A pinch of salt can make a cocktail pop

By / Wine + Drinks / October 26th, 2016 / 3

People often say that cocktail bitters are “the salt and pepper of the cocktail world.”

Although now bordering on cliché, it’s a nice shorthand introduction to the way they are used. But if we use bitters in place of salt in the modern cocktail world, where does that leave actual salt?

Well, take a gander at the mise en place at the average cocktail bar and you’ll see that there’s plenty of room for bitters these days — but none for poor salt. And that’s a real problem, since, even though it’s left off the ingredient list in a lot of recipes, salt is an important component of cocktail culture. Those that are at the top of their game will tell you that salt is, in fact, a veritable secret weapon. Why? Because salt can be used to beat down bitter and dial up the sweet. It brightens up and enhances depth of flavour. And it can transform a sour from flat to fabulous.

It’s not just sours, either. Nick Kennedy, owner of Toronto’s Civil Liberties, argues that the vast majority of cocktails are hoisted up a notch with a pinch of salt.

“I was inspired to use salt more regularly after I read Neurogastronomy and Liquid Intelligence,” explains Kennedy, recalling the work of Gordon M Shepherd and Dave Arnold, respectively. “There are two main theories to explain why salt makes things taste better. First, there’s water activity, which salt reduces, letting you taste the flavour more intensely. The second is that, for bitter drinks, it blocks out bitter, leaving more room to taste the other aromatics.”

Kennedy is one of many bartenders driven by a fascination with the science of flavour perception, an obsession he comes by honestly, given his educational background — studying neuroscience at the undergraduate level. But as much as he loves the theory, he’s happiest when performing hands-on and as such, on quiet nights, Kennedy’s bar is often transformed into a makeshift lab. His nightly experiments have helped him develop some guidelines for the use of salt; he uses it to enhance the flavour of three different types of drinks — namely, dessert drinks, sours and seriously bitter drinks that could use a slightly less sharp edge.

“I love to play around with it in straight shots of bitter amaro digestivo and aperitivo shots,” he says. “When you add a little salt, you can really taste the orange in Campari and the herbal complexity of Fernet, not just the bitter.”

Kennedy recommends testing salt’s effects in a Bitter Giuseppe, a drink invented at Cure, an award-winning cocktail bar in New Orleans that has managed to make its way to Toronto, where it’s a hit with the cocktail community. Try it both ways and see what a difference salt makes.

bitter giuseppe

2 oz Cynar
1 oz sweet vermouth
2 small dashes of salt

Combine ingredients in rocks glass over ice. Add 10 drops lemon juice and stir. Garnish with lemon twist.


Christine Sismondo is a National Magazine Award-Winning drinks columnist and the author of Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History as well as America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops.

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