Getting down and dirty about garnishes

‘HEY JEFF,” SAID the man upon approaching the bar. It took a long second before I recognized him.

Bartenders get good at the details. I remembered, two years ago; a wife, kid, dirty martini, very dirty, if memory serves. In an industry where drink memory is more important than names, a customer can quickly become “that dirty martini guy.” The public won’t know who is being talked about, but every other bartender in town will.

“John,” I said.

“Tom, actually,” he said.

“Right. A dirty Square One martini?”

“Great memory.”

About some things.

“I just got divorced,” he said. “You remember Sally, don’t you?”

“Sure,” I said. Gin gimlet; half Roses lime, half fresh lime. “Sorry to hear that.”

“We never were compatible.”

“Don’t you have a daughter?”

“Yeah,” he paused. “But Sally and I never saw eye to eye.”

Bartenders have thousands of conversations like this. People pour out the intimate details of their lives to us. Girlfriends, boyfriends, wives and husbands, we hear it all. Sometimes it happens directly, like with Tom, and sometimes indirectly, by them acting it out in front of us. Bartending is much more than making drinks. It is about people.

“Can I get a drink over here?” said another man; reminding me that bartending also can be just about making drinks.

“Two dirty martinis for the ladies,” said the man, gesturing at two women who probably rarely heard the word “ladies.”

“Extra dirty,” they said in unison like prepubescent girls, except that they had easily lapped puberty, perhaps by as many as four times. I don’t know why some women speak like little girls when they are trying to act sexy. It doesn’t come off as sexy; it comes off as a little creepy.

“Not Christina Aguilera dirty, but Britney Spears dirty,” they said in practiced unison, adding to the creepiness.

“More like Adam Lambert dirty,” said Tom.

Odd choice, I thought, but both women laughed.

I have written before about dirty martinis. How recycled olive brine is not something to be added to drinks, ever — especially not after every single finger in the place has scooped out the olives themselves. But I don’t judge.

Garnishes are the makeup of the cocktail world. Pretty garnishes can make an unappealing drink presentable. Expensive candied cherries make the best Manhattan better, and a Meyer lemon will make even the most mundane gin and tonic pop. However, it also works in reverse; one bad olive can ruin a perfectly good martini.

Here are a few rules of thumb (pun intended) about garnishes:

• Never drop your fruit wedge into your drink. Rarely does garnish fruit get washed. I have worked in many restaurants — including some of the top in the country — trust me on this. Would you take a bite of an unwashed apple? Unlikely. But every day people soak unwashed fruit in their beverage of choice.

• If you get olives at the olive bar in your local supermarket — which I highly recommend — rinse them off before you use them. Nothing ruins an icy cold extra dry martini like an oil slick on top.

• When garnishing with a twist, it is actually better to use a zest. By zesting the fruit (scraping off the outer layer of skin) you add the oil of the rind without the bitterness of the pith (the white part). In fact, you can forgo dropping the fruit in altogether if you zest over and into the drink.

The two ladies wanted lemons, too, which shot down two of my three rules of thumb. But when dealing directly with customers I don’t correct them. If asked, I answer; if not, I just do. There is a time for voicing ones opinion, and it’s not every single moment of every single day.

“Nice to see you again,” said Tom.

I smiled.

“You’ve always been very nice.”

“That’s what I’m here for,” I said already moving on to other customers.

When I returned to Tom’s spot, he had already left. A $20 bill was tucked neatly beneath his glass along with his business card. On the back of the card it read, “Call me sometime.”

I was left with these thoughts:

• I guess he and his wife really didn’t see eye to eye.

• It is possible to work with people all the time and still totally misjudge them.

• I am going to start talking much more about my wife at work. A lot.