Page Content

Salt Shakers

There’s an old episode of The Simpson’s where Homer is adrift on a raft at sea with Ned Flanders and a few boy scouts. When Homer uses the last of the drinking water to wash his socks, Flanders protests that they should ration their dwindling supply of water. Homer mockingly replies:

Don’t you know the poem? Water water everywhere, so let’s all have a drink

Salty Dog

Salt Dog Cocktail, Dante's, New York.

It is common knowledge that drinking seawater will hasten your demise in such a situation, hence the comedy of the scene. Seawater is highly salty, drinking it causes dehydration and eventually death. Yet the ingestion of salt is a balancing act. While excessive salt is detrimental to health, an absence of salt is equally dangerous. Salt, or more specifically its primary constituent sodium chloride, is essential for maintaining the balance of water in and around your body’s cells and for regulating muscle and nerve function.  But back to Homer and drinking. Salt doesn’t always come to mind when you think of drinks. However, due to its alchemical ability to augment flavours, the use of salt and saline solutions is a definite trend in contemporary cocktail making. Salt operates our tastebud levers like no other ingredient; balancing, accentuating, muting or sharpening. Salt is a foundational flavour, a structural component of most things we eat. In high-end alcoholic drinks, it does everything from providing background layers to  emphasising particular elements of a drink.

There’s almost no drink in existence that doesn’t benefit from a little whisper of saline. It can temper the sweetness in a Manhattan or Negroni, while it can amplify the fresh citrus in a Daiquiri or Gimlet. It’s also important to understand that when us bar folks add salt in any form to a drink, it’s not to necessarily make the drink ‘salty’. Salt is simply there to amplify flavors, typically without the drinker ever knowing, or knowing why. It’s like the wonder drug in a mixologist’s quiver

Naren Young Creative Director at Dante.

I spoke to Luke O’Meara, a bartender at Dublin's Bar 1661, about the use of salt in drinks. Luke has been making cocktails in Dublin for the past six years and joined 1661 in 2019. The bar has just been named best cocktail bar in Ireland at the Irish Craft Cocktail Awards. Luke explained that there are a relatively small number of traditional cocktails that have always featured salt, like the tomato-juice and vodka based Bloody Mary; salt is added to the drink. Another would be the tequila and lime based Margarita, where salt is a textural decoration to the glass rim, adding a crunchy potency. Commercial iodised salt is often used but Luke recommends a flaky artisanal sea salt and lots of fresh lime juice. Naren Young, creative director of Dante in New York (voted World’s Best Bar 2019 in the World’s 50 Best Bars awards) also advocates for sea salt; “When I started grinding Maldon salt in a mortar and pestle to rim margaritas, it provided a more harmonious marriage of flavours within the drink. You could actually taste the tequila's agave, while it brightened the lime's acidity too”.1 Salt expert Mark Bitterman is on the same page, suggesting that the traditional salt rim plays a dramatic role in the margarita, “as garnish, as the first blush of flavour, and as a layer of texture”.2
Salt has a unique ability to amplify or mute different flavour accents in both food and drink, to various degrees depending on the quantities used.3 The BBC’s accessible Science Focus journal recently published an article explaining salt’s affect on our ability to taste different flavours,4

Salt is used as a universal flavour improver because at low concentrations it will reduce bitterness, but increase sweet, sour and umami, which is desirable for sweet recipes. But at higher concentrations it suppresses sweetness and enhances umami, which is good for savoury things.

As Luke notes, “Generally people perceive it as savoury, so you can really play with expectations”. Salt seems to have a magical multiplicity of properties in its ability to affect all kinds of flavours in drinks, as Mark Bitterman describes,5

salt gives shape to a variety of ingredients in a cocktail. It subdues and rounds out acids in fruit juices and fermented beverages like beer and wine. It mutes bitterness to reveal depth in herbs and spices whether they be vermouths, tonics, or basil muddled with cardamom. It penetrates through sugars in liquors, syrups and juices and brings to light the refreshing interplay of salted sweetened, sweetened salted flavours.

In its ability to seemingly block bitterness salt by extension, enhances our perception of other flavours.6 Kevin Liu, in an article for Serious Eats, further attributes salt’s ability to amplify specific flavours due to its effect on salivation in the mouth,7

the presence of salt in a drink, even in small quantities, will increase the flow of saliva in the mouth. The proteins in saliva will make any drink feel slightly more viscous or rich, which is generally a desirable attribute.

