The Way To Fix Overly-Bitter Cocktails (And It's Not More Sugar)

It's the end of a difficult workday and a strong Old Fashioned cocktail is just what you need. But when you go to add the final touch of flavor to your glass – a dash of bitters – you accidentally add too much. Now you're left with a bitter mess instead of the soul-soothing drink you wanted. Don't panic! There's a quick and easy way to fix it using an ingredient you always have on hand.

A common assumption is that you can combat biting flavors with sugar, but there's a better way. The secret ingredient that will fix your bitter nightmares might actually be just the opposite of what you'd expect: salt. This concept has often been applied in the culinary world but it's a less common remedy for beverages. Take your morning jitter juice, for example – some people add a pinch of salt to coffee to save it when it's over-brewed. That crystalline mineral always seems to be the key to fixing kitchen disasters, but what makes it so special when it comes to bitter compounds?

When we eat, the five basic tastes (salt, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami) are perceived when our taste buds bind to specific compounds and signal our brains. Some tastes have the effect of balancing others out. When sodium ions bind to our salt receptors, they work to conceal bitterness, which can make sweetness more pronounced. A 1997 study found that salt can be more effective at neutralizing bitterness than sugar (via Nature).

Salt your cocktails for the right kind of intensity

Salt is no stranger to cocktails and for good reason. Have you ever questioned the tequila shot tradition – salt, tequila, lime wedge? Objectively, it's quite a unique ritual, but it makes sense when you look at the science. The salt calms the burn of the alcohol so you can have a more 'pleasant' drinking experience. Although whether that should ever be used to describe tequila shots remains undecided.

Salt can also be found rimming the glasses of drinks like margaritas, though for a slightly different purpose. It's a flavor enhancer! Have you noticed that salt-rimmed margarita tastes a tad sweeter and has a brighter tang to it? Effective on both sweet and acidic flavors, this fundamental bartending ingredient can give cocktail drinkers a more intense experience.

There are a couple of ways that you could go about adding salt to your drinks. The first (and easiest) is just adding a pinch or using your salt shaker. A saline solution is commonly used by bartenders but might not be practical for a home bar. Another option is to use a salt rim, though that will only be pleasant for a select number of cocktails. You could also just salt the source. Adding salt to the liquor directly takes away the extra step while making your spirit more palatable. The next time you make a cocktail, channel your inner Salt Bae and see what happens.