Why Your Cocktail’s Herb Garnish Needs a Good Whack

Nothing freshens up a drink like a sprig of basil or mint—but there’s a right and wrong way to add it

By Carey Jones and John McCarthy

Published on April 15, 2016

Herbs are among the most popular cocktail garnishes, particularly in spring and summer. They’re naturally aromatic, they’re easy on the eyes, and they pair with any number of fruits and spirits. But in order to get the most out of your herbs, there’s one step you’ve got to take first—smack ‘em.

Garnishes aren’t just decorative; their fragrance dramatically impacts our overall perception of a drink. (Just think of sticking your nose in a bouquet of mint atop a good julep.) So you want that fragrance to be as intense as possible. By giving the herbs a smack, you’re rupturing some of their cells and releasing their essential oils, thus upping the aroma.

If you have some fresh mint or basil lying around, try a quick test to see for yourself. Give it a whiff, then smack it against your hand, and sniff it again. The aroma will be much stronger the second time around.

Herb garnishes are an obvious fit whenever there are also herbs in the drink itself: mint atop a mojito or julep, say. But even when there are no herbs in the actual cocktail, a garnish alone is enough to impart a ton of aroma and therefore impact the flavor; if muddling herbs for a drink, or making an herbal syrup, seems impractical, try using just a garnish instead, and see how far it takes you.

How Hard to Smack Them?

Always start with clean, good-looking herbs; why garnish with anything that’s not gorgeous? When it gets to waking them up, different herbs need different amounts of force. Generally speaking, the more delicate the herb, the lighter a touch you can use, while fibrous ones like rosemary can take a bit of a beating.

  • When using a mint sprig or two, hold by the stems and brush firmly against your palm before adding to the drink; you're just waking it up a little.
  • For a basil leaf, lay it on your palm and give it a light, friendly smack.
  • For a rosemary sprig, lay it on your palm and give it the biggest whack you've got.

Try it in This

Herbal flavors have a natural affinity for gin, so we're using basil in this martini riff. It's a real illustration of how dramatically an herb garnish can affect a drink—there's no basil in the drink itself, just a good gin, dry vermouth, and the aperitif Cocchi Americano—but the bright burst of basil scent on the nose brings an herbal element to the entire cocktail.

Get the recipe for the Basil Martini »


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