If there's one thing I've learned from heroic TV marathons spent on the couch, it's that in fashion, one day you're in, and the next day you're out. Sure, certain classics stay with us: the little black dress, say, or the sleeveless T-shirt silk-screened with an image of wolves fighting dragons with American flags. But other trends change quickly - a truth that applies whether you're dressing up yourself or a drink. And though they may not parade their libations down a runway for Heidi Klum's yea or nay, locals know that when it comes to cocktails, you still need to turn heads.
"Presentation is one of the first things I think about," agrees Vincent Stipo of Deuxave (371 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, 617.517.5915). "Is this going to be an up drink, on ice, an elaborate garnish that requires a ‘bed,' or a sinking/floating garnish?"
Many mixologists put great thought into composing a cocktail's look - and everyone has a different method. Some prefer to improvise: "The art of making a drink is putting passion into it," says Alejandro Alvarez, founder of Ki Bar, an event concierge biz with a rep for presentations that pop. "I use whatever I have in front of me to make it pretty."
Other approaches are more methodical. "When I am experimenting [with presentation], I usually work backwards," says Stipo, "I'll often start by thinking about what I want the final product to look and taste like. Will it be an ode to a classic, or something to create a wow factor table-side? Do I want to use fruit I know is coming into season, or do I need to fill a flavor void on my cocktail list? Once I know where I want to end up, I then begin working on how to get there." That's how he arrives at drinks like his New-Groni, a pale-pink, more feminine-looking variation on the standard Negroni. It's made with gin, fresh grapefruit, Aperol, and egg white and served in a coupe glass, with a few abstract shapes drawn in bitters on a top layer of froth.
I expect to see more bartenders using bitters to add aesthetic appeal in the months ahead. Of course, there are certain tried-and-true approaches to presentation. Garnishes are an obvious go-to, says Kim Frankson of 49 Social (49 Temple Place, Boston, 617.338.9600). "They're like the perfect accessory to a great outfit," she explains. "Garnishes put the finishing touch and ‘sparkle' in an otherwise boring drink. They can add color, depth, texture, and dimension."
But garnishes shouldn't come across as perfunctory tack-ons, says Stipo."Was the drink not made with enough citrus?" he asks, speaking to the old lime-wedge-on-the-glass approach. Instead, he says, a bartender should utilize a more aesthetically pleasing design, like the more elegant-looking lime wheel, "which tells the guest this is a garnish - no need to squeeze."
And gimmickry for gimmickry's sake doesn't bode well for a cocktail's quality. (That whole liquid-nitrogen trend was as ostentatious, and ill-advised, as MC Hammer pants.) You often don't need bells and whistles to beautify a solid sip: in fact, the best classics, like a Manhattan, for example, aren't necessarily much to look at. "The ‘classic' look will remain always in style," says Frankson. "When done properly, a cocktail can have it all: the sophistication of a ‘serious' cocktail complemented by the aesthetic appeal."
Indeed, the ideal is for fashion to work hand in hand with function. Consider the use of ice, for instance. The right type and volume of ice is important to calibrating the water content of a cocktail, but it's also increasingly playing a role in presentation.
"Recently the rage has been cracked ice, perfect cubes, and the oversized rounds," Stipo says. "I think this trend has some legs because it is quite functional. When a barkeep finds something that both enhances the drink and impresses your guest, it's usually something that will stick."
A trend that may possess less staying power? Stipo expects the statuesque glasses and colorful umbrellas that have accompanied the resurgence of Tiki cocktails may fall out of fashion soon. "Although I love everything Tiki, I think that a trend begins because someone is doing it properly - and dies because so many others follow and do it poorly." That's fashion in a nutshell. Or a coconut shell, rather.