Food and Drink

Up Your Salt Game With These Clever Cocktail Rim Blends

From za'atar to togarashi to chapulines, tequila drinks have never tasted better.

Design by Grace Han for Thrillist
Design by Grace Han for Thrillist
Design by Grace Han for Thrillist

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 Middletarrean 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.”

Photo by Justin Flythe
Photo by Justin Flythe
Photo by Justin Flythe

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.” 

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Jess Mayhugh is the editorial director of Food & Drink for Thrillist. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter.

Food and Drink

The Best Ways to Dress Up Your Summer Beers

From micheladas to shandies to fruit infusions, the power is in your hands-and kitchen.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Today, just about any flavored beer a person could dream up already exists in a can, from micheladas to shandies to, yes, pickle beers. But there’s still much to be said for the DIY versions of these dressed-up beers.

For one, they’re fresher (you could squeeze your own lemonade for a shandy right this instant). For another, they’re customizable: spiciness, fruit choice, how strong you’d like the final drink to be-all those are in your hands. And perhaps more importantly, they’re fun. Whether you want to spend two minutes constructing a beer-lemonade shandy or spend an hour infusing your IPA with real chunks of pineapple, there are plenty of ways to get creative in gussying up your beer this summer.

Embrace red beer

A brunch staple across the western half of the U.S., “red beer” is essentially a stripped-down michelada: just your preferred light lager of choice, plus tomato juice. But the devil’s in the details-folks can get mighty particular about their red beer specifications.

My preference is Coors Light with just a splash of Campbell’s tomato juice. It’s a pet peeve of mine when bartenders go too heavy on the tomato juice; it’s called red beer after all, not tomato juice. To make this yourself, start with your light lager of choice, then add just a splash of tomato juice so that the beer has a strong orange hue. Sip, taste, and add more if necessary.

Upgrade your salt rim

Another component of some micheladas, salt rims are more versatile than they might seem-and they complement several styles of beer. Just coat the rim of a beer glass with lime juice or water, then dunk the glass in a shallow dish of salt. Try the following combos:

• Mexican lager with a Tajin rim: Try substituting Tajin seasoning for straight salt for a bit of a chilli-lime kick. Pair this with a red beer for a michelada-like vibe.
• Gose with a herbal-salt rim: Goses are a beer style with a light salinity already, so pouring them in a glass rimmed with a rosemary salt or basil salt can add an additional flavour that doesn’t clash. Try mixing and matching fruited goses with herbal salts-how about a watermelon gose with a basil-salt rim?
• Dark lager with a smoked salt rim: Smoked salt is a surprisingly versatile ingredient because it’s way less powerful than liquid smoke. Try a dark lager (like Modelo Negro or a bock) in a glass rimmed with smoked salt for a subtle campfire vibe.

Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez/iStock/Getty Images
Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez/iStock/Getty Images
Marcos Elihu Castillo Ramirez/iStock/Getty Images

No shame in a shandy

Radlers and shandies are often used interchangeably to refer to a light-coloured beer blended with fruit juice (typically lemonade or grapefruit). Packaged versions exist, but with so many fruit-flavoured non-alcoholic beverages on the market, it’s worth playing around with some creative combos in your own kitchen. A good rule of thumb is to start light with the base beer, either a pale lager, cream ale, blonde ale, or (if you’re really a hop head) a pale ale. From there, most people blend in a splash of their favourite juice.

But here’s my preference: Use a fruit-flavoured soda. I find that adding straight fruit juice to beer often makes it too sweet and a bit flat. A high-quality fruit-flavoured soda, like the ones from Sanpellegrino, adds carbonation and fruit flavour with too much sweetness. Also, go easy on the ratio of soda to beer to start, because you can always add more soda. I find a ratio of about one part soda to three parts beer is ideal.

Infuse your beer with fruit

Your French press isn’t only for coffee-it can also act as a device for infusing fruit or other flavours into beer. If you end up with a bumper crop of strawberries or melons from the farmer’s market, this is a great way to use them.

1. Start with a new or perfectly clean French press to avoid coffee flavour leaching into your beer (unless that’s what you’re after).
2. Pour in your beer of choice. Almost any style could work here: light lagers, blonde ales, saisons, IPAs, even porters and stouts. Pour the beer into the French press, leaving a couple inches empty at the top.
3. Add some cut-up fruit. The possibilities are limitless: porter and raspberry, IPA and pineapple, blonde ale and mango, wheat beer and oranges, saison and cherries…
4. Allow the fruit to infuse. How long to leave the beer in contact with the fruit is up to you, knowing that the longer the mixture sits, the more pronounced the flavours will be. Start with 10 minutes, push the plunger down slightly, pour and taste some of the beer, and wait longer for a more intense flavour.
5. Push the plunger down all the way. Pour your infused beer into a glass and enjoy!

Make a mighty michelada shrub

Micheladas are typically a mixture of Mexican lager, lime juice, tomato juice, and salt. But recently, premixed michelada shrubs (like those from Pacific Pickle Works and Real de Oaxaca) have popped up, adding some vinegar tartness and other ingredients like Worcestershire sauce and spices to the mix.

A shrub combines vinegar with fruit or, sometimes, vegetables, and they’re easy to experiment with at home. Michael Dietsch, author of Shrubs: An Old Fashioned Drink for Modern Times, suggests that if you’re creating a shrub to mix with beer and tomatoes, beginning with a base of apple cider vinegar or malt vinegar (to match the malt in beer) plus lime is a smart start. From there, savoury additions like soy sauce will lend a Bloody Mary feel-just be sure to use a light hand with those umami-packed additions. Because vinegar and soy or Worcestershire sauce are tangy and savoury, Dietsch notes that you may want to add just a pinch of sugar to your shrub for balance.

From there, the sky’s the limit. Swap apple cider for white balsamic if you’re feeling bold, or add orange juice as well as lime. But regardless of what ingredients you use, Dietsch says it’s important to let a shrub sit and mellow for a couple days before using it. That time will let the intensity of the vinegar mellow and will ensure all the flavours meld together in perfect harmony. Once the shrub has sat a few days, give it a taste, then add a few splashes of it to your favourite Mexican lager.

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Kate Bernot is a certified BJCP judge and freelance reporter whose work regularly appears in Craft Beer & Brewing, Thrillist, and Good Beer Hunting. Follow her at @kbernot.

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