It was a blustery, eggnog kind of day back in December as I watched bartender Ben Anthony mix his take on the drink. It was thick and frothy, warm gold from a local egg, fragrant from vanilla and freshly grated nutmeg, sweet and strong from simple syrup and bourbon and faintly herbaceous from a bit of Benedictine.
Then came Anthony’s final flourish — a pinch of the winter smoked sea salt made by Wood + Salt, which he and his sister, Jess Anthony, own.
Cream, egg, vanilla and spice? Of course. Bourbon?
Personal preference. Benedictine? A welcome update.
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“The salt dissolves slowly and gradually changes the flavor of the drink,” says Anthony, who tends bar at John Brown’s Underground in Lawrence.
It turns out salt does more than change eggnog. This essential mineral, the only rock we humans eat, transforms almost any cocktail. Not because it’s flashy. Salt doesn’t command the spotlight in the way an esoteric whiskey or new bitters brand might. Rather, it works backstage to improve the taste, aroma, mouthfeel and balance of countless drinks.
“(Salt) won’t hurt a cocktail. It’s only going to make it exponentially better and a little more complex,” says Christopher Ciesiel, co-owner of The Campground, a private cocktail club in Kansas City. “I think it’s a terrific tool.”
It’s often said that salt enhances flavor, but that’s an oversimplification. What it actually does is suppress bitterness through a series of complex chemical processes involving things like G protein-coupled receptors and cations, Ben Anthony says. In short, salt blocks bitter sensations, thus drawing others (especially sweet, fruity and citrusy ones) to the forefront.
“If you have a basic sour, the cocktails you make will be good without salt,” Ciesiel says. “But when you put it in there, it just tames the bitterness, brings out the sweetness and makes it more amazing.”
In its purest form, all versions of sodium chloride taste the same. But salt is rarely pure. Table salt typically contains anti-caking agents and, if iodized, potassium iodide, which can leave a lingering bitterness. Kosher salt has larger crystals and tastes cleaner, bartenders say.
Unrefined sea salts contain trace minerals and impurities that add complexity. Zac Snyder, a bartender at Julep, has a penchant for pink Himalayan and black varieties, while Wood + Salt frequently uses French gray, Cypress and other sea salts.
Infusing and smoking them adds more characteristics that come through even after the salt has dissolved with water, says Ciesiel, who often uses a saline solution made with Wood + Salt’s forest salt in his drinks.
“I get a lot of the smell of pine, juniper, that sort of thing,” Ciesiel says.
Salt affects more than flavor, though. For one thing, it causes us to salivate, and the proteins in saliva give weight and richness to a drink’s texture.
“It’s just more velvety,” says Jess Anthony, who bartends at 715 in Lawrence. “Your own saliva changes the cocktail.”
The mineral also boosts aroma. Or, as the indispensable food science reference “On Food and Cooking” (Scribner; 2004) puts it, salt “strengthens the impressions of aromas that accompany it.”
Certainly that’s a good reason to rethink the mundane salt rim. You can browse the Internet for suggestions or turn to “Spice & Ice” (Chronicle Books; 2009), where recipes with cocoa, chipotle chili powder, lemongrass and tandoori spices deliver an aromatic and flavorful one-two punch. Or try the variation made with sugar, salt, ancho chilies and toasted fennel included in “Death & Co.” (Ten Speed Press; 2014).
Think of it as an introduction to the drink, says Jess Anthony, who favors Wood + Salt’s winter smoked sea salt for rimming her winter smoked margarita.
“When you bring it up to your face, that’s what your first impression is,” she says of the cinnamon, brown sugar and orange notes that waft from the lip of the glass.
That salt transforms a drink is no surprise to anyone who has ever sipped a margarita with a salted rim. Even its use elsewhere behind the bar isn’t exactly new. The now-defunct blog BetaCocktails.com extolled its virtues back in 2010, and a few Kansas City bartenders have favored salt since at least then. So why its current appeal?
