Up Your Salt Game with These Clever Cocktail Rim Blends
From za’atar to togarashi to chapulines, tequila drinks have never tasted better.
Here’s a riddle: Though it might be the last thing you think about, it’s probably the first thing you taste. If you give up, we’re referring to salt on the rim of your cocktail.
While a swipe of lime and a dip into coarse salt or store-bought Tajín used to be as creative as they got, bartenders around the country are experimenting with different seasonings and grinds for the edge of your glass—making the rim integral to the flavor profile of your drink.
“The rim can play multiple roles,” says Aviram Turgeman, beverage director for the Chef Driven Restaurant Group, which includes Mediterranean spot Dagon and French brasserie Marseille in New York City. “First off, it’s the visual. But it can be aromatic and, depending on the salt you create, it changes the balance on the mouth, and can totally open up your palette.”
For Turgeman, it’s also about representing his background as a native Israeli. Dagon’s Middleterranean Margarita combines chipotle tequila, mezcal, and lime, and the glass is rimmed with a house-made za’atar blend sourced from La Boîte.
“The main herb that we grow in the Middle East, in general, is za’atar, so I’m basically distilling my background into a margarita,” he says. “We mix it with kosher salt and a tiny bit of sugar to cut the bitterness. It works great with the chipotle flavor and a lot of the spice in our cuisine, creating this complex, smoky, sweet, and sour profile.”
Global influences are also what sparks creativity for Dre Barnhill, the head bartender at Mexican restaurant and mezcaleria Clavel in Baltimore, where he is constantly creating salts and grinds for his cocktails.
“Inspiration from rims comes from dining experiences in Mexico,” Barnhill says. “It could be someone’s house or a roadside meal, it could be a palenque or in a restaurant. That’s a big part of traveling for us, feeling the dirt and smelling the air.”
Those adventures have led to an innovative and evolving drink menu at Clavel. The Santa Sandia (espadin, watermelon juice, serrano chile, lemon, agave, basil reduction) is rimmed with a house-made tajin blend; Amado Nervo (espadin, cilantro honey, vermut, lemon, sparkling rosé) is lined with red alder wood-smoked black salt; and Clavel’s take on a Paloma uses ground sal de chalupines, or toasted grasshoppers.
“The house grind of chalupines adds this lovely sweet smoke,” Barnhill explains. “Our smoked salt is intense without being bitter and shows up dark against any other palette. And our tajin allowed us to really emphasize the elements of store-ready Tajín that we loved the most. Ours doesn’t shy away from a healthy amount of dehydrated rind.”
Going beyond the Tajin spice we’re all familiar with was also on the mind of Robert Deery, the general manager at Sag Harbor taqueria K Pasa, when coming up with their cocktail menu.
“Tajín has been the end all, be all for spicy margaritas,” he says. “But our menu ties in all different global influences. Our owner also owns a Japanese restaurant called Sen and he let us go through their kitchen to get ideas.”
What his bar staff stumbled upon was togarashi, a Japanese spice blend that typically contains red chili pepper, ground sansho, roasted orange peel, black and sesame seeds, hemp seed, ground ginger, and nori. The blend became the rim for K Pasa’s spicy margarita that uses jalapeño-infused blanco tequila as a base.
“Our spicy margarita is made with this orange liqueur called Naranja,” Deery says. “Because the togarashi has that orange peel, it’s such an amazing complement to the drink. The balance of tequila, citrus, and spice is mindblowing.”
Just exactly how you rim a cocktail varies by bartender, too. Deery explains they first started using lime wedges for cling, then tried agave syrup, but that made the cocktail too sweet. Barnhill says that limes usually do the drink, though a properly chilled glass will keep a finer grind in place. Turgeman uses oranges and only salts part of the rim.
“We do that with all of my programs, only half the rim,” he says. “Whether it’s salt for margaritas, pink peppercorns for a Paloma, or sugar for a Sidecar. Only doing half the rim gives the guest a break and a choice.”
Bar patrons seem genuinely excited about traditional salt rims leveling up. Deery says they sell the spicy margarita with togarashi “like water here” and Barnhill has found that guests don’t shy away from the experimental grinds and seasonings he tries out.
“The reaction to rims has been really positive and inquisitive,” he says. “Makes me feel really appreciated, as though some of the tiny details we obsess about are being savored.”