Adding Salt To Cocktails Is a Sweet Move
A sprinkle of NaCl adds extra oomph to drinks
Salt doesn’t get as much adoration behind the bar as it does in the kitchen. It’s generally relegated to the rim of a Margarita glass when it comes to drinks. Yet sodium chloride and all it’s beautiful forms (kosher, flaky, in a saline solution, you name it) is the not-so-secret ingredient to amplifying a cocktail.
Just like with food, a little bit of salt can improve the flavor of a cocktail. A 1997 Harvard study study, titled “Salt enhances flavour by suppressing bitterness,” found that salt makes sweet, sour, and umami notes stand out by decreasing the amount of bitterness we can taste. Researchers concluded that “salts selectively filter flavours, so that unpleasant tastes (such as bitterness) are more suppressed than palatable ones (such as sweetness) thereby increasing the salience and/or intensity of the latter.”
In other words, sweet tastes sweeter, sour tastes more sour, and savory notes are bumped up to another level. However, a little goes a long way here, especially when it comes to bringing out citrus notes.
“Salt should be used in cocktails the way it's used in cooking,” says Nick Griffith, the national ambassador and mixologist for Uncle Nearest Whiskey. “It can brighten up and overall enhance the flavor profile of a drink, but it's best applied in cocktails with citrus.”
Salty people at the bar are bad, but salty drinks at the bar are so, so good. The most common way to add salt is to put it on the rim. Other ways are by adding a sprinkle of salt tight into the shaker or using a diluted saline solution. Salty flavors can also be achieved by using sodium-rich ingredients such as soy sauce or fish sauce (both of which have high levels of salt). When it’s added, salt can enhance the flavors of the other ingredients in the drink.
“Because salt blocks your palate from tasting bitter flavors, it gives a perceived sweeter flavor to lime, lemon and grapefruit by removing those rough edges caused by the pith,” Griffith says. “In stirred drinks, salt can heighten the taste of aromatic ingredients and take the flavor profile to an elevated level.”
Taste the difference for yourself with these five salty cocktails.
Boyd & Blair Vodka, PA
Pennsylvania Pure Distillery mixes its Boyd & Blair Potato Vodka with some fish sauce to bring out savory umami flavors.
1.5 oz Boyd & Blair
.75 oz cucumber juice
.5 oz black pepper simple syrup
.5 oz fresh lemon juice
1/2 bar spoon fish sauce
Garnish: cracked black pepper
Shake all ingredients with ice until well-chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe glass and garnish.
It’s easy to overuse salt, but practice makes perfect. For this Old Fashioned variation, it only takes a pinch of the right type. “Salt brings out each tasting note, from the undertones in the whiskey to the other aromatics and citrus incorporated into cocktails,” Griffith says. “You have to choose your salt wisely, though. Because you're not salting a fatty protein like beef, or pork, you should lean more towards a softer finishing salt. My favorite is Maldon flakes. Never use Iodized—it's far too bitter.”
2 oz Uncle Nearest 1856 Premium Aged Whiskey (silver medal, 2018 NY International Spirits Competition)
.25 oz St. Elizabeth Allspice Dram
Bar spoon maple syrup
4 dashes Angostura Bitters
Pinch of salt
Garnish: orange peel
Combine all ingredients into a mixing glass with ice. Stir to chill, then strain into a rocks glass over a large ice cube. Garnish.
Smoke on the Water
Dante, New York City
Dante has long been a bar where a little saltiness in the cocktails can be expected. Creative director Naren Young has been a salt evangelist for years, and a number of Dante’s drinks have a touch of saline solution in them. A favorite is Smoke on the Water, which is a saline-enhanced Martini variation with a spray of smoky Scotch over the top.
1 oz white port
1 bar spoon Talisker Scotch
.25 oz honey syrup
1 dash saline solution
1 oz Acqua Panna water
Dante pre-batches this cocktail (hence the 1 ounce of water) and keeps it in the freezer. It’s poured cold directly from the frozen bottle into a Nick & Nora glass then has the Talisker sprayed over the top with an atomizer. Alternatively you can stir the ingredients except the Scotch, leaving out the water, with ice, strain into a chilled glass and spray the Scotch over the drink.
Bosscal Mezcal, Mexico
There’s a whole world of salts out there beyond traditional salt or saline solution for cocktails. Bosscal Mezcal has a drink using the brand’s joven (a 2018 New York International Spirits Competition silver medal winner) called the Mezgarita that uses scorpion salt (yes, made with ground-up dried scorpions!), chili de árbol and sea salt. It adds a reddish-brown color to the rim of the glass and punches up the citrus with some earthy notes in the drink. If you’d rather not be so daring with your salt choice, use Tajín seasoning instead.
2 oz Bosscal Mezcal Joven
1 oz blood orange juice
.75 oz agave nectar
Bosscal Scorpion Salt or Tajín
Garnish: blood orange or lime wheel
Rim a rocks glass with the salt and add ice. Shake the rest of the ingredients with ice until frothy, then strain into the rimmed glass. Garnish with the citrus and add another pinch of the salt.
de Vine Genever, BC
After the Margarita, the Bloody Mary and the Caesar are the most common salty cocktails. To compliment the flavors in the drink and in de Vine’s genever, which won silver at the 2018 NYISC, the brand suggests adding a double dose: first in salty Worcestershire sauce and second with a smoked salt rim.
2 oz de Vine Genever
1 generous spoonful of horseradish (they use Hee-Haw 'Damn Hot')
5 dashes of Worcestershire Sauce
7 drops of celery bitters (they use Cascade Celery Bitters by Bittered Sling)
Caesar cocktail mix (they use Walter Classic Caesar Mix)
Salt (they use Vancouver Island Salt Co. Smoked Canadian Sea Salt)
Rim a mason jar or tall glass with lime and salt and fill with ice. Add ingredients, stir and garnish lavishly with lime, celery and all things pickled. Stir while sipping.
Compass Distillers, Nova Scotia
As stated above, citrus and salt belong together. Add in a citrus-forward gin and you've found the trifecta. Jordan Dickie, the head bartender at Compass Distillers, created The Ruby to play up the citrus notes in Compass Gin (a 2018 NYISC bronze winner) and balance it out with some salt. "If I need a crowd-pleaser that I know everyone's going to like, I reach for this one," Dickie says. "The citric-forward, peppery salt adds a perfect contrast to the sweetness of the cocktail. Simple, tasty, with a touch of pizzazz."
1 oz Compass Gin
1 oz Tio Pepe Fino Sherry
.5 oz Grapefruit Citron Syrup (instructions follow)
1.5 oz Fresh Ruby Grapefruit Juice
Several dashes of grapefruit and hop bitters (they use Compass Grapefruit & Hops Bitters)
Grapefruit salt (ground, dehydrated grapefruit, pink peppercorns, and Himalayan pink salt)
Garnish: dehydrated grapefruit wheel
Rim a coupe glass with grapefruit salt. Shake all ingredients with ice. Strain into the coupe. Garnish.
Grapefruit Citron Syrup
Slice ruby red grapefruit into wheels, add equal parts by mass white sugar, leave in fridge for 48 hours shaking regularly. Discard solids.