For whatever reason, most of us only ever expect to find something sweet in our cocktail glass. High-proof or totally virgin, most of the drinks that we consume aren’t exactly what you would describe as “savory.” In fact, they’re generally quite the opposite. Despite the craft cocktail trend and its march toward less-sweet drinks, most of us are used to syrupy sips made with sweetened liqueurs, simple syrups, and fresh fruit juices.
Savory is generally reserved for solid food, and for that, we’re missing out on a world of flavors that pair beautifully with spirits of all kinds. Most of the time, in order to make a sweet cocktail taste savory, you only need to make a few tweaks. Try these five savory twists the next time you’re mixing up a classic — you could very well find your favorite new drink.
You’ve probably had a pickleback before, that infamous combination of a single shot of Jameson chased with a shot of pickle juice, but you’ve never had a drink like The Pickled Surfer. Invented at NYC fish shack Dutch Plains a few years ago, this cocktail mixes a shot of bourbon whiskey, a squeeze of lime juice, and an ounce of pickle brine as a sort of hoity-toity homage to everyone’s favorite bar standard. A dash of Old Bay seasoning sprinkled over the top brings it all together. Mix it up, and try different types of pickles and juice, like bread-and-butter cucumbers, or crisp pickled green beans.
The combination of grapefruit juice and gin isn’t particularly sweet to begin with, but the salted rim of a classic Salty Dog kicks the savory flavors up another notch. Add another level of fresh, savory flavor simply by sticking a stalk of rosemary into your drink after mixing together the grapefruit juice and gin. The aroma from the rosemary will fill your sniffer with plenty of sensory savoriness, and the oils from the herb will gently diffuse into your drink as you sip it. If you want to make things even more flavorful and add a touch of fanciness, rim the glass with herb-infused salts, like Falksalt’s Rosemary Sea Salt Crystal Flakes.
The Negroni is immediately a savory drinker’s go-to, thanks to its layered profile of bitter flavors. Still, it is possible to make this drink even more savory, especially if you reach for a bottle of mescal. The smoky nature of mescal makes it perfect for savory cocktails, and if you’re really serious about keeping sweet out of this drink altogether, you can swap the standard sweet vermouth for Fernet-Branca or another type of amaro to create a totally bitter mescal negroni.
Fat-washing, or infusing spirits with the flavor from fats, is relatively trendy in the spirits world, especially when bacon is involved. The process is relatively involved, requiring cooking the bacon, letting it mingle with the bourbon before placing it in the freezer for a few hours, and straining away all the fat, but the results are well-worth it. The resulting spirit is thoroughly infused with the smoky flavors from the bacon fat, even after you’ve skimmed it all away. When your bacon fat-washed bourbon is mixed into an Old Fashioned, that single sugar cube just rounds out the smoky, savory flavors in the most delicious way possible. Substitute maple syrup for cane sugar for a really interesting experience.
The obvious choice for a savory cocktail is the Bloody Mary, but sometimes you just get bored with vodka. The Bloody Maria substitutes blanco tequila for plain old vodka, and you can get seriously savory with the flavors you add. Start with Clamato, or clam juice-infused tomato juice, and add plenty of fresh chiles, Worcestershire, and a Mexican hot sauce like Tapatio or Valentina. You’ll still want to scoop in plenty of horseradish, but the flavor of a Bloody Maria far exceeds its vodka-based counterpart.
Amy McCarthy is Paste’s Assistant Food Editor.
Photo: Jeremy Brooks, CC-BY NC