Salt Solution: Cocktail Culture and Sodium Chloride

by Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno, Will Blunt, and Aliza Eliazarov
February 2015

Recipes

Restaurant

Salt. It can sometimes be taken for granted: used, abused, appreciated for its presence and detested for insistence on itself—it’s salt. And it has been at the foundations of cuisine close to forever, probably since some ancient coastal native took that first saline slurp of oyster. It’s the hidden hand that tweaks and tickles the thing we call flavor. Where salt hasn’t been, at least in any prominent way, is on cocktail menus. But all that seems to be changing.

“I was taught to look at bitters as a seasoning. It only made sense to start using ‘real’ seasoning in cocktails,” says Natasha David, who stirs 30 percent saline solution into her Exit Strategy at New York’s Nitecap. “As in cooking, salt has a way of tying together flavors.”

Part of the interest of salt in cocktails is asking why, and the language we use to describe salt almost always answers that question with an intriguing vagueness. Shannon Ponche captures it when she talks about the pepita rim of her Nature Boy at Mayahuel. “I found using only ground, toasted pepitas made the nuttiness I was going for seem a little flat. Combining it with salt really makes the desired flavors pop.”

Pop. Flat. Brighten. Tie together. They’re all part of the verbal chase to nail down what salt does. On a basic science-y level, salt’s known for its ability to tamp down bitterness. Experiments with urea (a bitter compound), saline, and sugar solutions proved that salt mutes bitter, freeing up other flavors to strut their stuff. There’s also some evidence it increases aromatic volatility (and thus flavor perception), and it’s definitely known around the neighborhood to play well with citrus. “A pinch of salt in a Gimlet is a pretty eye opening experience,” says David.

Where it gets really interesting is how bartenders choose to play with it. Some use it as a chef would, seasoning an element (vegetal, herbal) within the drink itself. In the Nature Boy, Ponche’s pepita salt rim lends a textural contrast, as well as flavor enhancement, boosting the toasted nuttiness of pumpkin seeds, but also standing up to rough-hewn, agave savory-ness, playing off of vegetal elements like yellow bell pepper juice and the chile de arbol-infused Mezcal.

At Maison Premiere, William Elliot’s Mother Henriot’s Elixir expresses salt not so much as a player in the game, but referee. In homage to a Swiss woman “occasionally credited with developing the first absinthe formula,” the Elixir combines Duplais Verte absinthe, green Chartreuse, sloe gin, Dolin Rouge, and a full teaspoon of Angostura. “Salt was definitely the last ingredient I chose to add. As the other modifiers were incorporated, the drink tasted, among other things, of peppercorns”—white, black, red, green, pink, he recalls. “Salt seemed the perfect rejoinder,” said Elliott.

Salt was just as much of a (thoughtful) afterthought for David. The Exit Strategy—an amaro Old Fashioned variation—combines Nonino and Meletti amaros with Germain Robin brandy, the goal being a “cocktail that tasted like herb-laced caramel.” But something was missing. “The cocktail on its own had potential, but felt a little flat.” David had used salt in shaken drinks but never before in stirred. Six drops of a 30 percent saline solution “brought everything together,” masking some of that bitterness to let other rich amaro flavors rise out of the depths to deliver, as David hoped, “a boozy hug at the end of a long day.”

Salt rims have visual and textural appeal, and saline solutions in an eyedropper are probably “the easiest way to streamline the process,” Ponche says. But what about perceived salinity that’s already in an ingredient? Chris Lowder keeps an eyedropper of saline solution behind the bar at NoMad. But for his Up to Date, he uses a pre-packaged, balanced salinity in the form of Sherry (or Sherries, to be precise, a mix of richer Lustau East India Solera and nuttier Amontillado). Layered into a Manhattan variation built on rye and enriched with Grand Marnier, the Sherry “comes in almost as a briny and nutty as off-dry vermouth,” says Lowder. The Sherry pings off the spicy backbone of a six-year Russell’s rye and balances the “deep, chocolate-y, wintery richness” of the Grand Marnier. Sherry is almost like a shortcut to salinity that acts like a long, complex route. Or, as Lowder says: “It has the advantage of bringing all the utility of salt into a cocktail while also being delicious on its own.”

Like any formerly “trending” cocktail ingredient, salt has settled into regular, sparing usage. “Salt is a valid but risky ingredient,” says Elliot, who also admits to a penchant for using “obscure, herbal bottles.” It might not have applications everywhere, but there’s an easy and understandable temptation to see what salt does to whatever you happen to be mixing. “When I write a drink, I add a drop of saline solution to see if it gets better or worse,” says Lowder. The key, as anyone who’s ever watched loved ones grimace their way through an over-salted roast, is knowing when to put the shaker down.