Margaritas to Martinis, the Magic Ingredient

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Photo by House of Sims/Flickr CC


My strongest associations with salt are Biblical. From Leviticus to Lot's wife, it's rooted in ancient mysteries. Yet salt also pervades our everyday life so much that one might take for granted its "divine" interpretation, which lies in its ability to lift and elevate the flavors around it while keeping its own flavor intact. Taking this aspect of salt for granted can, unfortunately, lead to some dreadful combinations.

Let's take, for example, the dirty martini, which, as opposed to any martini of repute, is generally a form of intravenous therapy: viscous, with an overwhelmingly saline taste. The alcohol is merely a pleasant side effect. There is no greater example of a drink that squanders the divinity of salt by making it a grotesque feature, much like canned soup or frozen burgers.

Imbibers will often note an inexplicable quality that they can't readily identify in the drink. That's the divine presence of salt.

When I use salt in cocktails, I mostly think of its ability to provide contrast to sweetness, and in doing so to provide a highlighter effect to the sweet ingredient without actually elevating the sweetness level. Here we might use the classic example of the Bloody Mary. At best, the pinch of salt required for a bloody Mary, while adding its own flavor, brings attention to the sweetness of the tomatoes. (Don't get me started on the obsession people have with making a simple, elegant drink a delivery system for mouth-burning spiciness.)

Sometimes when making creamy, sweet concoctions, such as a cocktail I created called the "Golden Child" -- see recipe below -- I like to add a little salt. Imbibers will often note an inexplicable quality they can't readily identify in the drink. That's the divine presence of salt. (It also has the added benefit of bringing down the temperature in the shaker and chilling the ingredients faster.)

The other method of administering salt in cocktails is by coating the outside of the glass with kosher salt, such as the margarita with a salted rim. This adds a great textural dimension as well as flavor and lift. I sometimes use a mixture of salt, sugar, and citrus zest by drying the zest and grinding it with the salt and sugar. Or I might let the salt absorb the aroma of pineapple by letting the skins sit on the salt. This adds a great dimension to the experience whenever one lifts the drink to one's mouth -- directly under one's nose.

There are still ways to use salt that are brand new. Oyamel, in Washington, D.C., makes its margaritas with "salt-air," a kind of foam using salt and soy lecithin. The result is an ethereal delivery of salt. While a welcome innovation, perhaps it's a bit too close to divinity. See instead if you'd like an optional sprinkle of salt in my Golden Child.

The Golden Child
1 1/2 oz. Fig-infused Gold Rum*
1/2 oz. Marie Brizard Crème de cacao
1/2 oz. Castries Peanut Cream Liqueur
2 dashes Lemon Tincture**
1 Egg Yolk
Combine ingredients in shaker, add ice, and shake vigorously. Strain into chilled cocktail glass.

* Add 8 oz. quartered Calmyrna figs, removing stems, to 750ml gold rum. Allow to sit for 48 hours, strain and use.

** Add the zest of four lemons to 4 oz. Wray & Nephew overproof rum. Allow to sit for one week before using.

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Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He sits on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail. More

Derek Brown is a writer, illustrator, bartender, and co-owner of acclaimed bars The Passenger and Columbia Room in Washington, D.C. He travels throughout the country and around the world in search of great drinks, and the stories behind them. Derek's methodical approach to cocktails was profiled in the Wall Street Journal's "A Master of Mixological Science" and his martini lauded as the best in America by GQ. He's been in numerous media outlets featuring his approach to better drinking, including CNN, The Rachel Maddow Show and FOX. Derek is a founding member of the D.C. Craft Bartender's Guild and on the board of directors for the Museum of the American Cocktail.
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