I remember not that long ago when the interwebs were abuzz with talk of adding salt to coffee as an alternative to sugar. At the time, I thought it was some of the biggest wank I had ever heard…But I tried it anyway.
The theory behind this seemingly counterproductive practice is based on sodium chloride (or common table salt) acting as a flavour enhancer when added to food; it makes everything taste better, in moderation.
Humans have been aware of the amazing properties of salt for thousands of years, using it not only to enhance flavours but also for food preservation and to hide the taste of spoiling. Adding salt enhances (or changes) our sensory perception of flavour. In low concentrations, it can suppress bitterness and enhance other tastes. Salt is added to all manner of dishes (both savoury and sweet) often with a noticeable enhancement of flavour; salted caramel anyone?
Perhaps surprisingly, if you add a small pinch of salt to black coffee, it reduces the bitterness in a similar way to how sugar masks bitterness by increasing sweetness…but without the extra calories. Add too much salt, however and it overpowers everything else, making the coffee taste unsurprisingly salty, which is undesirable to say the least.
Just the thought of adding salt to a $250 single malt, is enough to cause any whisky snob to shit the bed.
Alcohol and salt is not a new combination; who hasn’t had tequila and salt shots? Adding salt to cocktails isn’t new either. Some common cocktails are traditionally served in a salt-rimmed glass or even served with salt or a saline solution already mixed in.
WHISKY ON THE ROCKS(ALT)
I thought it would be neat (see what I did there?) to add salt to single malt whisky and see if it enhanced or at the very least, changed the flavour. I’m all for new whisky experiences here at Whisky Dad and I’m a firm believer that you should enjoy your whisky, however you damn please; neat, with water, on ice, with a mixer or even a pinch of salt. To hell with what anyone else thinks. Just the thought of adding salt to a $250 single malt, is enough to cause any whisky snob to shit the bed.
So with that in mind, let’s begin.
I’m going to start with three identical pours of Bruichladdich PC12 ‘Oileanach Furachail’ single malt Scotch whisky and add salt to the second and third glass. I don’t own a set of scales able to measure down to the milligram so I used my own measurement of a poofteenth of dry salt for the first glass; not just any salt, but fancy Maldon sea salt flakes. Here, you can see in the picture what a poofteenth of fancy salt looks like in practice.
For the third glass, rather than sprinkle dry salt crystals into the liquid, I prepared a 3% saline solution (3g of salt to 97ml of distilled water, roughly as salty as sea water). I did this so I could add it to the whisky gradually, one drop at a time. Obviously, this will add a tiny bit of water to the whisky which on its own has an effect on alcohol concentration, aroma and flavour, but it ensures that the salt is fully dissolved before being added to the whisky.
This is what I thought of Bruichladdich PC12, neat.
Aroma: Bottled at 58.7% ABV, you can smell the alcohol quite prominently but there is plenty of peat smoke to go with it. Once you get past the alcohol and smoke, there is a pleasantly rich and sweetaroma of alcohol soaked sultanas and citrus fruit notes.
Flavour: Bitter smoke dominates the palate initially before sweet fruits and prickly spices become more noticeable as the whisky warms in the mouth. The high ABV leaves the mouthfeel more prickly than smooth on the palate.
Finish: Long bitter smoke finish leaving a slight warming in the chest. Lingering aftertaste of smoke that stays in the mouth long after the drink is finished.
Now to add some fancy salt…
Note: Bruichladdich PC12 is a whopping 58.7% ABV and sodium chloride dissolves much easier in water than it does in alcohol. So, the higher the alcohol concentration in a whisky, the harder it will be for the salt crystals to dissolve. I had to crush the relatively large salt flake crystals after I had added they to the whisky in order for it to dissolve sufficiently.
Aroma: Perhaps unsurprisingly, it smells very similar to how it did without salt. Can I tell the two drams apart from smell alone? I’m not sure I can. I swapped backwards and forwards between the two, concluding I could not discern any noticeable difference in the aroma, although my wife said she could; but I didn’t tell her they were the same whisky, so she may be full of shit.
Flavour: Now this is different. I’m looking for the salt, so I pick it up on the tongue almost instantly, but it soon disappears as my taste develops. After that initial salty pop, the whisky tastes noticeably less bitter with a different mouthfeel. The liquid feels slipperier on the tongue. The spicy prickle is reduced somewhat; the whisky tastes smoother but not subdued in flavour. I think the difference in the mouthfeel is more noticeable than any change in the balance of flavours.
Finish: Nowhere near as bitter as before, but the spicy prickle comes back with a vengeance in the finish with some flavour of roasted nuts that I didn’t pick up before.