Some savvy bartenders might have always added a pinch of salt to certain drinks, but more and more often mixologists are making saline solutions, which are more precise and allow ‘microdosing’ with salt. Luke explained to me that the solutions are generally 4 or 5 parts water to 1 part salt, but they can be as weak as 10 to 1."One to two drops are almost undetectable, but they act subtly to brighten citrus and sweet flavours. In a sparkling drink it adds a minerally, carbon profile, and it lifts aromatics. It can go into classics as well as more modern herbal and botanical drinks. It just creates a sharper drink, it sharpens all the flavours."

To test this out, he recommends adding a pinch of salt to a dry martini.
As well as being an addition to the finishing touch of a drink, salt can also enter into the process at an earlier stage. Naren Young compares these different approaches to salting in cooking; there is a difference in effect when you add salt to the cooking water compare to using it as a finishing touch, sprinkled on the dish. Early stage use of salt in cocktail making could mean the inclusion of salt into mixers like shrubs, syrups and cordials, which serious bartenders make themselves. Luke says salt here acts like a “foundational flavour enhancer”, even though the quantities of salt involved are very small. For instance, he made a blackberry coffee cordial with foraged blackberries, spent coffee grounds, lime peel and a touch of salt. Luke describes the cordial as having a musky, subtle coffee flavour with a little lime, and the role of salt is key, “salt bridges all these flavours”. 

Like with food, salt has the ability to impart its own unique taste as well as alter and improve the other tastes like sweetness, bitterness and umami. Cocktail making has a history of using salt as an distinct ingredient or to add texture on a rim but in the last decade or so bartenders are increasingly working with the more subtle potentials of salt to mute or brighten other flavours, with complex and curious results.

Salt-kissed cocktails

Dante's Salty Dog:
The Salty Dog is essentially a Greyhound (vodka and grapefruit) with a salt rim.
"In re-imagining this classic, I made a very weak simple syrup spiked with a little fresh rosemary (this particular herb and grapefruit make great bedfellows) and some salt. A couple of bar spoons of this balanced out the pH in the fresh grapefruit while a sprinkle of finely ground black lava salt provided the extra lift and made for a striking garnish."

1.5 oz. Absolut (45ml)
5 oz. ‘fluffy’ grapefruit juice (150ml)
½ oz. salted rosemary syrup (15ml)


  • Add 2 ice cubes & vodka
  • Add rosemary syrup & some grapefruit juice
  • Mix well.
  • Add 2 more ice cubes and more grapefruit juice to top.
  • Serve in a Garibaldi glass garnished with black lava salt.
Slice 1661

Bar 1661's Slice:
Named after local restaurant Slice in Stoneybatter, Dublin.
"The cocktail is a twist on the classic Paloma, replacing soda water for Beekon and adding the foraged blackberry and Dulse saline. Blackberries are often quite a musky flavour, especially foraged types which can be much less sweet, depending on the time of year. Salt helps to bring out the sweetness of the blackberry while also brightening the citrus flavours. Combining it with Dulse seaweed brings umami notes and plays off the smokiness of the Mezcal. Blackberry leather is the dehydrated leftovers from the blackberry syrup, which is flattened on a pan and dehydrated until the take a leathery consistency."

15ml Micil Poitín,
25ml Quiquiriqui Mezcal
35ml grapefruit juice
5ml lime juice
25ml homemade blackberry syrup
4 dash seaweed infused smoked Achill Island saline solution
30ml Beekon honey refresher
Piece of blackberry leather


  • Add Beekon to a tall glass.
  • Add remaining ingredients to shaker, (except blackberry leather) and shake well.
  • Strain into glass and top with ice.
  • Garnish with blackberry 'leather'.

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

Go to footnote reference 2.

Mark Bitterman, Salted: A Manifesto on the World's Most Essential Mineral. Berkeley, California: Ten Speed Press 2010, p.288.

Go to footnote reference 3.

SJ.Russell, Paul Keast and AS Breslin (2003). 'An overview of binary taste–taste interactions'. Food Quality and Preference, 14: 2, pp. 111-12.

Go to footnote reference 4.

Go to footnote reference 5.

Bitterman, p. 288.

Go to footnote reference 6.

Go to footnote reference 7.

Caitriona Devery

Caitríona Devery is a contributing editor to FEAST. She currently works as a research manager at the Earth Institute in University College Dublin. She is the Food and Drink editor for Dublin's District Magazine and features writer for its food offshoot CHAR.