Cocktail Science: Does your cocktail need salt?

Salt isn’t just for margaritas anymore. For a long, bartenders knew that adding a few drops to a drink’s bitters can make it more smooth. Now they have discovered that even a small amount of salt can do the same. We’ll be looking at the whys and hows of how tiny grains can enhance the flavour of your favourite mixed drink.

Here’s the purebred lineage: Alton Brown taught American men how to make their coffee with salt in 2009. Alton Brown may have been inspired partly by the father of food science–Harold McGee.

It was a problem that bakers solved long before bartenders. They have used salt for caramel and chocolate for years. These two ingredients are known for their complex flavours and strong bitter components.

Salt seems to block bitterness which, in turn, increases the perception of other flavours.

A tiny pinch (or drop) can go a long way.

Even though you don’t know the salt, it works magic. Research has shown that even low levels of salt can suppress bitterness.

How about citrus and salt? The scientific literature suggests that salt may increase the perception of sourness at subthreshold levels. Mixologists are unanimous in stating that adding a few drops of saline to a citrus drink can “brighten” its flavour. A conservative dosage is key. Acidity suppression will occur if you add too much salt to your drink.

*Subthreshold refers to a flavour that is present but not recognized by most tasters.

Is Salt a Flavor Enhancer?

A lot of salt is referred to as a “flavor enhancer”. This refers to salt making meat taste better, and grapefruit taste more grapefruity.

However, I found no physiological connection between salt and the enhancement of basic tastes when I went deep into the research. What’s the real story?

One answer is that salt does indeed suppress bitterness. Bitterness then suppresses sweetness. We can intensify the sweetness of a liqueur by adding salt to it that is both sweet and bitter (like Campari).

Another explanation is also possible: People still report salt as enhancing the flavour of food, from the pea-ness of pea soup to hard cheese‘s cheesy taste. Although the research doesn’t support a physiological explanation, it seems that the aroma amplifies our perception.

Another element, which isn’t discussed often but has a significant impact on the mouthfeel of mixed beverages, is that salt, even in small amounts, increases saliva flow. Any drink that contains saliva will feel a little denser or richer. This is generally desirable.

Salt is not beneficial for all drinks.

In my experiments, I have found that too much salt can cause a drink to lose its “pop” and become less appealing. My experiment with a simple homemade treat was to see if my Mai Tais had much less pizzazz if I used almond milk with too much sodium.

What is the lesson? Pay attention to less obvious sodium sources, and adjust your salt accordingly.

Here’s another thought. A few years ago, I talked to a friend about her supertaster status. This meant she was sensitive to bitter alcohol. She responded to my suggestion to add a few drops to bitter liqueurs to mask their taste. I like bitter.” Try salt and sugar in your drinks to see which one you prefer.

*The research has shown that the sodium side (sodium chloride or NaCl) is responsible for suppressing bitterness.

Salt Use in Home Drinks

Dropper bottles are a good option to ensure consistency. Old bitters bottles also work well. You can also use a weak solution of 1 part salt and 10 parts water. This is about 1/8 teaspoon table salt per 1 tablespoon of water.

You can start with one or two drops in citrus-based drinks. Bitters-heavy drinks may need as many as ten drops, depending on your tolerance for bitterness.


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