Not in that glass – How to get the aesthetics right for serving drinks

A simple garnish makes a difference

When we eat out we have come to expect a certain kind of aesthetic but we don’t know how to get the aesthetics right for serving drinks.  Tiny details from the plates used to the choice of cutlery and even the serviette will have been agonised over.  Indeed, the whole experience can sometimes even go a little too wanky (British English. indulgent, pretentious,  showy and useless). We don’t blink if you chips/fries are served in a plant pot or your stake comes to you on a piece of slate it’s a far cry from the days of Chicken in a basket.

The same cannot be said about what we drink out of, it can be a completely overlooked aspect of the experience of eating or drinking out. The worst I’ve experienced is tea served in a chipped cup that smelt, pilsners served in hot glasses straight out of the dishwasher and wine served in a plastic beaker – even cocktails served “naked”, that is with no garnish can sometimes just look wrong. I know I’m in danger of sounding like a fussy bastard, but there should be as much effort in how you’re serving your drinks as how you serve your food.

Getting the aesthetics right for serving drinks – learning the hard way.

I’m not immune to making some of the worst mistakes myself, consider the first few times I made vermouth.  I was concentrating on how it might have been made originally and so I obsessed about these details rather than how it looked. I made the caramel from very dark, unrefined sugar loaves that I’d picked up from a Mexican market. This was mistake number one, the next mistake was how it was served,  I poured it from a half filled two-litre green plastic bottle with the part of the old fizzy water label still hanging off, the third and final mistake was to serve it in mismatching plastic camping mugs. I thought it tasted very good, but I admit it did look like pond water.

Unsurprisingly, no one particularly cared for it. At the same time, I noticed how deep red and clear looking drinks served up good-looking glass bottles into clear mock crystal glass were being lapped up.  I quickly switched what I was making and started using white sugar to make the caramel. My vermouth became crystal clear with a hint of red, some would say perhaps even slightly pink. I served this from a glass bottle and put an old style label on it. Suddenly, everyone wanted some even though it was essentially the same drink.

I now urge anyone I consult with to get this aspect of their business right first and foremost, I also serve up all of my drinks on booze walks and during cocktail evenings from glass bottles with flip top lids and neatly drawn luggage tags tied dangling down from the metal fastener whilst also ensuring the glassware matches. If available, I also add a carefully crafted garnish. Murky drinks don’t get a look in, nor does cheap looking plastic.

The Science behind getting the aesthetics right for serving drinks

It has been long documented that visual cues are known to be a very powerful cue in how we taste. A very well-known and much-repeated experiment has been to give wine tasters a white wine that was flavoured with red food colouring. It was recreated by TV host Stephan Gates and he gave members of a London wine club Pinot Gris coloured to look like a pale, red wine. They all thought they were drinking red wine and when he revealed to them what they were actually drinking it was met with shock and surprise.

A rather more scholarly test was conducted in a joint study between Oxford University and the Polytechnic University of Valencia. They gave 57 volunteers identical hot chocolate in four different cups coloured orange, white, red and cream. After drinking they were asked to rate it on a sliding scale for sweetness, aroma, enjoyment and sweetness. Orange and cream cups won out on flavour and white cups scored the lowest.

It is perhaps not unsurprising that the look of a drink can drastically alter our taste when we consider that the retina is actually an outgrowth of the brain and that around 30% of our neurones are devoted to visual processing.  Indeed, it is now believed that our eyes are so powerful that we can detect a single photon of light in an otherwise darkened room. Like it or not, we are an aesthetically driven species.

In conclusion

What does this mean for a practical use for bartenders, restaurant owners and those serving drinks all day in a cafe or even for those serving drinks at home? It’s quite simple really, it really means that you shouldn’t underestimate how much your cups and glasses say about their contents. Even if your customers are not as fussy as I am they will be making assumptions about what you have served them on an unconscious level. Perhaps it is time to ditch the polystyrene cups and you may need to start serving your chicken in a basket in a hand weaved willow whip basket rather than a plastic one.  Perhaps it’s time for you to embrace the wanky?