Home Bartender's Guide to Citrus Garnishes
Updated: Feb 11
Citrus is the most widely used cocktail garnish in the world. Here's how to cut, peel, and twist it right.
In paid partnership with Microplane®
Cocktail bars spend a lot of time curating the perfect combination of ingredients for their cocktails. Balanced flavor is crucial for a tasty drink, but the recipe isn’t everything. What we perceive as taste isn’t just about the flavors; smell and presentation play an equally important role. Even the most perfectly curated cocktail will fail to impress if what we see, and smell is lackluster. That’s the importance of a good garnish.
Garnishes vary from something simple and functional like a cherry, all the way up to pyrotechnics and elaborate creations. Citrus garnishes are by far the most popular and for a good reason. They are versatile and widely available. Citrus garnishes also add a beguiling oil aroma that enhances the taste of any good drink.
In this article, I show you how to craft and use the most popular types of citrus garnishes to up your home bartending game today.
Wedges, Wheels, and Slices
Used in a variety of cocktails, you will find these garnishes in South or Central American drinks as well as highballs. This is because the alcohol in these drinks is usually strong, and large citrus garnishes help tame it. Lemons and limes are the most common. Use these in drinks like the Margarita, Daiquiri, and Mojito or simple highballs such as a gin and tonic or rum and coke.
To cut citrus wheels and slices
Make sure you have a proper pairing knife.
Cut 1/8-1/4 inch thick slices with knife. Make sure your knife is sharp so the cut is clean.
Cut a slit in the wheel up to the center so that it will sit on the rim of a glass. If you want to make a slice, cut the wheel in half.
Make sure you remove the seeds with the pairing knife before placing in drink.
To cut citrus wedges
Wedges allow the drinker to squeeze more juice into the drink and adds a stable citrus flavor with every sip.
First, cut off the “knobs” of the citrus fruit (the short ends) until you have a flat top and bottom.
Set fruit on one flat edge and slice completely in half lengthwise.
Set one half of the fruit down flat on your cutting board.
Begin to slice wedges between 1/4-1/2 inch thick. This should net about 3-4 wedges per half.
Cut a slit halfway into wedge and mount on rim of the glass.
Twists are a more elegant type of cocktail garnish that uses a swath of the peel to add citrus oils and smell to the drink. This is almost always done with a lemon or orange peel. Twists are slightly more complicated than wedges or wheels but are essential to making drinks like the Old Fashioned, Negroni, Sazerac, and countless others.
You can cut a twist with a pairing knife, but using a good citrus peeler is highly recommended. It will give you better control and might save you from some unfortunate finger cuts.
Hold a whole citrus fruit firmly in the palm of one hand
With your other hand, make an incision at the top of the fruit with your knife or citrus peeler.
Pull down gently. You just want the peel; leave as much of the fruit and pulp behind as possible.
Once you have a small cut, grasp the top of the twist with your thump holding the fruit. Continue to pull gently with the cutting tool in your other hand until you reach the other end of the fruit.
Inspect your twist. A proper twist should have as little of the “pith” as possible. The pith is the white spongy stuff on the underside of the peel. This is bitter, so you might want to cut some off if you have too much and avoid cutting as deep next time.
Hold the twist lengthwise between your thumb and first two fingers on both hands. Pinch your fingers together to release the citrus oils over your drink. This gives it a pleasant citrus smell.
Drop directly in drink or give it a “twist” to release more oils.
Make sure you select only the freshest, firm, and thick-skinned citrus for this garnish.
Using a channel knife (like this one from Microplane) start at the top of the fruit and cut slowly in a continuous strip.
The best tactic is to keep your hand with the channel knife still, and firm and the rotate the citrus with your other hand. This allows you to maintain consistent pressure and maximize the peel.
Arrange the finished spiral inside a narrow glass and drape one end over the rim.
Zests are the least common citrus garnish on this list and the most unique. Zests are optional but add a pleasant citrus aroma to foamy, creamy drinks like a Ramos Gin Fizz or a Gin sour as well as crushed ice cocktails such as the Queens Park Swizzle.
Using a citrus zester like this, place your citrus on the grater and rub back and forth until you reach the white pith.
Rotate the fruit to another section until you have removed the peel.
Flip the grater over and remove the built-up zest.
Sprinkle the zest over the cocktail.