November 21st, 2008


Some thoughts on savory cocktails

You know, historically, punches and then cocktails were based on a balance of sweet and sour, with a bit of bitters. The idea was to create drinks that were sweet, but not cloying.

And today, again, we are in an era that loves our sweet cocktails. To which I say, "Yippee!", because I loves me a good girly drink. . . but that's not the only direction that cocktails can go. Throughout much of the 20th Century, cocktails went savory. And that's also an interesting way to go, and one which needs much thought, and in which much cool stuff can go.

Of course, we're all familiar with savory drinks like the Bloody Mary. But the king of the savory drinks, bar none, has GOT to be the martini. I mean, can anyone think of a savory drink that could even compete?

But what is the flavor that is predominant in savory cocktails? Sweet cocktails are based on a balance of sweet and sour, usually, often cut with some bitter. (And it doesn't have to be a lot -- simply squeezing the peel of a lemon over a drink releases enough bitter aromatic oils to change the character of a drink drastically.) Of course, they can add in some salt -- a margarita is usually about the interplay between sweet, sour, and salt, rather than sweet, sour, and bitter. But what's the interplay in a savory cocktail?

I'd argue that savory cocktails are about the interplay between salt and umami. The primary taste in a martini, of the five basic tastes (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, umami), is umami. White vermouth is basically umami; gin has a good smattering of it; green olives have a good chunk.

I think the reason people like "extra dry martinis" -- ones which limit, or even virtually eliminate, the vermouth -- is because they get overloaded with umami. It's an aggressive flavor, one which I quite like, but, like any flavor, "too much" is too much. It can start to strike one as "oily" or "greasy", even. I go heavy on the vermouth in my own martinis -- but that's because, remember, as sensitive as my NOSE is, I've got fewer taste-buds per inch than most of you, so, for me, I punch up those five basic tastes.

So what flavor goes with umami? I'd say that salt is the most complimentary flavor to umami, and I suspect people who drink "dirty martinis" would agree with me. Adding a bit of the brine the olives are stored in does add some olive flavor (again, mainly umami), but mainly adds salt.

So why not go directly for the salt? A pinch of salt actually does change the character of a martini quite a bit. I feel that it rounds out the edges, and I like it that way. Others may not, but it may be worth an experiment.

So, then we have sweet, sour, and bitter. Personally, I don't feel like playing with sweet and bitter with a martini -- I'm not saying it can't be done, just that I don't feel like doing it right now. But what about sour? Can anything be done with that?

I tried adding a drop of rice vinegar. And I quite liked the result.

So: here's an idea for a martini variation.

3 oz gin, say, Beefeater or Hendricks, for instance
1 oz white vermouth
1 dash of salt
1 dash of rice vinegar.
2 green olives stuffed with pimentos

Shake, or stir, as you see fit. Shaking will break up more ice, and slightly dilute the mix. That's not a bad thing. Stirring will leave less water in. That's also not a bad thing. You CAN taste the difference, but I'm going to commit a heresy here, and say that BOTH ways are good, even if they're different. Strain into a cocktail glass. Or whatever glass you have around.

I'd be interested to hear what other people think of the salt and/or rice vinegar ideas. I find them quite palatable myself, but I don't know if that would be universally true.