In its most simple form, a brine is essentially just salted water. While that simple solution can do many things, when it comes to making truly delicious savoury drinks, simple isn’t good enough. If you are willing to customise your brine or create a separate cocktail focussed recipe, the liquid you'll make will become the building block for spectacular at-home cocktails.
Trust us, add a splash of bespoke, purpose-built brine into a Bloody Mary or Dirty Martini and you’ll see that an umami boosted mix can unlock new heights of deliciousness.
Side note: We wrote about how to make a custom brine in a How to Pickle Garnishes article (explaining how to make your own cocktail olives, onions and cherries), but the focus was on the garnish, not really the liquid left behind. This article is a singular focus on the liquid.
Let’s start at the beginning and build up…
How to make a brine for savoury cocktails
Brine at its most basic is just salt and water. Because of that, you will often see brines described as a percentage, referring to the ratio of salt to water. For example, if you’re using 100 millilitres of water, a seven percent brine would mean adding 7g of salt. Most brines range from 5 to 10%.
If you are using weight as your guide, it doesn’t matter what shape or size the grains of salt are as they’re going to be measured, then dissolved. We'd always recommend you use flaked sea salt and avoid using table salt if you can unless you can find a brand that doesn’t have added iodine or anti-caking agents.
Add the water, gentling heat to help it dissolve and that’s your foundation. If this sounds a lot like it’s just saline solution it’s because it is. What differentiates a brine and a saline solution is what happens next - adding flavourings, fortified wines or vinegar etc.
Many bars make their own brine solutions intended for specific cocktails. There’s a big difference the optimum flavours for a Bloody Mary and a Dirty Martini. This is also true in regards to the optimum mouthfeel and the liquid's aesthetic and knowing the ‘destination’ really helps create the ultimate mix.
Why keep customised savoury brines separate?
Pickled olives are brilliant garnishes. We often eat them without the drink too, but let's pretend that doesn't happen before it gets us in trouble…
Flavoured brines that enhance the item they are pickling, like olives or cocktail onions are great. Use them for the filthiest of Martinis if you have some and we'll be the first to say that a good pickling brine often makes for a lovely addition to the drink. The difference here is making something that will be added as a liquid in a cocktail intentionally (and in a fair quantity), not to flavour a garnish that is used in a cocktail.
Besides, having a heavily flavoured brine can be annoying to deal with when you want the clarity of the olive. Equally, if you start to add lactic acids, msg and more into the mix - it's a lot harder to control the outcome and create the optimum for both liquid and garnish.
The last big reason to make a separate brine is because it's handy if you are making loads of drinks. For example, there’s just no way there is enough olive brine to add into a round of Red Snappers or Bloody Mary's and keep the remaining contents of the jar submerged for later use.
Dirty Martini Brines –
The absolute easiest of ways to add savoury depth to a brine is to add splash of sherry (approx. 50ml to every 200ml of saline). You’ll brought in nutty elements, dried fruit and more complex brackish flavours too.
Don’t be too worried about infusing in other ingredients at this point either. Celery, seaweed, coriander seed, gherkins, pickle, muddled olives, dill, fennel. Steep them in there and let it infuse! Once you are ready, remove the solids by filtered them out. Start with a coarse filter (sieve or muslin cloth) to get the big particles out of the way and then gradually move on to the finest type of a filter ( like a paper coffee filter).
Through proper filtration you'll not only remove the bits, you'll clarify the liquid and remove some of the colour too - meaning you spare your Martini from going swampy and cloudy. If you are obsessed by keeping your cocktail crystal clear though - both agar-agar and gelatin will clarify your drink further by trapping solids and are worth looking into.
If you want to go one step further, it’s possible to add half a teaspoon of Lactic or Malic acid into the mix. That’ll drop the PH level and bring a distinct sour taste too.
Bloody Mary brines -
The good thing about tomato juice cocktails like the Bloody Mary is that you don’t have to worry too much about the colour of your brine, nor the textural element. It can even be dark brown if you want to!
The quick and gritty way to build an umami boosting Bloody Mary brine is to get de-stoned olives and mix them with the saline and some white wine vinegar. Once pulverised, fine strain.
If you want to upgrade further… build in an umami-super-mix and ramp up the culinary, savoury aspects of the drink. In a jar combine 100ml of vodka, 1 tablespoon fennel seed, 10 grams dried shitake mushroom, and 1/2 teaspoon MSG (optional). Shake to dissolve, and let sit for 24 hours, strain out solids using a coffee filter. Combine this with that base saline solution (to taste) while keeping in mind that you will use around 15ml per drink you make.
Hopefully these recipes help you create brines that give your cocktails a unique and delicious twist with extra depth and complexity. If you are brave enough to experiment away and you'll find that you can easily make a custom mix that unlocks layers of flavour and real umami-richness. What are you waiting for?