Umami Cocktails

What is umami and how can we make drinks more savoury with umami ingredients?

We’ve all heard of umami. The weird savoury sensation that’s considered by some as a flavour and others as the fifth basic taste.

But where can you find it and bring it into your cocktails at home? In this article we discover how to add the unique taste of umami to drinks.

Umami has a rich, savoury and sometimes salty taste that is unique and distinct from all other flavours. The word comes from a Japanese term that describes the savoury taste of foods like soy sauce, mushrooms and cured meats. 

Even though most think of umami as being synonymous with savoury, that’s too simplistic. The characteristics of umami can also be described as meaty or complex and when you look at the origins of the term (and the amount of foods umami can be found in), you'll start to understand the breadth of the flavour spectrum it includes.

Umami flavours
Umami flavours

The concept of umami is over one hundred years old. Professor Kikunae Ikeda of Tokyo Imperial University discovered umami in 1908, having noticed a unique flavour in foods like dashi, asparagus, cheese, tomatoes, and meat. He identified kombu, the primary ingredient of dashi, as having the most pronounced taste. After performing further research, Ikeda concluded the ‘savouriness’ was caused by glutamate, an amino acid, and dubbed it "umami".

How can you add Umami flavours to a drink?

The obvious start point would be to add ingredients that are by their nature umami’esque (yes, that is a totally made up word, but you know what we mean).

For example, you could add a few drops of soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce or fish sauce into a drink to give it an umami boost. This is obviously not possible for some cocktails - no one wants fish sauce in their Daiquiri - but take the likes of a Bloody Mary and it’s easy to see how you can accentuate the profile further and really play around with the sensations.

Another easy way is to sprinkle toasted sesame seeds, seaweed flakes or dashi powder on the rim of a glass. 

These ingredients add a huge amount of flavour and alter the perception of the drink. Again, the appropriate cocktail is needed and while it’s easy to do, it’s also fraught with danger. It’s important to appreciate just how overwhelming both umami and salt becomes if used too assertively in a cocktail, even as a rim. 

Cutting Chili
Cutting Chili

Take a tiny dash of saline solution in an Espresso Martini - it radically changes the drink and makes you eager for another sip. Two dashes and it's a mess. Overdosing on the amount of brine (olives and salt are two umami rich ingredients) can make a Dirty Martini go from delicious to filthy sea water.  A drop of sesame oil into an Old Fashioned does magical things but two or three makes for a chewy drink… 

It's not just what's in the drink or stuck to the glass that can be too much either. Bars trying to compete for insta-impressive drinks have been guilty of mini snack towers skewered onto a glass. Some are insane to navigate through.

The sparing use umami-rich herbs like shiso, cilantro, oregano, rosemary or thyme as a garnish can be a fantastic way to build umami and herbaceous complexity - the ostentatious olive, celery and tomato towers in a Red Snapper is just annoying. Unlike with food where the more umami layers the better, when it comes to cocktails less is more. 

Infuse umami flavours into a spirit.

If you want to go one step further and instead of adding an umami ingredient via the edge of the glass, as a garnish or as a dash or drop into a cocktail; why not infuse the spirit itself?  

Making Brines
Making Brines

We like thinking of umami as a sensation first and flavour second. If you are delicate with the amount used and judicious with your timings, it’s possible to suggest umami through the drink’s texture, its mouthfeel and only give add a mere hint of the ingredient into the overall profile. Barely perceptible is the sweet spot for so many umami ingredients - you don't notice them, but you notice the effect.

As for what to combine? 

Once you start infusing booze at home, you’ll find that there are many flavour and spirit combinations you can do to bring out the sensation of umami. Herbaceous ingredients (like seaweed) go well with gin and craft vodka, nuts integrate surprisingly well with whisky and mezcal, while tomatoes and rum may not be at the top of your pairings they really can be a match made in heaven. Have a look at our GUIDE TO FAT WASHES to help you on your journey to infusing weirder ingredients and a list of the culinary matches you can do, but here’s a few of our umami specific favourites…

Mushroom in cocktails is a weird one, but just try it in a Bloody Mary and you’ll see why it's worth pursuing. 

There’s a spectrum of flavours beyond herbal-umami (dried shiitake has concentrated meat-like flavours, while chestnut shrooms lend a milder, woody feel). For Bloody Mary enthusiasts, it can bring extra depth and full-bodied savouriness, and if you want to micro-dose it into syrups, it brings a hint of nuttiness which can make for interesting twists on the Champagne Cocktail.

Ocean-kissed, brackish flavours are best derived from various types of algae. 

Dried sheets of nori used to wrap sushi and freshly cut kelp are two of the easiest to get hold of. Try seaweed infused tequila for a Margarita like no other. The saline nature of the herbal note can add huge depth to the likes of grapefruit in a Paloma or yuzu or blood orange in twists on the Sour. 

Sherry is more savoury than vermouth and using it as a substitute can lead to profiles that lean into more umami flavours. Take the Tuxedo (essentially a 2:1 Martini with a few dashes of orange bitters). It feels earthy, saline and dry compared to what would be considered a typical Wet Martini.

We’d never consider sherry as being an Umami flavour in and of its own right. That's important to note. But it’s a really easy way to lean a cocktail in a more savoury direction for literally no extra effort other than swapping out Dry Vermouth for Fino instead.

Whether juiced or home-infused into a spirit, celery adds an alluring vegetal dimension to cocktails. 

We like infusing celery alongside bell peppers and walnuts into Blanco Tequila to ramp up the garden-fresh qualities of raw agave, then using it into Margarita. It works for gin too, but the similar-but-better herbaceous companion to infuse into a juniper-based spirit is asparagus. It’ll drive a gin’s herbal meets pine forest qualities while also adding an umami undertone into the mix.

A side serve of Umami

If all the infusing, adding in and mixing sounds like too much of a pain - or if your just not that confident a home-cocktail maker yet. The umami side snack is our preferred way of bringing in the flavour into the cocktail hour. 

Parmesan cheese, anchovies, cured meats and nuts are all great sources for umami. They have a multiplier effect when there's several alongside each other too. Dips made using Korean red pepper paste (gochujang) or soy sauce can add to the feeling too. Who doesn’t love having a snack while enjoying a cheeky aperitif and as is often the case - keeping things simple is the easiest way to keep things balanced.

Try a salty tomato and basil bruschetta alongside a Spritz, a bowl of olives alongside a G&T. Seaweed crips alongside a Gimlet - it doesn't have to be fancy to be effective. If you want to go a bit posher, add a side of olive oil drizzled anchovies with your Negroni. Blue cheese and Vodka Martini's are outrageously good together, oysters and Dry Gin Martinis too if you can be bothered (and want an extravaganza). 

For those that are more on the Deliveroo mind set - Sushi dipped in soy sauce and a French 75 is epic, while nachos dipped in hot sauce alongside a Margarita are always welcome too… 

No matter how you add it in, on, or enjoy alongside - Umami is a great way to elevate a cocktail into a new flavour realm.

Umami may not be as popular as spice, but savoury and earthy characteristics can create moments of pure drinking delight. They certainly make for a welcome change from the sweet flavours that so often dominate mainstream cocktails.

Spirits Kiosk
Corner 53 Umami Gin
Corner 53 Umami Gin
Audemus Umami Gin
Audemus Umami Gin

By Olivier Ward

12 February 2023