Salt’s bad rap is undeserved. Sure, it can be unhealthy if you consume too much of it, but when used in moderation, it makes everything more delicious, including your cocktails.
As with food, salt in drinks is used for balancing and enhancing ingredients. It can be used either in a saline solution or in its granular form and can be enhanced with a variety of flavors, too, rendering its applications nearly endless.
How Salt Affects Cocktails
“Salt can highlight savory notes as well as bring out flavors that might be hiding behind other components of a cocktail,” says Jamie Dodge, the beverage partner at Cul+ure Collective Hospitality Group in New Jersey. “I was never a fan of salt on the rim [of a Margarita] until I really understood what it was there for—making flavors pop—and it also makes you want to go back for another sip faster.”
In cocktails, salt is used to enhance sweetness and balance bitterness. It enhances the citrus in sours and can add depth and texture in carbonated drinks, as well. But it’s not for every drink. “I don’t think salt has a place in every cocktail,” says Dodge. “Some drinks should be left for the ingredients to speak for themselves, while others might need that little boost from saline to help showcase certain flavors.”
To understand salt’s effect in a drink, the best place to start is by tasting cocktails side by side. For example, make two Margaritas exactly the same way, but add salt to one and not the other and taste the difference.
“My aha! moment came when I was working at Booker and Dax with Dave Arnold,” says Nick Bennett, the beverage director at Cedric’s at the Shed and Porchlight in New York City. “I’d been working at a rum bar the year prior and was drinking what I thought were the best Daiquiris I’d ever had. [Then] Dave and I made side-by-side Daiquiris using the same specs, with his having just a few drops of a saline solution in it. It was by far superior to what I was familiar with.” Now, Bennett’s house Daiquiri spec at Porchlight calls for four drops of saline solution.
Jack Schramm, a New York City bartender and the co-founder of Solid Wiggles, worked with Bennett at the now-shuttered Booker and Dax. He’s also a fan of using salt in cocktails and also swears by side-by-side tasting to understand its effects. “When coming up with a new drink, make two of them exactly the same, but salt one and leave the salt out of the other,” he says. “Taste them side by side immediately and then again after five, 10, and 15 minutes, and decide if the salt added anything to the drink.”
Once you start adding salt to your cocktails, it can be difficult to decide when to add it and when not to. Bennett encourages bartenders to keep in mind efficiency as well as guest perception. “If you’re running a bar program, will your guests notice if your menu is oversaturated with salt?” asks Bennett. “Or will it slow your bartenders down if they have that extra step with every cocktail they make? Start using it in moderation and find ways that a little salt will improve your cocktails and the guest experience before putting it in everything.” Bars don’t have to list salt as a cocktail ingredient on menus, but it may be helpful for guests who are monitoring their sodium intake.
Using a Saline Solution in Cocktails
It’s much easier to mix liquids with liquids than with solids. This is why cocktail recipes call for simple syrups instead of granulated sugar; using a syrup allows all ingredients to be combined properly. For salt, this means making a saline solution. “At Booker and Dax and Existing Conditions, we used a 20% saline solution, and that's what I keep in a dropper at home,” says Schramm. “It's concentrated enough that you won't be stuck squeezing an eye dropper forever, and for the vast majority of drinks that are getting saline added, you'll only need five drops.”
In his educated guesstimation, Schramm believes that 90% of cocktails benefit from five drops of a 20% saline solution. “The only cocktails that didn't get salt at Booker and Dax and Existing Conditions were drinks like the bottled Manhattan,” he says. “Boozy, dark-spirited, stirred cocktails with no citrus or other fruit components didn't get salt because the salinity is drowned out by the bold punch of oak and the relatively higher proof.”
At Laylow, part of Cul+ure Collective Hospitality Group, Dodge has experimented with using saline solutions to amplify certain cocktails. “Our menu just before [the pandemic] shutdown had a great Negroni-style sour where saline solution really helped elevate the citrus and vanilla undertones in the cocktail,” says Dodge. “It's all about R&D. Also, start with a little saline solution, and you can always add more.”
You’ll need to know how to properly measure a saline solution. “It’s something a lot of people screw up when making solutions by percent,” says Schramm. “A 20% solution is 20 grams of salt mixed with 80 grams of water, not 20 grams salt in 100 grams of water. It's the percentage of the total solution by weight, not the percentage of the weight of the water you're dissolving in.”
Using Granulated Salt in Cocktails
Granulated salt’s applications in drinks are limited. It can be sprinkled over the cocktail as a finishing touch. Similarly, salt rims, commonly seen with agave-spirit-based cocktails such as a Margarita or Paloma, offer a way of adding texture and flavor. Infused or flavored salts also offer an option for creativity. “At Barrio Costero, we offer a fat half rim of homemade flavored salts for our Margaritas,” says Dodge. “My favorite is fennel, followed by pink peppercorn, but the most popular by far is chile-lime.”
At Saam Lounge at SLS Brickell in Miami, Justin Wilson, the director of outlets, uses a flavored salt for the bar’s agave cocktails. “Using black lava salt with a smoky spirit such as mezcal enhances its flavors but tames any bitterness,” he says. “It also adds more complexity and flavor.”
While agave spirits tend to be the most frequent spirit in salt-rimmed cocktails, a salt blended with other flavors can work well with other spirit types, too. Reyla in Asbury Park, New Jersey, another of Dodge’s bars, offers a rim of cocoa nib, salt and sugar on a bourbon cocktail. It adds both a textural contrast to the smooth stirred drink while also elevating the flavors in the glass.
To become fully familiar with what salt can bring to your drinks, the best option is to start experimenting with using salt in all kinds of foods and drinks to better understand how it enhances an array of ingredients. “Honestly, when I make my coffee at home in the morning, I add a pinch of salt to my French press, as well,” says Bennett. “It softens the bitterness of the coffee and enhances some of the more dormant flavors. Give that a try.”