I’ve had the monkey in my car for a few years now. It’s a small monkey, quiet, well-behaved as monkeys go. Most people who’ve sat in my passenger seat — back when we still rode in cars with people from other households — haven’t even commented on it.
The monkey is made of neon green plastic. It hangs by its curled tail from the plug of the cord that charges my phone. It arrived in an ensemble cast of characters — tiny plastic mermaids, an orchid, a little crepe paper umbrella, drifting wheels of citrus and plush sprigs of mint — garnishing a communal punch bowl at Latitude 29, Jeff “Beachbum” Berry’s tiki bar in New Orleans. In 2019, with long straws in hand, friends and I sat around the table, giggling and slurping up the delicious, shared rum concoction until we hit ceramic. The paper umbrella was damp with drink. The mermaids lay beached at the bottom of the bowl.
The contents of the bowl didn’t last long. But I pocketed the monkey, brought it home and hung it in my car. It is an object my grandmother would certainly have called “tacky, tacky,” and she would have been right.
But over the past year especially, I came to regard the little monkey with affection.
Friends and loved ones got reduced to pixelated faces on Zoom. The pandemic’s solitude we’d hoped might wrap up in a few weeks, then a few months, stretched into the indefinite future. You’d think it couldn’t possibly keep going, but it did, and then still kept going, day after formulaic day, always on, like a “Law & Order” marathon.
I’m a social drinker, so once socializing was gone, the cocktails I made at home became less and less frequent, and more and more basic. When I drank at all, I barely bothered to jigger my pours to get the proportions right. Sometimes I just splashed some rye into a glass. I was turning into a Raymond Chandler character, only in a novel where no other characters, no hard-luck blondes or double-crossing cops, ever showed up at the door. They were all at home, stockpiling toilet paper.
And garnish my drinks? Why bother? Who aside from me was going to see, smell or taste them? When would we again experience the pleasure of sharing drinks at bars, much less cocktail bars where the makers had put real thought, even art, into the presentation of the drinks? In Washington, D.C., the Columbia Room’s springtime menu in 2017 featured a drink called Into Great Silence, which positioned a Chartreuse-laden concoction on a tray that looked like a royal French garden. At Maison Premiere in Brooklyn, the house martini was prepared tableside, a choice of olives and lemon peel laid out in delicate bowls of ice. At Archipelago, also in D.C., a half banana was peeled into an octopus, draped like a possessive Kraken over your cocktail. And where to even start with the Aviary in Chicago? A drink I once had there came sealed in an opaque ball of ice. You cracked it open with the help of a modified slingshot strapped to the glass.
These are just some of the more memorable examples of what I missed most from bars during the pandemic, but also missed most providing to others at home: hospitality, which can range from simply making your guests feel warm and welcome to providing them with moments of genuine amazement and delight. And when you genuinely love the people you’re serving? That’s the best. At home month after month with unfussy booze, I missed serving gussied-up drinks and baroquely adorned bowls of punch to people I adore, whether actual family or chosen family.
So, in short, anxious drives to the grocery store over the past year, I found the presence of the little green monkey oddly reassuring. When my husband and I were both sick with covid-19 and I idled in line at the pharmacy drive-through, short of breath behind my mask and fearing that my infection would seep out and hurt someone far more vulnerable, I looked at the monkey and cast my brain back to that evening in New Orleans. All of us sipping from that shared, lavishly garnished bowl. How lighthearted we’d been; how amused at all the little details of the drinks and the bar. How fearless in each other’s company, with all that mingled breath and drinks we passed around for sharing.
That’s the kind of place I want to be.
And maybe we’re finally getting there. Places are starting to open. Masks are coming off. Shots are going into arms. Cocktails, I hope, are coming out of little plastic takeaway bottles and going into coupes. Olives are getting skewered. Mint is getting fluffed. Ice slingshots (how I’ve missed preposterous drinks!) are getting stretched out.
If you’re starting to welcome friends back, remember: A drink without a garnish can absolutely be delicious, but a drink with one? It says you really bothered. You’re celebrating that they’re here with you. You made an effort.
Whiskey sloshed into a glass is pandemic sweatpants. A garnish is the red lipstick you’ve forgotten how to apply. A garnish is Daniel Craig’s suit in “Casino Royale.”
We finally had friends over recently, all fortunate to be fully vaccinated. I scaled-up a modern classic cocktail, the Carondelet, a gin-and-honey beauty from Maison Premiere. The recipe doesn’t call for any garnish, but I decked out the punch bowl anyway with lime hulls and lemon wheels and crystal clear ice and garden mint. We drank it down boisterously, toasting the fact that we could finally hug again. The little green monkey hung out near the punch bowl, his tail curled up in gratitude.
Citrus peelThere is no more essential garnish: Citrus oils add hugely to the aroma and flavor of a drink.
Basic: Strip off a swath with a peeler or sharp knife, avoiding the white pith. Twist it over the surface of the drink to express the oils.
Next level: Clean up the slice by trimming the edges and cutting the ends diagonally. Or use crimping shears for a scalloped edge.
Don’t go for those neon red things. Look for Luxardo or Fabbri Amarena brands, whose delicious cherries are so dark they look almost like black olives. Nothing better in a Manhattan (except maybe combining said cherry with an orange twist).
I’m a fan of Stonewall Kitchen’s olives stuffed with lemon peel and preserved in vermouth. But bright green Castelvetranos are another great option. And if you have a hard time picking between an olive and a twist of lemon for your martini, remember: Sometimes more is more. After expressing the twist over the drink, curl it up with an olive and skewer them both on a pick.
If you add half an ounce of egg white (or a few drops of cocktail foamer like the one from Fee Brothers) just before shaking a cocktail, you’ll get a little head of froth on the surface of the drink, a great canvas for the color and aroma added by such bitters as Angostura and Peychaud’s.
Basic: Add a few precisely placed drops.
Next level: Drag a toothpick through those drops, connecting them for a swirl effect.
This works best with firmer fruits such as apples and pears. Place the apple upright on a cutting board and slice off a thick chunk. Lay the chunk cut-side down, and slice it into thin leaves. Skewer the leaves on a cocktail pin, then fan them out gently.
Look for the freshest unwilted herbs. Wash them before use; just before inserting a sprig into a drink, rub it briefly or slap it between your palms to release its aroma.
This is one of the most underused cocktail tools — heck, strips of it even enhance water deliciously. In a gin and tonic or other spring highball, it adds a crisp, fresh note.
Basic: Slice it into thin wheels and drop them into the glass, alternating with ice, before pouring the drink.
Next level: Use a peeler to strip long ribbons, then drape them (or use a cocktail pick or tweezers to help position them) around the inside of the glass. Add ice, then the drink.
Basic: You can make it at home. The molds (such as True Cube and Glacio) are a little pricey and take up some freezer space, but they work, getting you ice that’s close to the crystal-clear version you’ll see in some cocktail bars.
Next level: Add fruits or vegetables to the molds. This works especially well with soft berries; as the ice melts, the produce starts flavoring and coloring the drink.