Salt: The secret agent in cocktails

A mound of salt next to a cocktail glass // Photo by Aaron Job

A mound of salt next to a cocktail glass // Photo by Aaron Job

Bartenders often add salt to cocktails. Not just the stuff that lays dormant on the rim of your margaritas and bloody marys, salt is also stirred or shaken right into your drinks. Because salt has a very particular set of skills, in the right amount, it will lay low among all the other ingredients like a secret agent casually mingling through one of those hyper-formal supervillain reunion galas. Its mission? To make your drink more enjoyable.

The human love of salt is wrapped up an area of science called psychophysiology—how our brain and body work together. Salt is made up of ions that, according to scientists, block the taste receptors of our tongue that sense bitterness. Bitterness has many definitions in the cocktail community—dash of bitters, bitter liqueurs, etc.; here it refers to an unpleasant bitterness, like biting into the pith of an orange peel, or discovering your arch nemesis has foiled you and escaped yet again. Until we meet again, unpleasant bitterness. With a quick dash, salt infiltrates all areas of the cocktail and eclipses bitterness, tipping the scales toward other, more desirable flavors.

Any time a secret agent enters the equation, things get a little more volatile. The aromas of food and drink are caused by volatile molecules that evaporate into the air—salt loosens things up and makes it easier for these molecules to release into the air, and good aromatics make a cocktail inviting on a level beyond taste.

Now, the how. There are a plethora of methods used by the pros to introduce salt to cocktails. Norseman Distillery and Marvel Bar both dissolve salt directly into their sugar syrups; Marvel bartender Tyler Kleinow says one gram of salt per liter of finished syrup will do the trick. Spoon and Stable bartender Jessi Pollak has used a saline solution in her competition cocktails—four parts water and one part salt, shaken until fully dissolved. It’s very easy to keep this solution on hand in a little dropper bottle on your bitters shelf—try one small dash per drink.

For the home bartender in a hurry, even a quick pinch of salt into your shaker should be plenty to enhance those flavors last minute. Remember, you don’t want to add so much that the cocktail tastes salty, just enough to sneak up behind those bitter players, silence them with a swift motion, and slide away undetected.

A Mediterranean Sour // Photo by Aaron Job

A Mediterranean Sour // Photo by Aaron Job

Mediterranean Sour


2 ounces Flying Dutchman Mediterraneo gin
½ ounce fresh squeezed grapefruit juice
¼ ounce fresh squeezed lime juice
½ ounce simple syrup
1 dash saline solution (4 parts water, 1 part salt)


Shake and strain into a coupe glass. Light a rosemary sprig on fire and drop it in the glass to extinguish it. This will add a beautiful smokey taste and aroma to the drink.