Having graduated from humble garnish to integral ingredient, salt is no longer just a dusting on the rim of a Margarita glass. Today’s bartenders are turning to unconventional saline elements—fish sauce, salted plums and even pho broth—to create a whole new spectrum of cocktails that lean on the saline.
As an ingredient, salt can temper the bitterness of a drink (like a Negroni) and accentuate fresh flavors that might otherwise be overpowered. Such is the case in Kenta Goto’s Watermelon-Cucumber Cooler, which sees fresh watermelon juice combined with gin, simple syrup and muddled cucumber, all balanced with both salinity and heat by way of wasabi salt. “Watermelon has a very subtle flavor and salt helps the flavor to come out,” explains Goto, whose inspiration for the drink came from the tradition of sprinkling a bit of salt onto fresh fruit, which is common in Japan and throughout Latin America.
“There’s almost no drink in existence that can’t benefit from a little whisper of saline,” adds Naren Young, whose Salty Dog gets a double dose of the stuff from both a salted rosemary syrup and a black lava salt garnish. But some bartenders—and chefs—are looking beyond salt to inherently savory ingredients, like umeboshi, which add a savory backbone to Andy Ricker’s Salted Plum Vodka Collins. Similarly, Matthew Ross’s The Greenbelt calls on a housemade verditas, a spicy green juice typically shot with tequila, plus herbal génépy and velvet falernum, for a drink that conveniently offers both the intox and the detox.
At Midnight Rambler, Chad Solomon’s Pho King Champ gets its salty bite from an unconventional and ambitious housemade pho broth (fortified with MSG, roasted onions and Sriracha) combined with vodka, lime and oloroso sherry. More approachable for the home bartender is his Savory Hunter, which borrows items straight from the pantry shelf—cream of coconut, cilantro and fish sauce—and incorporates them with spicy Thai chilis, lemongrass and kaffir lime-infused gin for a practically edible cocktail.
Over in San Francisco at the Liholiho Yacht Club, Yanni Kehagiaras seeks to explore the narrative potential of drinks and the evocative power of taste. His drink, The Castaway, is a sherry-based aperitif that plays on both inherent saline flavors and added actual salt. “There is an existing sense of salinity in manzanilla sherry which evokes a sort of sea spray,” explains Kehagiaras. This faux saltiness is amplified by the addition of Kosher salt—which comes from an easy-to-make salted falernum—plus a splash of green Chartreuse. In both color and flavor, the drink is meant to conjure the feeling of being on a raft, floating near a tropical island. It’s the type of drink that proves “salty” can mean “refreshing,” too.