Variations of the mineral make their way to cocktail hour
We treasure our old ones.
We smile and sigh at just the scent of it in the air.
We’re talking salt. Yes, that grainy, tasty, ever-present mineral that enhances our lives daily. Its connection to us goes back to the beginnings of mankind.
Why else would we call our wizened elders “old salts” or exclaim our love for the “salt air?”
And how many workers, shuffling out their front doors on Monday mornings, begrudgingly announce they are going “back to the salt mines?”
It would be interesting to know how many of those workers headed to the “mines” today know that even the reason they’re going is based in salt. Yes, the very word salary derives from the Latin salarium, the money given to Roman legionnaires to buy salt rations.
So, isn’t it high time we took salt out for a drink to say thanks?
Well, it’s past time, because salt happens to be one of the best drinking companions there is, ranking just a notch below alcohol.
About five years ago, salt walked into the bar and set off a whole new cocktail craze that continues unabated today.
And no, this isn’t your mother’s margarita salt. This is salt right smack in the drink that takes even a familiar cocktail and pumps up the taste.
Drink makers across the country started by adding a pinch of salt or drops of a saline solution in the mixing and discovered not a salty drink but a sweeter, more vibrant one.
Chemically, what salt does to a cocktail is suppress any bitterness, which in turn releases any sweetness that was being suppressed. One of the best cocktails to experience how this works is the classic Negroni, a drink made with equal parts gin, sweet vermouth and Campari. While the Negroni is a great drink in its original form, a pinch of sea salt or a few drops of a saline solution quickly tempers the bitterness of the Campari and enlivens the flavors of the gin and vermouth, creating a whole new drinking experience.
Salt also does things to the senses. Just as its addition to meats, vegetables, soups and other foods tends to amplify the flavors, what also has been amplified is the person’s perception of aroma. This positively affects the sense of taste.
Finally, the presence of salt, even small amounts, brings on a natural reaction to salivate more. The increase in saliva makes a drink taste like it has more volume and richness, thus adding another desired effect.
It certainly makes it a safe bet Dr. Jekyll had some salts in that potion of his.
The popularity of salt in cocktails has led to a boom in the production of cocktail salts. Search online and you’ll find dozens of companies selling a variety of salts, many with additional ingredients to flavor the salts themselves. One French company sells not only a variety of sea salts for cocktails, but salt-scented candles as well.
And, of course, there are multitudes of sea salts, Himalayan salts and salts mined in Eastern European caves, all enough to make one’s head spin before ever tasting any cocktails.
Matthew Hough, a barman at Daiquiri Time Out, the craft cocktail lounge at 2701 Market St. in Galveston’s downtown, advises not to be overwhelmed by the choices.
“I haven’t found too much difference flavor-wise between kosher, sea salt or Himalayan,” he said. “As long as it’s not iodized, though. Iodized salt can be too overwhelming.”
What Hough and Daiquiri Time Out owner Brad Stringer have started using for their salt-included cocktails is a saline solution of a full tablespoon of salt mixed into one-third cup of water. They add the solution to drinks by drops.
To test the effect of salt in a cocktail, the experts suggest using an eye dropper and adding one drop at a time until the taste seems right. It might only take a drop or two with some drinks, while bitter-heavy cocktails might take up to 10. If one is lucky, it might take a lot of experimenting to find the perfect combination.
Which cocktails are best enhanced with the addition of salt?
“Most spirits can take to it rather well,” Hough said. “It all depends on what else is going into the cocktail.”
Cocktails that feature “oaky” aged spirits aren’t the best for adding salt. Salting something like a Manhattan wouldn’t dramatically improve the drink, he said.
“Definitely more citrus-focused cocktails work best,” Hough said. “The salt helps to round out the flavors. Salt also can bring out sweetness where sweetness is not present.”
Excitingly, any number of progressive bars across the country are now experimenting with different ways to introduce salt into drinks.
The Dirty Habit bar in Washington, D.C., created a cocktail a while back called Salt to Sea, which used briny sea beans that had been foraged from ocean marshes. In Miami, the Tanuki restaurant cold-infused seaweed with a vermouth to bring a sea and salt flavor to a cocktail called Kiko-Ri-San.
Closer to home, Dallas bar Midnight Rambler took salt to cocktail East by adding a house-made pho broth fortified with MSG, roasted onions and Sriracha to vodka and oloroso sherry. That same bar created a ready-to-use saline solution made with kosher salt and a high-trace mineral water from nearby Mineral Wells, which has high traces of potassium, magnesium, calcium, lithium and bicarbonate of soda. That bar also gets some kind of most-unusual-way-to-sneak-salt-into-a-cocktail award by creating a drink called Savory Hunter. The spicy concoction has cilantro, cream of coconut, Thai chilis and lime-infused gin on its ingredient list, but then brings in the salty miracle by way of Asian fish sauce.
Probably the biggest thanks for what this exciting trend brings to the bar is that, for the most part, it doesn’t involve creating new cocktails, demand lists of new ingredients or even a change of habit. It just says to take what you already like and give it a kick.
That unquestionably makes a cocktail worth its salt.
Cocktail created by bartender Matthew Hough at Daiquiri Time Out, 2701 Market St. in Galveston.
1.5 ounces London Dry Gin
¾ ounces fresh pineapple juice
¾ ounces fresh lime juice
½ ounce grenadine
1 dash salt solution (1 tablespoon of non-iodized salt and 1⁄3 cup water)
1 slice cucumber
Muddle cucumber slice in cocktail shaker. Add all ingredients except seltzer water. Add ice, shake. Double strain into a Collins glass over fresh ice, top with seltzer water. Garnish with an orchid flower.