Transforming cocktails from mundane to marvelous.


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Fine chefs know the importance of presentation, as diners eat with their eyes first. Top bartenders aren’t strangers to this truth either, as people also drink with their eyes first. That means an artfully placed garnish; a delicately sugared glass rim; or a fresh, aromatic herb can elevate even the simplest of drinks into something memorable.

“I’m a garnish junkie,” admits Ilona Martinez, vice president of the U.S. Bartenders’ Guild, Reno chapter, and property mixologist at the Peppermill Resort Hotel. “It’s a way to wow people. But it must make sense and tell you what’s in the cocktail. People sometimes get this wrong.”

Embellishments are essential to many cocktails. Take, for instance, the classic mint julep, which is not served with a straw but does feature a sprig of mint on top.

“It kind of goes up your nose, so you’re smelling it as you are sipping it,” Martinez says. “It’s all part of the experience.”

Consider flavored sugars and savory salts, made at home or purchased via specialty stores and websites, to up the creative cocktail ante. What about sending that homemade Bloody Mary into the gourmet cocktail stratosphere with an indulgent bacon-flavored salt (see recipe below) on the rim? Or try luxurious garnishes, such as flavorful, spirit-infused cherries (see recipe below), which can transform even the most mundane mixtures.

Bacon Salt

(courtesy of Makes ¼ cup)

Perfect for the rim of a Bloody Mary, as well as on top of popcorn, eggs, tater tots … the list goes on!

2 to 3 slices bacon or prosciutto

1 teaspoon coarse sea salt

Heat oven to 375 degrees F. Place bacon or prosciutto on baking sheet and cook for 20 to 25 minutes, until crisp. Then let bacon rest on paper towels to absorb oil. With paper towel, pat off excess oil.

Break bacon into small pieces, then crush into smaller pieces with mortar and pestle. Add salt and grind until salt breaks into smaller pieces and mixes in with bacon. Store in airtight container in refrigerator.

Homemade Cocktail Cherries

(courtesy of Ilona Martinez. Makes about 2 quarts)

These spirited cherries are wonderful in cocktails, but also are a tasty topping for ice cream.

2 pounds fresh Bing cherries

3 cinnamon sticks

3 star anises

2 cups brown sugar

2 cups cranberry juice

1 cup Remy Martin VSOP

1 cup Grand Marnier

Wash cherries. Extract cherry pits using a pitting tool. (“Do yourself a favor and buy a good one,” Martinez says.) Set aside.

Into a pot, add juice, cinnamon sticks, anises, and brown sugar, and simmer to boil. Once boiling, move pot off stove and add pitted cherries. Once cooled, add liquors. Divide mixture into two, one-quart Mason jars. Chill. Enjoy! 




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