Garnish. Appearance is the drinker’s first impression, so garnishes are imperative. Edible leaves, flowers, whole spices.
Mist. Aroma comes next. As a drinker lifts the glass to sip, she catches a whiff of fragrance. This could be the cocktail itself, but to add complexity and fun, “spritz” your cocktail with a complementary aroma. Put a liquor with a distinctive aroma—mezcal, Scotch, Chartreuse, Aperol—into an atomizer and spray a mist over the cocktail right before it’s served.
Rinse. Layer flavors. Good chefs know that layered flavors are the key to fine cooking. Same with cocktails. Rinse the top of your serving glass to coat it with an subtle aroma. Just pour a small amount of liquor into the glass, swirl it around and discard it, i.e. drink it. Then pour in your cocktail mixture. Absinthe is often used but any other highly aromatic liquor or liqueur could be used.
Float. Carefully pouring a thin layer of an unmixed liquor or liqueur on top of your mixed drink also adds an extra layer of flavor. Be sure to check the relative viscosity of your liquors or your float will sink.
Seat. Doing the same thing as a float, only in reverse—using a small amount of highly flavored liquor or liqueur in the bottom of the glass. Pour the cocktail in carefully, down the side of the glass.
Rim. Margaritas are the standard for this, but you can use so many other things besides salt to rim a glass and contrast with your cocktail. Dip the rim of the cocktail glass into liquor or fruit juice, then dip into kosher salt, smoked salt, mushroom salt, sugar, flavored sugars, Tajin…possibilities abound.
Syrups. Of course, simple syrup is a staple. But bartenders now are using flavored syrups. Straight extracts can be too strong but when used to flavor a syrup, extracts can add excitement and surprise. Ube (a kind of yam) has been a big hit on the coasts, adding a pumpkin-pie aroma and pretty purple. Cinnamon, ginger, vanilla, coconut, coffee and passionfruit are all easy and popular.
Layering. Epitomized by the pousse-cafe—complicated, outdated and tons of fun, this trick cocktail involves layering different densities of liqueur for a striped effect. Invented in 1862, popular again in the tasteless late 70s and ‘80s, we assume this was inspired by a very bored bartender.