And finally adding 3% saline solution one drop at a time.
Note: Although this was a more effective way to add salt to the whisky, it was not ideal. As well as introducing additional water, the concentration also changed continually as I took sips and continued to add the saline solution. At one point I stopped, re-poured a fresh 30ml dram and added approximately 1ml of saline solution – less water than I would generally add to whisky but I felt if I added much more it would be too salty.
Aroma: Once again, no discernible change in aroma with five or less drops of saline solution. The smokiness and alcohol fumes reduced with 1ml of water with the fruity aromas a little more noticeable as a result, but I attribute this to the water in the solution rather than the salt.
Flavour: I noticed a slight change in taste after just five drops of saline but not the obvious salty pop as I did with the addition of dry salt crystals; the bitterness began to reduce. The mouthfeel began to change above the five drop mark, developing a slippery oily feel. At the 1ml mark, the whisky was pleasantly balanced and tasted smoother than if neat. The salt was just noticeable at the outset but nowhere near as obvious as with the addition of the dry salt crystals.
Note: I have previously commented that the Bruichladdich PC12 tastes a little flat with the addition of water, but I generally add much more than 1ml of water when tasting a whisky diluted.
Finish: If anything the prickly spices increased in intensity at first but with less of a bitter aftertaste. The intensity of the prickly spice reduced after more than five drops of saline solution was added – it was hard to tell if this was a result of the additional salt or just the water.
SO WHAT DID I THINK?
There you have it; adding salt to whisky has little to no effect on aroma but definitely alters the mouthfeel and reduced bitterness, which is a common taste in heavily peated whisky. Adding the salt as a saline solution was easier but the additional water also interacts with the whisky somewhat. Adding the salt as dry crystals isolated the perceivable changes to being a result of the salt alone, but was troublesome since sodium chloride does not dissolve as easily in alcohol as it does in water.
I would have loved to have been able to say that the addition of salt also enhanced some of the subtler flavours in this whisky, but I could not confirm that with side-by-side tastings and I’m not going to bullshit you. The Bruichladdich PC12 is a very strong and heavily peated whisky with plenty of bitter flavours, which is primarily why I chose it since salt is proven to reduce bitterness in food. I found the addition of salt to be an interesting experiment that did have a noticeable effect to both the flavour and finish of the whisky, but it’s unlikely I will be sprinkly salt on all my whisky from now on.
But, I wasn’t satisfied to stop there; I had tasted the salt when I was expecting it, so I needed to do a blind test to be sure. Having surmised that both a poofteenth of fancy salt and 1ml of about 3% saline solution had a noticeable and not unpleasant effect on the flavour of the heavily peated cask strength whisky, I asked my trusty assistant (my wife) to prepare another three drams.
This time I would use a very different single malt Scotch, the unpeated and much lighter The Macallan 12 Year Old Double Cask. I poured three identical 30ml glasses of the Macallan and added dry salt to one and 1ml of 3% saline solution to another, keeping one glass additive free. I told my wife which glass was which and out of my sight, she marked the glasses A, B and C in mixed order for identification purposes. Finally, I sampled all three and chose my favourite.
The differences were subtle, obviously, neither salted sample was so strong that it was overpoweringly salty. They all tasted fine, but I noticed the following differences:
Glass A had a slight salty pop, oilier mouthfeel, stronger spicy prickle in the finish and was slightly less bitter. It tasted balanced and smooth and from my previous experience, I thought it was the glass with dry salt crystals added.
I picked up more honey notes in Glass B but it was also pricklier on the pallet and bitter in the finish. I picked this as the unadulterated sample.
Glass C was noticeably muted compared to the others, with a slight saltiness that I concluded must be a result of the saline solution being added.
And my favourite? Out of the three samples, I preferred the taste of glass A the most.
After choosing my favourite, my wife revealed which glass was which:
Glass A – dry salt crystals. (Winner, winner, chicken dinner!)
Glass B – neat.
Glass C – saline solution.
Well, well, so not only did I pick which sample was which in a blind test (not as obvious as you may think) but I also preferred the sample with a pinch of fancy salt dissolved in it. Adding the dry salt crystals was more involved than just sprinkling it in, as it took a little effort to make it dissolve completely in the whisky. The saline solution, on the other hand, contained the extra water which was fine with the cask strength Bruichladdich but to my tastes, noticeably muted the flavour of the 40% ABV Macallan.
Now you can either take my word for it or you can challenge your own whisky prejudices, throw caution to the wind and try it for yourself – you may be pleasantly surprised. Let me know how you go in the comments.