Five DIY Cocktail Garnishes to Take Your Home Bar to the Next Level

From bright-pink onions to dressing up a classic Gibson to crisp vegetables to garnish a Bloody Mary, pickling is an easy way to add vibrancy to drinks. Brine plus time also can yield delicious, crunchy cocktail hour snacks, or even colorful jars for holiday gifts.

William Tsui, bar director at Oakland’s Viridian, began pickling melon rinds, leftover beets and other food scraps to minimize waste. He found the pickles gave drinks “more dimension, more pop.” Today, pickling is a key focus at his bar.

“What’s great about pickles is you can provide acidity and depth to a cocktail,” Tsui says. “It’s such a bright, affirmative flavor.”

His advice for newbies: Pay attention to the brine. Most start with vinegar, water, sugar and salt, but spices, herbs, chile peppers, citrus and other seasonings make a bold difference. Tsui adjusts his depending on the season or intended drink use, such as autumnal sweet spices for pickled apples or savory touches like rice vinegar and fish sauce to pickle shitake mushrooms to accompany a peated Scotch cocktail.

Pickled onions in hibiscus brine with the Ultimate Gibson Cocktail / Photo by Emily Hawkes / Food Styling by Judy Haubert / Prop Styling by Ashleigh Sarbone

‘Ultimate Gibson’ Onions in Hibiscus Brine

Courtesy of Liam Davy, group bar director, Hawksmoor, London/New York City

Stir together 3 cups rice vinegar, 2 cups caster sugar and ¼ cup kosher salt until sugar and salt dissolve. Add 3 tablespoons dried hibiscus flowers and infuse for 30 minutes to 1 hour. Strain through muslin or other fine material. Strain brine from 8-ounce jar cocktail onions.

Rinse onions under cold water and return to jar. Cover with hibiscus brine. Steep for at least one week.

Use them in a Gibson

This streamlined brine featuring dried hibiscus gives a pleasingly rosy hue to pickled onions. At the Hawksmoor, a London-based steakhouse group that opened a New York City outpost in fall 2021, the “Ultimate Gibson” is made with a half-teaspoon of the hibiscus brine, added to a Martini along with a single, pink-brined onion for garnish.

Pickled Apples in Baking Spice Brine with Gold Rush
Pickled Apples in Baking Spice Brine with Gold Rush Cocktail. / Photo by: Emily Hawkes / Food Styling: Judy Haubert / Prop Styling: Ashleigh Sarbone

Pickled Apples in Baking-Spice Brine

Courtesy of William Tsui, bar director, Viridian, Oakland, CA

Combine 2 cups apple cider vinegar, 2 cups pear vinegar, 1 cup Champagne vinegar, 3 cups water, 2 cups sugar, 1 cup salt, 4 cinnamon sticks, 1 teaspoon allspice, 3-star anise, ¼ teaspoon ground clove, ½ teaspoon vanilla extract (optional) and 5 thin-sliced apples in a large container.

Stir until sugar and salt have fully dissolved. Cover and allow to steep for one week, refrigerated. Can be refrigerated for up to 2 months.

Use them in a Gold Rush

At his bar, Tsui often combines fresh and pickled apple slices in a fan formation, secured with a cocktail pick, as an element of surprise. Vanilla is optional, but adds mulling spice–like sweetness, if desired. In addition to a bourbon-based Gold Rush, drinks made with Calvados or other apple brandies will be a good home for these pickles.

Pickled Cucumbers in Lemon-Herb Brine with Martini
Pickled Cucumbers in Lemon-Herb Brine with Martini. / Photo by: Emily Hawkes / Food Styling: Judy Haubert / Prop Styling: Ashleigh Sarbone

Pickled Cucumbers in Lemon-Herb Brine

Adapted from Cocktails, Mocktails and Garnishes from the Garden, by Katie Stryjewski (Yellow Pear Press, 2020)

In pot, combine 2 cups Champagne vinegar, ½ cup sugar, ¼ cup water and 1½ teaspoons salt. Bring to simmer. Stir in 1½ teaspoons mustard seed, 1 teaspoon coriander seed, 1 teaspoon peppercorns, 2 sliced cloves garlic and 1 sliced lemon. Remove from heat and cover, until cooled completely.

Pour brine into jar and add cucumber slices or anything else you’d like to pickle. Let sit at room temperature for 2 hours, then transfer to refrigerator overnight. 

Use them in a Martini

This versatile herb-laden brine is ideal for adding zing to vegetables, Stryjewski says. Try it with cucumber slices, baby carrots, green beans or other produce. The end result will be colorful and mild enough to complement any variation on a Martini. Alternatively, pile a selection into a small bowl for nibbling on the side.

Pickled Watermelon Rinds in Mezcal-Chile Pepper Brine with Margarita
Pickled Watermelon Rinds in Mezcal-Chile Pepper Brine with Margarita. / Photo by: Emily Hawkes / Food Styling: Judy Haubert / Prop Styling: Ashleigh Sarbone

Pickled Watermelon Rinds in Mezcal-Chile Pepper Brine

Courtesy of Puesto, San Diego

Cut watermelon rinds into 1-inch by ½-inch pieces. Put 2 cups in large container with 1 tablespoon chopped manzano or habanero chile pepper. In pot, combine 6 cups water, 3 cups apple cider vinegar, 3 cups sugar, ¾ cups salt, 2 tablespoons allspice berries, 2 teaspoons coriander seeds and zest of 1 orange.

Bring to boil. Pour over watermelon and chiles. Allow to cool. When cool, add ¼ cup mezcal. Weigh watermelon down so it will stay submerged and refrigerate for at least 1 day.

Use them in a Margarita

Originally created for Puesto, a group of Mexican restaurants in Southern California, this colorful accompaniment adds piquancy to grilled meats or as a garnish for any sort of margarita.

Brined Tomatoes in Honey Horseradish Brine and Bloody Mary
Brined Tomatoes in Honey Horseradish Brine and Bloody Mary. / Photo: Emily Hawkes / Food Styling: Judy Haubert / Prop Styling: Ashleigh Sarbone

Tomatoes in Honey-Horseradish Brine

Adapted from Beyond the North Wind: Russia in Recipes and Lore, by Darra Goldstein (Ten Speed Press, 2020)

Rinse 2 pounds cocktail or Campari tomatoes; remove stems. In medium saucepan, combine 2 cups water, ¼ cup salt, ¼ cup honey, 4 large peeled and smashed cloves garlic, 1 tablespoon allspice berries, ¼ teaspoon black peppercorns, 2 bay leaves and 3 whole cloves. Bring to boil then reduce to simmer just long enough to dissolve salt. Remove from heat and let cool, then add 6 cups water. Sterilize 1-gallon jar. Layer in tomatoes, 5 horseradish leaves, 6 black currant or celery leaves and 3 dill stalks (including flowering heads).

Pour brine over all. To keep tomatoes submerged, fill resealable plastic bag with water and place on top of them. Cover jar with cheesecloth secured with a rubber band, and leave to ferment at room temperature for 3–4 days. Skim off any foam that forms. Transfer to refrigerator. Keeps, refrigerated, for several weeks.

Use them in a Bloody Mary

Pickling fruits and berries in brine is a classic preservation technique in Russia. This particular brine yields “ever-so-slightly sweet” tomatoes, Goldstein says, which she serves as an accompaniment to roast meats, but they also can be speared and stacked as an edible drink garnish. She also recommends this brine to pickle lingonberries, watermelon or apples.

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