The sweet seduction of salt

Vij’s bartender Olivia Povarchook putting the (salty) finishing touches on a Smoking Dog. Dan Toulgoet photo

As we get set to celebrate BC Day on Aug. 7, let’s raise a glass to the province’s greatest unsung local ingredient, the one that can transform our cocktails from ordinary to sublime: Salt.

Throughout history, this tasty and essential mineral has been used as a currency, a preservative and a flavour enhancer. Wars have been fought over the stuff. And there’s a whole ocean of it right on our doorstep.

Still, it wasn’t until a few years ago that Andrew Shepherd of Vancouver Island Salt Co. started harvesting sea salt by boiling vats of seawater over open fires. Now a handful of other local sea salt companies have popped up, including Saltwest Naturals of Sooke and Clever Crow in the Comox Valley.

As it turns out, our waters produce a delicately flavoured salt that’s especially good in cocktails—not just for rimming the glass, but as part of the drink itself.

Wait, you say. Salt in drinks? Doesn’t that go against the, er, grain, so to speak?

Counterintuitive as it might seem, what salt does in a cocktail is boost flavours, especially sweet and tart ones. It makes tomatoes and strawberries taste more tomato-y and more strawberry-ish. It smoothes the acid edge of lime juice. It absorbs the hit of chilies and spice. It harmonizes ingredients and makes them sing.

“The salt just gives it this pop,” says bartender Olivia Povarchook of Vij’s restaurant, who has created an update on the classic Salty Dog called the Smoking Dog (recipe here). “You wouldn’t even know it was there. It’s the supporting player.”

Kaitlyn Stewart of Royal Dinette says she tends to use salt to “enhance other flavours, much like you would in cooking.” In her pisco-based Summertime Sadness cocktail, a pinch of salt heightens the flavour of strawberries and complements the spice of jalapeño.

That said, salt doesn’t work in every cocktail. Just as you wouldn’t pair a tannic Cabernet Sauvignon with potato chips, you wouldn’t put salt in an oaky brown-bitter-stirred cocktail. Salt enhances bitterness, and not usually in a nice way, which is why you rim a Margarita glass with salt and not, say, a Manhattan.

“Salt and vegetation go hand in hand,” Povarchook says. “And clear spirits absolutely will absorb saltiness really well.”

Think white spirits such as gin, tequila, pisco and vodka, as well as the fresh, mouthwatering flavours of citrus, herbs, vegetables and fruit.

As for how to add salt to your drinks, you have a few options. You can hew to tradition and use it to rim the glass (run a wedge of lime or lemon around the rim, then dip it in a saucer of salt). You can add a few grains of salt to the drink itself (do it Salt Bae-style for full effect) and shake or stir it. Or you can add it in liquid form.

At Tofino’s Wolf in the Fog, bar manager Hailey Pasemko can use seawater from pristine Clayoquot Sound in her cocktails. In Vancouver, Cascade Room General manager Justin Taylor makes his own salt water with Vancouver Island sea salt for his Burrard Gimlet (recipe here), transforming what is often a sharp, one-note drink into something sublimely complex and refreshing.

Salt, it turns out, is the perfect summer thirst quencher that will leave you craving more.

—by Joanne Sasvari

Try out the recipes for the Smoking Dog and the Burrard Gimlet.


You may also like