If you think about salt and cocktails, the first thing that comes to mind is a margarita rimmed with salt. Beyond the appealing presentation, there’s a reason. Salt enhances the citrus components of the cocktail, and downplays some of the alcohol burn. Salt also has a dampening effect on bitterness, and since extremely bitter amari are everywhere, it helps get us closer to that elusive sense of balance, which can be thrown off by an overly assertive ingredient. “I think there’s a little bit of an arms race lately,” says Nick Korn, bartender at Silvertone. “The more bitter the cocktail, the better. But I think it should come down to balance.”
Using salt to do that sounds somewhat off-putting at first. But it’s no different than cooking. A pinch of salt brings out the other flavors in a dish. Korn, who also does staff training on cocktails and spirits for other bars in the city, says when he’s explaining the difference between potable and non-potable bitters, i.e. Angostura, he tells people to think about a cocktail like a dish, where the bitters are the salt. “You shouldn’t really taste it if it’s applied correctly, but it amplifies the flavors,” he says. The leap from that idea to using actual salt was logical. “I thought, wait, if I’m saying it’s the salt, why not use salt?”
Other bartenders have been thinking the same way. At Alden & Harlow, a cocktail called the River Run is made with Laird’s bonded applejack, Lustao dry oloroso sherry, the house bitters, demerara sugar, lemon juice, and salt. Sarma adds salted caramel syrup to a bourbon cocktail, Backbar has a sherry and gin cocktail with a salt water tincture, Shojo incorporates salt into a Japanese whiskey, Benedictine, and yellow Chartreuse recipe, and Brick & Mortar has a salted mezcal cocktail. Kirkland Tap & Trotter, Estragon Tapas Bar, and The Barrel House American Bar in Beverly all have salted drink specialties.
It may have started with a cocktail called the Little Giuseppe, an invention of Misty Kalkofen and the staff at Drink years back. That cocktail, a curious mix of Punt e Mes and Cynar, with lemon juice, orange bitters, and a pinch of salt, didn’t seem like it would work, but it was a revelation.
Korn found it “super delicious.” His Elena cocktail (pictured) is equal parts Amontillado sherry, Punt e Mes, and Amaro Montenegro, with a pinch of salt. The effect is the perfect harmony of the dry sherry, with the salt teasing out sweet orange blossom notes of the amaro and spice from the vermouth.
It’s an apertif and an eating cocktail. “In terms of the same way sherry really loves food, particularly seafood, this is something you could have with oysters or a more hearty seafood dish that pairs the glass to the plate,” he says.
Luke O’Neil can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.