Reach for Salty Ingredients to Season and Balance Cocktails

Ingredients like herbs and vegetables have been crossing from the kitchen to the bar for awhile now, and salt is the latest ingredient to find its way into cocktails. Adding a saline solution is one way to do it, but bartenders are also reaching for miso, fish sauce and other salty ingredients to achieve the same effect while adding other flavors. What initially sounds gimmicky plays an important role in a drink—as in cooking, salt helps other flavors pop. It can also temper bitterness in a drink, enhances citrus and helps balance flavors. Whether you add a few drops of saline solution or play around with other salty ingredients, bartenders explain how they use salt to impact a drink.

“Salinity is on the forefront of our minds when we eat or drink anything, and we always recognize when something doesn’t have enough salt,” says Sam Lyden, head bartender at Presidio in Chicago. “It’s really important in drinks where you have a big note in there, since a little bit of salt in a cocktail will mellow it out or add an interesting layer of complexity.”

At Naoki in Chicago, bartender Liz Lamzik serves a miso old fashioned, made with Iwai whiskey, white miso and Angostura-like housemade bitters (recipe), the idea for which came from Naoki chef Naoki Nakashima. She says that the savory drink works well with the flavors of the dishes at Naoki, as well as at sister restaurant Intro, which features rotating menus, like the current Japanese menu. She makes miso syrup that consists of white miso whisked with Petite Canne syrup.

“The miso adds a salty umami flavor, and I use a sugar cane syrup from Martinique rather than a simple syrup, since it adds a much more complex flavor,” she says. “I use a large stainless steel bowl and whisk them together, which requires persistence.”

Lamzik wanted to use Japanese whiskey, and selected Iwai, as other brands reduced the strong umami flavors in the drink, and it adds harmony to the other ingredients.

At Presidio, Lyden creates sea foam that he uses atop the Asleep in the Deep, a smoky blend of Mezcal, Scotch, grapefruit and cinnamon.

“We wanted to do a drink that featured Scotch but in a different way,” Lyden says. “We wanted something very bright and citrus-forward, and this being a peaty cocktail, decided to bounce that off of mezcal.”

Lyden says that the combination of smoky mezcal and Scotch, bright grapefruit and spicy cinnamon “was running a touch sweet.”

Their solution? Salt. They tried salting the rim and adding salt to the cocktail, but didn’t like the results.

“Salinity is on the forefront of our minds when we eat or drink anything, and we always recognize when something doesn’t have enough salt.”— Sam Lyden, Presidio.

“Then [bartender] Clint Rogers, who consults here, told me about Sucro, made by Ferran Adria,” Lyden says. “It’s an emulsifier, so we used grapefruit juice, lime and kosher salt and we blended those together with a little water to create the sea foam. That all kind of coalesced with the Scotch. The drink is named for Scottish mermaids, selkies, and the foam feels like the beach, so all these things triangulated into the concept overall.”

The foam remains in the glass over the life of the drink, and Lyden says it’s “a subtle, nuanced way of adding salinity to the drink. It’s more delicate than a salt rim, and you feel it on the sides of your mouth and at mid-palate. It’s more interesting and another way to add complexity. In this drink, it brings out those aromatic grapefruit notes.”

At Sense of Thai in Loudon, Va., Jeremy Ross, general manager/beverage director, uses salt in many of the drinks he makes.

“One of the biggest missions for the beverage program was to create a parallel behind the bar with a lot of the common ingredients that are used in the food,” he says, noting that he uses ingredients like curry and Thai basil so the drinks pair better with the food. “There’s more to a Thai restaurant than just pad Thai and Thai beer."

Ross created Drink Like One, a rum sour made with spiced rum, orange and vanilla, and added fish sauce to it. “Fish sauce is salty and nutty, and it balances the orange and vanilla of the drink," he says.

Ross acknowledges that fish sauce “doesn’t have best smell,” which he why he likes to batch cocktails that use it, which keeps patrons from getting turned off by the strong fishiness. He also counteracts the smell with other ingredients in drinks. When he made a gin sour with navy-strength gin, lavender syrup, pilsner and fish sauce, he added orange blossom water, which cuts the smell.

Besides fish sauce, Ross uses other salty ingredients, including MSG, which he says “enhances and rounds out the flavors.”

Ross says that when he started making cocktails, he was working at a D.C. restaurant with chef Tony Conte, who he would present with drinks to try. “He’d ask—‘is it seasoned?’” Conte encouraged Ross to season drinks with at least one percent by weight with salt, which he began doing with saline solution.

“We focus so much on bitter, on sour,” Ross says. “Out of the five tastes, we went away from [salt]. It makes sense to complete the balance of experience.”

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