It is the access to chefs and their vast resources—whether their knowledge of produce at the height of its season or how to properly sous vide vegetables—that has shaped the careers of many bartenders, myself included. Having a close bond to the kitchen certainly opens up greater avenues of creativity. And it was early on, while working at the fabled and now shuttered Bayswater Brasserie in Sydney, that I discovered, perhaps subconsciously, the subtle magic that salt can bring to a vast array of drinks.
My revelation came, however, after encountering Maldon salt during my tenure at the aforementioned Bayswater Brasserie, where I quickly became enamored by the crystals’ mild flavor profile. This iconic English brand was the go-to choice for many chefs that never seemed more than an arm’s reach away. They sprinkled Maldon into almost every dish that passed their station, and I quickly came to appreciate the salt's subtle nuances. It wasn’t austere and aggressive like the iodized crap I’d been using nonchalantly for years.
There’s almost no drink in existence that doesn’t benefit from a whisper of saline.
When I started grinding Maldon salt in a mortar and pestle to rim margaritas, it provided a more harmonious marriage of flavors within the drink. You could actually taste the tequila's agave, while it brightened the lime's acidity, too. A series of flavored salts would eventually make their way onto the rim of our rotating roster of flavored margaritas at New York's progressive Mexican restaurant Empellón Cocina: rose petal salt for a hibiscus margarita; Mexican five spice on a robust añejo version; coriander salt for a green bloody mary.
It was around this time, about five years ago, that Maldon and myriad other salts started to creep into my cocktail shaker. Salt was no longer solely there just to adorn the sides of cocktail glasses. There’s almost no drink in existence that doesn’t benefit from a whisper of saline. It can temper the sweetness in a Manhattan or negroni, while it can amplify the fresh citrus in a daiquiri or gimlet.
When I was conceptualizing the celery gimlet at New York's Saxon + Parole in 2011, the final iteration was delicious, but it needed something. Salt (and a few dashes of verjus) ended up providing the x-factor that made the drink pop. Suddenly it had morphed into an altogether sweet, savory, salty, briny and rather complex cocktail. It was the addition of salt that bound all the ingredients together. And therein lies the intrinsic beauty of salt. It’s the glue in many drinks.
Now, some bartenders are turning to saline in liquid form (which is just salt and water) as a secret weapon, and making such an elixir is incredibly easy. If a drink is bordering on too sweet or syrupy, the obvious addition is usually some form of citrus or a few drops of bitters. A couple of dashes of saline, however, also performs the same role, while initiating the saliva glands—the sign of a great cocktail.
"I've recently been experimenting with a more cooking-oriented approach to cocktail development, where certain elements in a cocktail act as seasoning agents as opposed to full blown ingredients," explains Devon Tarby of Los Angeles-based bar development operation, Proprietors LLC.
"Simply put, salt makes ingredients taste more like themselves," she continues. "Salt isn't just for savory cocktails, either. The addition of a small amount of salt helps brighten citrus and delicate flavors like fresh herbs and light fruits, dampens bitterness, and acts as an overall bridge between powerful booze and the more subtle non-alcoholic ingredients we tend to mix it with."
"Simply put, salt makes ingredients taste more like themselves."
The drink with the lowest hanging fruit, so to speak, is the salty dog, which is essentially a greyhound (vodka and grapefruit) with a salt rim. Not the most creative drink, but certainly tasty and extremely refreshing. In reimagining this classic at my bar in New York, Dante, I made a very weak simple syrup spiked with a little fresh rosemary (this particular herb and grapefruit make great bedfellows) and some salt. A couple bar spoons of this balanced out the fresh grapefruit juice's pH, while a sprinkle of finely ground black lava salt provided the extra lift and made for a striking garnish.
The daiquiri+ is my latest creation on Dante's spring menu. For that cocktail, I made a strong lime syrup using the zest of many limes and added a healthy pinch of Maldon. Keep this in your fridge for several weeks and use it for daiquiris, gimlets, margaritas, southsides, or the last word. In fact, I now put salt in almost every flavored syrup I make, as it adds subtle flavor, brings out the natural acids and/or sugars in the raw material, and acts as a preservative so the syrup last longer (that, and the addition of a little high proof vodka).
Any drinks that contain fresh fruits or vegetables only beg to have salt thrown in the mix. I’ve long been a proponent of market-driven cocktails, often turning for inspiration, depending on the season, to the likes of beets, fennel, butternut squash, bell pepper, carrot, celery, tomatoes, and fresh herbs, to name a few. Cue the salt. Almost always, I add a few drops of vinegar or shrub when using salt as they work beautifully together.
It’s important to understand that when we, bar folks, add salt in any form to a drink, it’s not to necessarily to make the drink salty. This is why, on a menu, salt is not always listed as an ingredient, so as not to concern patrons of their sodium intake. Salt is simply there to amplify flavors, typically without the imbiber ever knowing. It’s like the wonder drug in a mixologist’s quiver. It works its magic the best when mixed with anything savory, or at the very least, fresh.
I’ve often heard people say that bitters, such as, say, Angostura, are the salt and pepper of the bartender’s armory. I think that it’s actually salt and pepper that are, indeed, the bartender’s, um, salt and pepper.
Editor: Kat Odell