishes such as house-made beef jerky, and much more. “It’s like a social thing, too,” says Paramour executive chef Michael Giampa, “because usually, if one person at the table gets it, everybody gets it.” Back at the table, this motley collection of highly personalized cocktails “becomes a conversation piece,” he adds. The skilled team at Positano Coast (212 Walnut St., 2nd Fl., 215-238-0499) is no stranger to that phenomenon: a cured or fried octopus tentacle is the unusual adornment that accompanies their version of the Bloody Mary.
The flip side, of course, is that well-made cocktails take time. It is the easiest thing in the world to pop the lid on a can of industrially produced, questionably natural cocktail accoutrements—onions, olives, any other mixer, really—but the resulting drop in quality is noticeable to any discerning drinker. While these artisanal efforts can involve a cumbersome process, all that time and energy are justified in the end: Philadelphians now have ample opportunities to drink as well as anyone in the country. From classics like a Ketel One martini with Castelvetrano olives at Gemelli to wholly unique concoctions like the Roses margarita that harnesses fresh flowers to perfume the already excellent Siembra Azul Blanco at Tequilas (1602 Locust St., 215-546-0181), this is the golden age of cocktail garnishes at Philadelphia’s best bars and restaurants. We will happily raise a glass to that.