A Story, a Secret, and a Hint
When I was little I used to bake with my mom and she would seat me on a stool, balancing a cookbook on the counter—often Julia Child's "The Way to Cook", a book practically bigger than me—and have me read off the list of ingredients while she collected them in the pantry (from shelves I couldn't reach yet).
Without fail, I would get to the word salt and, fearful that it was all some plot to cheat me out of my dessert, exclaim, "Ewww! Why are we putting salt in here? Aren't we making something sweet?"
My mom would patiently explain for the dozenth time that it was just a pinch, not enough to actually make the dessert salty, but enough to help bring out the other flavors. Eventually I learned to accept what she was talking about, but for years salt was that secret, invisible helper I didn't understand.
According to Camper English, in Details, it seems that bartenders are starting to have that same lightbulb moment about the oldest secret in the book:
"Bartenders around the world have recently figured out something that chefs have known forever: A pinch of salt helps flavors pop.
Just as chefs have long known that a judicious scattering of salt can improve a dish's flavor, bartenders too are finally embracing the idea that salt is good for more than doing cheap shots of bad tequila. Now they're putting salt in the drink, not around the rim of the glass, dashing salt solution into cocktails, much as they would bitters."
We've all had salted margaritas—which range from artfully subtle to mouth-puckeringly salty—but I can't say that I've had many cocktails where there was salt in the drink, except for the occasional overly savory Bloody Mary.
But why does it work, exactly? I'd learned to just trust what my mom told me, but I can't say I ever understood the chemistry behind it.
"Salt in cocktails does more than make drinks salty, of course—there is some neurogastronomy happening here. Salt, like sugar, balances bitterness on the palate. So all those drinks with bitter Italian liqueurs like Cynar and Campari and Fernet that bartenders are in love with right now can be tempered nicely with salt. "Salt and bitterness have an especially nice relationship," Schick says." Details
Ok, so maybe that's not much of chemistry explanation, but it does make sense. I supposed you could add just a pinch—maybe dissolved with the sugar in the simple syrup, or just added to the shaker at the end?—to help brighten dormant flavors and balance the overly sugary bitterness that too many cocktails teeter on the wrong side of.
If you're still as skeptical as I was when I was little, read more about salt, the secret ingredient, at The Secret Ingredient in Your Cocktail: Salt. In the mean time, I'll be taking to the bars to see if the chemistry is—pardon the pun—worth its salt.
Oh, and why the hint? Well consider this story a clue about an upcoming Women Who Whiskey event! Any guesses?