Bartenders around the world have recently figured out something that chefs have known forever: A pinch of salt helps flavors pop.
Just as chefs have long known that a judicious scattering of salt can improve a dish's flavor, bartenders too are finally embracing the idea that salt is good for more than doing cheap shots of bad tequila. Now they're putting salt in the drink, not around the rim of the glass, dashing salt solution into cocktails, much as they would bitters.
"You salt your food, so why not your drinks?" says Morgan Schick of Trick Dog in San Francisco. "It highlights flavors and brings out subtleties," he says.
The salt craze seems to have worked its way everywhere—whether you know it or not. Duggan McDonnell, owner of Cantina in San Francisco, adds a pinch of salt to every bucket-sized container of fruit-flavored simple syrup to give it a little flavor push.
At a cocktail contest for Bombay Sapphire gin that took place in London a month ago, the winning drink was designed to taste like money (whatever that conjures), made with "paper syrup" and a dash of salt. In fact, every cocktail they served at the winning bartender's bar, Little Red Door in Paris, contains salt, even though it doesn't list the added salt on the drink menu (it's fairly common for bartenders to leave simple syrup off the description too).
"Adding the salt solution to our drinks rounds and melds the flavors," bar manager Mark Scott writes in an e-mail. "Salt reinforces the natural sweetness in other ingredients, which can help to balance any bitterness or added bitter in the drink."
Cantina and Little Red Door like to keep their salty cocktails flying under the radar, but some bars play it up, like Singer Social Club in Reno, where they added a whole salted-cocktail menu section for the summer. So you'll know you when you're downing a margarita with salt inside the drink rather than on the rim or a rum drink with salted strawberry-lemon-lime soda.
"I use salt or saline to enhance flavors that are falling flat, and to keep the guest taking sips," says bar manager Jameson Alexander. "I find it works best in refreshing or savory drinks."
HOW IT WORKS
Salt in cocktails does more than makes drinks salty, of course—there is some neurogastronomy happening here. Salt, like sugar, balances bitterness on the palate. So all those drinks with bitter Italian liqueurs like Cynar and Campari and Fernet that bartenders are in love with right now can be tempered nicely with salt.
"Salt and bitterness have an especially nice relationship," Schick says.
Bartenders are also exploring the world of herbaceous flavors. David Kupchinsky of The Eveleigh in West Hollywood, uses a few drops from his tincture of NaCl in cocktails that may well have been imagined in his garden, including The Song of Solomon, which incorporates Cynar, dry vermouth and celery bitters.
"The salt adds a nice subtle brininess that's complements the celery, artichoke (from the Cynar), and the herbs from the vermouth," he says.
So next time you down a salty cocktail, raise your glass to the bartenders and chefs who opened up the entire spectrum of flavors for you to both sup and sip. It's a safe bet that salt-infused cocktails are here for the long haul.
But of course you should take that with a grain of salt.
Camper English is the cocktail columnist for Details.com and the publisher of Alcademics.com.