It’s partly because salt helps blunt the bite of increasingly popular bitter amaros, liqueurs and cocktails, bartenders say. American’s growing culinary acuity also plays a role. We already know salt makes things like caramel, chocolate and coffee more delicious, so adding it to your glass isn’t much of a stretch. For some bartenders, it’s downright routine.
“Salt is the secret ingredient in almost all my cocktails,” Dave Arnold, a food scientist and the creative power behind New York’s high-tech bar Booker & Dax, wrote in his “Liquid Intelligence” (W.W. Norton & Co.; 2014). “Any cocktail that includes fruit, chocolate or coffee benefits from a pinch of salt.”
Don’t believe him? Arnold recommends making two servings of your favorite drink, one with salt and one without. Compare them, and “you will never forget the salt again,” he writes.
Just to be clear, though — drinks with salt shouldn’t be salty. The key is using what’s called a sub-threshold amount, or enough to do the job but not enough to actually taste.
Ciesiel usually uses a few drops of saline solution (see the Chow Town blog for a recipe) made with 10 percent salt. Arnold favors a 20 percent saline solution. Thirty percent is the preferred mark for Julep’s Snyder, who considers “liquid salt” a bar kit staple in part because it’s easier to measure and mixes more readily than dry salt.
Another option is to salt liquid, house-made ingredients like syrups. Manifesto adds salt to its honey-cinnamon and ginger syrups, as well as the mango-habanero that matches with mezcal, tequila and lime juice to make the bar’s off-the-menu Cortez the Killer cocktail.
“It intensifies the mango-habanero and makes the tequila and mezcal push out a little more, too,” bartender Jonathon “Tex” Bush says. “Salt just really brings out the flavors.”
The mineral also helps balance cocktails. Too bitter? Over-sweet? Rough or sour? A dash of saline solution or salt might be all it takes to fix the drink, bartenders say.
“It’s the same idea as using bitters or a tincture of some kind,” Snyder says. “If used in the right proportion, it can help make a really magnificent drink.”
That’s a tall order for a rock, but then salt has always had an outsized impact on humanity. Everything from wars, revolutions and taxes to mythology, religious practices, trade routes, technological advances, governments and culinary greatness can be traced back to salt, according to “Salt” (Penguin Books; 2002). So why not a better cocktail?
Anne Brockhoff is a freelance writer who lives on a farm on the outskirts of Kansas City. Look for her monthly column Blithe Spirits. Email her at email@example.com.
Jess and Ben Anthony, the siblings who own Wood + Salt, are obsessed with flavor. They scour cookbooks, spice markets, history, their own experiences and area restaurants, bars and farms to find inspiration, and then capture those flavors in salts, rubs and other products.
“We have all these conceptual starting points for different recipes,” Jess Anthony begins during a recent interview. “The recipes really could come from anywhere,” her brother finishes.
Some combinations come easy, like the rosemary smoked sea salt Jess first created for her breakfast sausage-flavored rub. Others are harder. A custom Tank 7 salt for Boulevard Brewing Co. required Ben and Jess to break down the beer’s flavor profile and infuse each element separately (using different processes) before recombining it into a cohesive whole.
Wood + Salt works out of City Market’s Farm to Table Kitchen, and the Anthonys have a booth at the market in season. The company also sells smoked and infused salts, as well as rubs, brines, salt bakes and smoked, whiskey-infused peppercorns, at area retailers (go to woodandsalt.com for a list) and online. It also makes custom blends for restaurants, food trucks and home brewers.
But the Anthonys do have a soft spot for bartenders, probably because they both work in the industry.
Wood + Salt will host a smoked cocktail class on Feb. 5 at John Brown’s Underground, 7 E. Seventh St. in Lawrence. Tickets ($30) are available at woodandsalt.com, as is information on other events, including a cocktail demonstration on Feb. 19 with Christopher Ciesiel of the Campground at Season + Square, 6205 Oak St. (seasonandsquare.com).
