The Science of the Salty Dog

The Science of the Salty Dog
JK Grence

The other day when I was behind the stick, one of my guests ordered a drink that I haven't made in a while, a Salty Dog. It's one of those basic drinks that you learn early on as a bartender, then almost never make because hardly anybody orders them anymore.

It's a variation on the Greyhound, a highball consisting of nothing more than vodka and grapefruit juice. The ingredient that turns a Greyhound into a Salty Dog is easy enough to figure out: salt. Specifically, it gets salt on the rim of the glass, just like on a Margarita.

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But why on earth would you salt a glass of vodka and grapefruit juice? It turns out that there's some science involved.

While Mary Poppins sang that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down, it turns out that a pinch of salt will do a better job. The taste buds on your tongue responsible for tasting bitterness pull double duty by picking up salty flavors, too. The salt gets picked up by the taste buds before the bitter. So, while those taste buds are busy picking up the salt, the bitter flavor passes by unnoticed, and your drink tastes less bitter as a result.   You can use the same trick to make bitter coffee taste better. In the case of the coffee, it doesn't take much, just a pinch for a whole pot of coffee. You shouldn't taste the salt, but it will make your coffee taste smoother.

Now that you know why the salt on a Salty Dog makes the drink better, it's time to apply it properly. One of the most important skills a bartender can have is how to properly rim a glass. I've seen many margaritas ruined by a bad salt rim.

If you have one of those multi-tray things with a lime juice soaked sponge, throw it out right now. It's the biggest part of the problem. When you use those, you end up with salt all over the rim, inside and out. Then, when you pour the drink into the glass, the salt on the inside gets knocked into the drink. I don't know about you, but half a teaspoon of salt dissolved in my margarita is not my idea of a good drink.

The solution is a piece of cake. All you need is a shallow dish, and a piece of citrus such as a lime wedge.

To get the salt only on the outer rim where it belongs, rub the lime wedge around the outside edge of the glass. Then, roll the rim of the glass through a dish with a pile of kosher salt. Once the salt is on the rim, hold the glass upside down over the sink, and give the glass a tap to knock any excess salt off the glass. Et voilà, you have a perfectly rimmed glass.

One of the great parts about this method is that if you can do this well in advance. You can rim the glasses the morning of a party, and then that evening when you're making drinks you can just grab a glass and go. They look quite festive arranged on a drink tray, too.

Salty Dog 2 ounces vodka 5 ounces grapefruit juice Pour everything into a tall salt-rimmed glass. Stir gently to combine.

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