Traditionally, cocktails are a balancing act between the sweet and bitter. The savory?
Not so much.
Excluding a few drinks like the Bloody Mary and the Mexican triumvirate—the margarita, the michelada and la paloma—salt has long been dissed at the bar. But as our dashes and pinches have gone über artisinal (to wit, our favorite: Iburi-sourced cherry smoked sea salt), sodium chloride is having its rightful mixology moment.
“At a time when bartenders carry an arsenal of bitters, tinctures and extracts, having a saline solution is just as important,” says Russell Davis of Spike TV’s Bar Rescue.
Remember, notes Davis, salt’s whole raison d’etre is to enhance flavors, be it your dinner or happy-hour drink.
Toby Maloney, a bartender and consultant who helped launch The Violet Hour in Chicago, says a pinch of salt was the inspiration for his cucumber, mint and bitters drink, the Juliet and Romeo.
“We had sliced cucumber on the bar, and one night I was munching one, and instinctively got some Kosher salt to put on it to make it taste better,” he says.
“As soon as I put it in my mouth, I knew how the drink would come together. The salt made the savory notes in the cucumber pop and worked in counterpoint to the bitters.”
Maks Pazuniak, of the Counting Room in New York City, became fascinated by salt in cocktails after tasting a Cynar-based drink in New Orleans.
“The theoretical underpinning of the salt application in this cocktail was the idea of ‘seasoning’ the artichoke essence in the Cynar,” he says. “Salt masks bitterness and enhances sweetness.” Pazuniak now adds several drops of a 3:1 water-to-salt solution to 3 ounces of Campari, dubbing it The Campari “Martini.” The salinity softens the bracing bitterness of the Campari, leaving smooth flavors of orange and herbs.
The recent influx of seasoned and smoked salts has kicked open the door to the savory side at the bar, says Abigail Gullo, of New Orleans’ SoBou. Faced with building an after-dinner drink to pair with a new dessert, Gullo experimented with coffee and chocolate flavored Negroni. It was almost there, but something was missing. Then, she added a dash of espresso-infused sea salt.
“It just opened everything up,” she says. “I knew we had it.”