Saline solutions vary in concentration and so require a bit of trial-and-error. Try starting with the 20 percent solution (20 grams of salt in 80 milliliters of water) recommended by “Liquid Intelligence.” Then add judiciously. You want to enhance your drink’s character, not make it taste salty. “A drop or two of this is all it takes to make a cocktail pop,” author Dave Arnold writes.
Rimming a cocktail glass with infused or flavored salt boosts both aroma and flavor. The basic process goes something like this, according to “The Bar Book” (Chronicle Books; 2014): Invert the glass, moisten the rim, apply salt and tap the glass to dislodge any excess salt. Still, getting a neat rim can be tricky. Here are a few other tips from author Jeffrey Morgenthaler:
▪ Use freshly cut citrus to moisten the rim of the glass.
▪ Pick a citrus that complements the drink you’re making.
▪ Make sure your glass is completely dry.
▪ Moisten the entire rim so you don’t have any bare spots, being careful not to moisten the interior of the rim.
▪ Use kosher, sea or other large-grained salts; do not use table salt.
Winter Smoked Margarita
This cocktail from Jess Anthony showcases Wood + Salt’s winter smoked sea salt, made by smoking salt over smoldering cinnamon sticks, brown sugar, tea and orange peels.
Makes 1 drink
Wood + Salt Winter Smoked Sea Salt, for garnish
1/2 ounce freshly squeezed lime juice
1 ounce freshly squeezed blood orange juice
1/2 ounce mezcal, such as Del Maguey’s Crema de Mezcal
3/4 ounce reposado tequila
1/2 ounce Solerno Blood Orange Liqueur
1/2 ounce agave nectar (optional)
Rim an Old Fashioned glass in winter smoked sea salt and set aside. Combine lime and orange juices, mezcal, tequila, liqueur and agave nectar (if using) in a cocktail shaker. Fill partway with ice and shake until chilled. Add ice to prepared glass; strain cocktail as you pour it over the ice.
Per drink: 143 calories (2 percent from fat), trace total fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 8 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 102 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Ben Anthony, co-owner of Wood + Salt, named his eggnog-style drink after the British region it’s rumored to have originated from. The salt garnish will slowly dissolve into the drink, changing its flavor.
Makes 1 drink
1/2 ounce Benedictine
1/2 ounce Vanilla Simple Syrup (see note)
1 1/2 ounces bourbon, such as Maker’s Mark or W.L. Weller
1 whole egg
1/4 ounce cream
Freshly grated nutmeg, for garnish
Wood + Salt Smoked Winter Salt, for garnish
Combine first 5 ingredients in a cocktail shaker; shake without ice (called dry shaking) to incorporate egg and froth cream. Add ice and shake again until chilled. Strain into a coupe glass. Sprinkle with nutmeg and salt.
Note: To make Vanilla Simple Syrup: Combine equal parts sugar and water in a saucepan. Heat until sugar dissolves, stirring occasionally. Remove pan from heat, allow to cool and transfer to a clean container. Add 1 vanilla bean, seal and refrigerate, allowing mixture to infuse for 5 days before use.
Per drink: 264 calories (49 percent from fat), 7 grams total fat (3 grams saturated), 218 milligrams cholesterol, 10 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 173 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.
Sugar and rye whiskey-infused salt, as well as a pinch in the drink itself, helps counter Campari’s bitterness in this drink by Ben Anthony.
Makes 1 drink
Wood + Salt Rye Salt, for garnish
Raw sugar, for garnish
1 1/2 ounces rye whiskey
1 1/2 ounces sweet vermouth
1 1/2 ounces Campari
Pinch table salt
Orange slice, for garnish
Combine equal parts rye salt and raw sugar. Use the mixture to rim a cocktail glass, and then set glass aside. Combine whiskey, sweet vermouth, Campari and pinch of salt in a mixing glass. Add ice and stir until chilled. Strain into prepared glass and garnish with orange slice.
Per drink: 301 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 17 grams carbohydrates, no protein, 137 milligrams sodium, no dietary fiber.