When thinking about cocktails and salt, it’s easy for the mind to wander to a Margarita and its iconic salted rim. But to silo salt to the mix of lime and tequila is to miss out on the vast potential of salty cocktails. Agave shines and lime juice simply tastes better when there’s salt involved, yet salt also improves a Manhattan’s sweetness and augments the citrus of a Daiquiri.
In proper proportions, salt is the amplifier of everything that makes a cocktail worth drinking. Don’t believe me? Just look at the science.
Salt Makes You Salivate
A study done by the Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique in France found that salt increased the amount humans salivate by up to 600 percent — even when the amount of salt was beyond what humans can perceive.
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The study looked at chewing gum with salt versus chewing gum without salt. At rest, the subjects produced one milliliter of saliva per minute. With low salt gum, the subjects produced four milliliters per minute, and with high salt gum — which had more salt than the subjects could perceive — six milliliters per minute of saliva was produced.
The effects aren’t as dramatic for many cocktails because mastication (chewing) also releases saliva, and you shouldn’t be chewing your cocktail. Still, the salivation is there. Saliva can add viscosity to your drink, and when you salivate, you know something good is coming.
Salt Enhances Sour
A study done by researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center showed that the five tastes on our tongue (sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and umami) change based on the other tastes in something we’re eating.
Taste receptor cells on our tongues light up when stimulated by a cocktail (or anything put in our mouth). When a stimuli only has a single taste, like a sugar cube or flakes of salt, that taste is perceived as intense. When two or more tastes are ingested together, each one tastes different.
When the right amount of salt is combined with sour — one of the crucial tastes in a cocktail — the sour notes are increased in all the right ways. The same is true for sweet and umami.
You can try this yourself by trying lemon, then trying salt, and then trying lemon and salt together.
Salt Blocks Bitterness
The study authors write that “salts selectively filter flavours, such that unpleasant tastes (such as bitterness) are more suppressed than palatable ones (such as sweetness) thereby increasing the salience and/or intensity of the latter.”
The conclusions are similar to the Monell Chemical Senses Center study, in that salt’s interactions with other tastes change perception. For cocktails, that means you’re getting more sweet tastes out of a juice or spirit that’s slightly bitter like grapefruit or Campari.
The moral of the story?
Add a pinch of salt to your next cocktail. Your tastebuds will be happy that you did.