Savoring the Savory

A flavorful journey to the earthy, fatty, salty side of cocktails.

Anthony Mair | Vegas Seven

Savory cocktail ingredients

At the mere mention of “savory cocktails,” your mind might instantly flip to scenes of Sunday Fun-Day Bloody Marys. Maybe a spicy jalapeño margarita with lots of salt, on the beach. And, of course, Grandad’s beloved Gibsons. The lion’s share of the cocktail canon is dedicated to the sweet, sour and bitter side of things, but that’s not to say there’s no room on the bar for earthy, meaty, fatty, salty and umami. “I believe that you should have one savory cocktail on the menu—maybe two—depending on how large your menu is,” says Constantin Alexander, beverage director for Hakkasan Group North America. Alexander is a particular champion of savory cocktails and actively creates space for them on his menus throughout the group’s brands, including Hakkasan, Herringbone and Yauatcha.

What can be tricky about savory cocktails is finding ones prepared with ingredients that are cocktail-ready—that is, destined for the glass rather than the saucepan. Ever had a pizza-inspired cocktail made with tomato sauce straight from the jar? It’s an experience you won’t soon forget. Certain ingredients, such as peppers, vegetables and herbs, need to be handled with care. The best example, however, is the TRUFFLE. Not the chocolate kind, but the prized bulbous fungus that grows near the roots of certain oak trees. The aroma is pungent and lingering, and on the palate, the effect can be almost eternal.

At Nora’s Italian Cuisine on West Flamingo Road, mixologist Adam Giles uses Black Moth truffle-infused vodka to harness all the desirable truffle notes without beating your palate up with a bushel of them. “The trick is to not mask the ingredients or the flavors, but bring out those flavors to promote the original product or the base spirit,” Giles says. With that in mind, he serves Black Moth up as a bone-dry martini (no vermouth) garnished with a slice of fresh black truffle. “The chilled product by itself gives you a lot of truffle flavor; we also paired it with our truffle fries.” (See the here for the full story.)

Real truffle oil, wielded carefully and sparingly, can also be divine. At Herringbone in Aria Resort & Casino, bartenders atomize a mist of the highest-quality truffle oil over the top of the Truffle Shuffle, a riff on an Old Fashioned made with orange aromatic bitters, butterscotch reduction and rye that was created by Alexander and his right-hand man, chief mixologist Tim Weigel. Nostalgic name aside, the drink was a top-seller when it debuted on the opening menu at the Las Vegas restaurant, and continues to have a devoted following today at the Santa Monica location. 

Meanwhile, over at Hakkasan Restaurant, one of nine new drinks Alexander and Weigel have added to the cocktail menu this month showcases another savory ingredient, SESAME OIL. The Savory Minute also introduces Las Vegas to bacanora agave spirit and Calpico Japanese milk soft drink. “Most people are not adventurous enough to try a savory cocktail,” Alexander says, laying the challenge before you. “With the Truffle Shuffle, I would classify it as a little bit of a sweeter cocktail even though it has a savory component, the truffle oil. But the Savory Minute is 100 percent a savory cocktail, which is why we put the word ‘savory’ in the name, to make sure people know what they’re getting into.”

At The Cosmopolitan, property mixologist Mariena Mercer loves working with sesame oil. On the current menu at Vesper Bar, you’ll find her creation, Wabi-Sabi, a play on the Penicillin made with Akashi Japanese Whisky, Bärenjäger, fresh ginger, lemon, matcha tea powder, house-made coco-chai syrup and coconut cream, topped with a drizzle of sesame oil. Creamy and complex, the drink is a downright conversation piece, with a savory, culinary nose and a challenging flavor journey. The oil will stay on top and contribute only aroma … unless you stir it in. Then it contributes to the mouthfeel, much like another savory ingredient: BUTTER.

Mike Doyle, Breakthru Beverage Group beverage development specialist, has of late been spreading the gospel of “fat-washing” spirits (that is, infusing it with clarified butter or browned butter) to give them an incredibly rich texture. “One of my pet peeves is when bartenders do not properly skim and strain their spirits after fat-washing,” Doyle says. “Having bits of fat—however small or imperceptible—in a cocktail is lazy.” To stay on Doyle’s good side, fat-washed spirits should be strained through an unbleached coffee filter or 100-micron Superbag. Along the same lines, Doyle was reaching for richness when he created a luxurious coconut milk and turmeric cocktail for Downtown’s Turmeric: Flavors of India called Milk & Honey. Says Doyle, “I was trying to hit some savory notes, but still not scare folks off.”

If exotic, savory spices such as turmeric are your jam, you can find Mercer’s spicy signature elsewhere on property at The Cosmopolitan, where The Casablanca Cooler at Rose.Rabbit.Lie. uses the North African spice ras el hanout, and the Keep Calm & Curry On at The Chandelier’s 1.5 level bar is made with cardamom-infused verjus, garam masala and curry leaf-infused tequila.

So, what’s left in our savory pantry but SALT? A necessity of life, salt is not often employed as a cocktail ingredient outside of the rimmed margarita or Bloody something or other. One of the most polarizing of savory ingredients, salt creates an explosion of flavor interactions. At The Dorsey in The Venetian, Sam Ross’ Salted Kingston Negroni has a saline pop that will make you salivate even more than the navy-strength Jamaican rum, Gran Classico Bitter or sweet vermouth. Just a pinch of salt opens up a dialogue between the brain and mouth that usually goes unspoken.

What is that? Salty? Sweet? BOTH?!

Yes, says The Dorsey’s lead bartender Juyoung Kang. “It’s the balance your taste buds crave.”