Many cocktail recipes call for a garnish, the most common of which is the citrus twist. The twist is an underappreciated accent to your cocktail that can really make a difference in the flavor.
Try making a Martini without any garnish or a Boulevardier or a Negroni. The citrus flavor really adds something special to these cocktails, providing depth and flavor much greater than expected from such a small piece of fruit.
Unfortunately, at most bars, a twist consists of a wedge or slice of fruit, either plunked into the drink or set on the side, perhaps with a little umbrella or something equally tacky. As you might guess, while some of these accents can be “pretty,” this is not the best use of citrus in a cocktail, and will not have the same flavor as when citrus is properly employed. If you are shooting for an elaborate garnish for looks, that is one thing, but if you truly enjoy classic cocktails, and want your citrus to actually do something for the flavor, then it’s time to get more serious about your garnishing and learn how to do it correctly.
– The Twist –
By far this is the most common garnish in a cocktail. If just dropping a piece of fruit into the glass is suboptimal, how do you properly add citrus to a cocktail?
Find a Peeler
Alternatively, if you can cut some peel with a pairing knife and not take any of your skin with it, that method is perfectly acceptable.
First, you want a good peeler. These don’t have to be expensive or fancy and most peelers under $10 will do just fine. The most common type is the straight peeler, which has the peeler portion in line with the handle. Another popular type is the Y-peeler, which has the peeler portion perpendicular to the handle. A good Y-peeler will give you better control when peeling, but in most cases, either will work fine if used correctly.
Get Some Fruit
Remember many farmers use pesticides on fruit, which sticks to the skin even after washing. If possible organic is the way to minimize this.
So you have a decent peeler, but what about your fruit? When you buy fruit at the store, don’t just grab a few pieces and go. Remember, there are things you should be looking for in a good piece of citrus. Is the skin shiny and relatively blemish free? Does the fruit feel ripe, but not too mushy? The goal is to avoid the dull “matted” looking citrus or overly soft fruit. Think, would this look reasonably good in a picture or an advertisement. If so, it’s probably a decent piece of fruit.
Get Ready to Twist
Once you have a decent peeler and some fruit its time to work on preparing your twist. The goal of a good twist is to express the oils in the peel into your cocktail. This is again where ripe fruit with shiny peels comes into play. If the fruit is old, dry and limp, so will the peel, i.e. it won’t have much oil left and thus “suck” as a garnish.
When preparing a twist, you also don’t want to take too much pith (the white part of the peel) as this portion has a somewhat bitter taste and will throw off your carefully crafted cocktail. You want to be able to see the “dimples” in the skin through the back of the twist. Typically a piece around 1-2 inches long is optimal. You can vary the length based on how much citrus you want, how you want the garnish to look, etc.
So you have your twist, now what do you do with it?
Since we are trying to express the oils from the peel into the drink, we want to hold the “outside” (the skin side) toward the glass. The exact way to express the oils varies. Many folks twist the peel (hence the name) over the glass. Another, and my preferred method, is more of a squeeze than a twist. Unfortunately, lemon squeeze just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as lemon twist.
A flamed twist is a more dramatic way to prepare a twist. This “squeeze” method is also how you will hold a twist to flame it. See below for a video demonstration.
To express the oils with a squeeze, hold the peel lengthwise in your hand with your thumb on one side and your index, middle and ring fingers on the other. Once positioned, you squeeze the peel, bending the outer portion toward the cocktail by pushing the inner edges toward each other. I prefer this method because it tends to get more oil out of the peel; although, I’ve never done any formal testing.
Either way, if done correctly, oils from the peel should spray out into your cocktail. After a few tries you will get the hang of how much and how fast to twist or squeeze. Don’t hesitate to twist/squeeze the peel again in other places if your twist is longer or you think there is still a lot of “juice” left.
Some cocktails call for twist, but the peel is discarded after expressing oils. See Eeyore’s Requiem.
Once you have expressed the oils, rub the peel side around the edge of the glass, adding the last few drops of oil to the rim. This will add more scent to the nose as well as more citrus flavor to the taste. Once you’ve rimmed the glass put the peel in the glass with the skin side up, so that it presents better.
– The Flamed Twist –
This is a dramatic way to both prepare a cocktail for guests as well as to add a more concentrated citrus flavor to the twist.
Flaming a twist involves the nearly the same process as above, except before expressing the oils, you hold a lit match between the twist and your cocktail and express the oils through the flame, resulting in a flashy feat of pyrotechnics.
Besides looking really cool, why would you want to do this? Well flaming a twist changes the flavor of the citrus, igniting the oils, creating a stronger flavor than a traditional twist. Definitely not for every cocktail, but it adds great flavor to cocktails such as the Vieux Carre or a Boulevardier.
Below is a quick video demonstrating how to flame a twist. This is also how I typically hold and express the oils for a “normal” twist, obviously minus the match.
A few tips for successfully flaming a twist:
- Ideally use a smaller piece of peel that is a little thicker. Some cut off a rounded “coin” shaped piece for the flamed twist. I usually just make the twist thicker and shorter but keep it slightly oblong.
- Be less concerned about the pith (white part) for this one. It will help you hold the twist and express the oils faster, resulting in a better flame.
- Don’t use a lighter. Wooden matches are the best for flaming a twist as they will burn a little longer than the cardboard type, not to mention they look more professional to guests.
- When you light the match, wait a few seconds before flaming. This will allow the sulfur to burn off and prevent giving your cocktail a sulfur flavor. Once the match has a consistent flame it’s time to begin (this is also why a wooden match is better, it will burn longer before you get burnt).
- Hold the twist between your index, middle and ring fingers on one side and your thumb on the other. Quickly run the peel side over the flame a couple times before squeezing to heat up the oils. Doing this will allow more oil to be release making for a bigger flame and adding more flavor to your cocktail.
- Squeeze the twist over the flame and enjoy the show. Just like when using a standard twist, you can always squeeze the peel again to express/flame more oils.
– The Spiral Twist –
A thinner, longer citrus twist, this one is mainly for looks and packs a bit less flavor than the standard and flamed twist.
To make a longer, spiral twist you need an additional piece of equipment, the Channel Knife. This can be a standalone piece or attached to a type of zester.
When making a long spiral, you want to run the channel knife around the citrus, from a pole of the fruit slowly and concentrically downward.
This will result in a long rounded piece of peel. Don’t fret if it takes a few tries to get a piece long enough without cutting it off too short accidentally.
Once you have created your twist, it is best to wrap it around a straight object, such as the handle of a barspoon. I like to wrap it around the spoon over the cocktail to express some of the oils, then pull it off the spoon and give it one final twist before placing it in the cocktail.
As previously stated, a spiral twist seems to pack less punch than a standard or flamed twist but makes for an attractive garnish that looks great in cocktails.
While there are other unique ways that you could garnish your cocktail with citrus, (your imagination is the limit), these are the main uses if citrus when crafting cocktails.