The Science of Salinity in Cocktails

Posted on: Apr. 28, 2016 | | By: Mark Vierthaler

It’s always been there.

I mean really, how could we have missed it? We use it in cooking. We use it in baking. Even in the bartending world, it’s been staring us straight in the face with classics like the Salty Dog and the Margarita.

It seems so simple when you consider it. Salt is one of the major flavors that humans can taste along with sweet, sour, bitter and umami.

The subject even came up during Tales of the Cocktail on Tour Mexico City.

During his presentation “In Praise of the Vodka Martini,” Grey Goose brand representative Joe McCanta snuck a quick reference to the power of salt.

“Bartenders are starting to realize that salt will enhance not just food ingredients but liquid ones as well,” he said. “I see lots of London bartenders stocking a 10 percent salt solution behind the bar — anything they make gets a little dash of salt just to enhance the drink.”

I put the question to one of the bartender groups I belong to on Facebook: Who here uses salt/saline in their mixing? Within 24 hours, over a dozen bartenders had chimed in sharing their various salt usages.

But why the sudden interest in salt? And what’s the actual science behind the addition of a quick bit of salt to broaden so many cocktails’ flavors?

Understanding how you taste

First, we can’t confuse “taste” with “flavor.” Taste is a chemical sense recognized by receptor cells on your taste buds. Flavor, on the other hand, is the fusion of each of these taste (gustatory) sensations combined with information being pulled in from your other senses including smell (olfactory) and tactical information.

Each of those basic tastes combine with the other inputs to create the massive spectrum of flavors available to us.

The prevailing theory for a long time was that different parts of the tongue were responsible for receiving the four major tastes – salt, sweet, sour and bitter. (Remember the tongue map from grade school?) The idea was that each of the individual portions of the tongue possessed separate, unique receptor cells that sent the individual taste sensations to the brain.

Then came the discovery of the fifth major flavor – umami (savory). Further scientific study also revealed that, rather than clearly delineated areas doing the heavy lifting, taste is actually experienced across the entire tongue, with differing levels of sensitivity.

When you’re experiencing taste, chemical stimuli activate the chemoreceptors that are responsible for taste and smell. For humans, the chemoreceptors that detect taste are called gustatory receptor cells. (About 50 of these cells make up a single taste bud.)

Once a stimulus activates the gustatory impulse, receptor cells connect with neurons and pass electrical impulses to the brain. The brain then interprets those impulses as taste. Those gustatory stimuli combine with the olfactory information pouring in through your nose, blending together to create flavors.

(Which brings us to a quick aside – it’s no great mystery that taste and smell are inexorably linked. The lion’s share of your taste comes from the olfactory chemical reactions. Next time you’re getting ready to enjoy that glass of single malt, plug your nose and take a sip. You lose all the depth, don’t you?)

The five tastes create the building blocks of the rainbow of flavors by triggering individual gustatory receptors. Which is how we come to salt – and the unique craving humans have for the incredible, edible rock.

Of the five major tastes, salt is overwhelmingly the most popular. Even over sweet. Certainly over bitter. And it’s easy to see why. Salt is necessary for human survival, after all. So it’s only natural we’d have an affinity for it in both food and drink.

So… How does salt do its thing?

The short answer – we’re not entirely sure.

It’s long been understood by chefs and bakers that using just a pinch of salt has been an effective way to temper bitter flavors while enhancing sweet and citrus.

Each molecule detected by our sense of taste corresponds to one of the five tastes. From an evolutionary standpoint, humans are attracted to salt. Therefore, food scientists have discovered the majority of consumables can be improved by the addition of salt. To a point.

At a low concentration, salt underlines sweets, makes citrus taste that much brighter, and mutes bitterness. For a super simple experiment, try Campari by itself next to Beta Cocktail’s Campari “martini.” The higher the concentration of salt, the more the food or drink pushes towards umami. Eventually you can push past the “bliss point” and create a drink that tastes like nothing but one big tear drop.

Long story short? The good news for bartenders is that salt has been scientifically proven to change the flavor profiles in your drinks. So, how to start mixing?

How are bartenders using it?

For Staffan Alexandersson, bartender at The Tasting Room in Bergen, Norway, the addition of salts and saline tinctures made perfect sense when it came to finding ways to add further depth to his cocktails.

“Salt, as with sugar, is a flavor enhancing ingredient — just ask any chef — which has an ability to tie certain flavors together without necessarily leaving a salty/savory taste,” he said. “For instance, licorice flavor along with red berries such as raspberries often benefits by adding a little pinch of salt.”

The Tasting Room applies this theory in one of their seasonal cocktails from April – The Greens & Blues. The drink is made with reposado tequila, Cartron Pomme Verte, green chartreuse, lime juice, agave syrup, cucumber and a 1:10 salt solution.

“The original drink was created by Suzanne Storm at The Tasting Room without salt,” Alexandersson said. “However we collectively decided that it would benefit from a little salt and it took it to a new level.”

He encouraged bartenders who aren’t overly familiar with mixing with saline flavors to expand their palates by experimenting. Just like anything else, practice (and personal preference) make perfect.

“I think It’s important for bartenders to experiment with salt, as it might open up an entirely new dimension as to how you put together cocktails and flavor pairings that might not have looked too interesting in the past,” Alexandersson said.

Some tips on mixing with salt:

You don’t want to douse your cocktails in buckets of salt. Just a pinch is often enough to fundamentally change the flavor profiles of your drink. Play around with pinches of salt and drops of your salt tincture. Think of salt like bitters – you want to use it as a binding agency versus a dominant flavor. At low enough concentrations you can’t even taste the salt, but you’ll still notice some extra texture in your drink.

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