Jamie really knows what he’s talking about – he co-founded Bar40 Bitters, a company making bitters that are rethinking the way cocktail bitters add flavor to drinks. Instead of making flavored bitters (like “orange” or “black pepper”), they created a portfolio of bitters that focus on the different tastes – sweet, sour, salt and “Umami”. Definitely check out their site if you’re interested in experimenting with unusual products.
Without further ado, here’s James Beurklian!
The Allure of Umami in Cocktails
A Brief Discussion on Taste Perception
All flavours that we perceive are derived from a combination of scent and taste. However, what we taste on the tongue can be broken down to a combination of the five major perceptions of the gustatory system: Bitter, Sweet, Salt, Sour, and Umami (AKA savoury). The taste buds on your tongue are tiny little pockets that act as receptors for the molecules of the food we eat. There are different types of tastebuds on your tongue and they illicit a different response. That’s how these five basic tastes are experienced and this is the basis of thousands of different flavour combinations in food and drink. But enough of all this dry science talk, let’s explore this in real life.
So as we drink our favourite cocktail, taste plays the major role as it it shapes your experience, or what you feel as you drink it. It is this beautiful interaction and balance of the basic flavour perceptions that we find ourselves ordering another one. Just as teams of food scientists spend hours creating specific combinations of flavours in commercial food products to drive desire and repurchases, A well-balanced, high-experience cocktail will be more desirable psychologically and physiologically. Or in other words, we really like drinking a well designed cocktail!
If you want to learn more about cocktail design, I suggest you take abarabove.com’s online cocktail design course so you can really shine in your creations.
Perceiving and articulating the five flavours is a skill that needs to be practiced, but don’t be discouraged just yet. It’s really easy to learn. The next time you enjoy a cocktail, take some time to appreciate the complexity of it. Notice which of the 5 flavours are present in your cocktail and how the taste changes in your mouth over time, as the temperature changes or as the ice melts into it and dilutes it. You don’t have to get fancy, just be cognizant of what is happening with your experience of taste.
If you are really keen, you can take what I call the “five cup challenge”. It’s a basic exercise to get you used to what each perception tastes like and give you a basis to articulate it in the future. For this, you will need some ingredients that you can easily get online in powdered form:
- White sugar (sweet),
- Citric Acid (sour),
- Salt (salt),
- Quinine (bitter) and
- MSG or a Bouillon cube (Umami) – and no you will not get sick from msg like I do at my local chinese restaurant. (Affiliate links)
Place a small amount of each ingredient in its separate cup and add water to dissolve them. taste each of them independently.
One thing to note is that msg does contain salt (sodium) so you will get a salt taste that you should overlook for the Umami notes. To put it simply, this gives you a basis of how to name that experience when you taste one of the basic perceptions. Kind of like when you were a child and you pointed to the sky, and an elder would say “the sky is blue” and that’s how you learned what “blue” looks like. Now you know what Umami tastes like.
What is Umami anyway?
Do you know what umami is? I’m sad to say that most people don’t, but creating ”umami awareness” is something I’m working on. Umami is certainly an alluring word. Well, what if I told you that you’ve been tasting Umami all your life? Thats right, Umami is simply the technical term for “Savoury”. North Americans have been using the word meaty or savoury as a taste descriptor for years, and it is technically a slang.
The reason for this is because until 1985, Umami was not considered a basic taste by food scientists. Yes we all used the term “savoury” so we’ve identified it for years. However, we can thank Kikunae Ikeda, the Japanese food scientist who first claimed Umami’s existence since 1908, for his bravery and persistence to spend his career researching umami receptors and posthumously got the international food science boards to accept Umami’s existence as a basic taste perception. So for that, to honour Ikeda, I like to call it Umami instead of Savoury, and because Ikeda looks like the kind of guy I would get along with.
Characteristics of Umami
So what does Umami taste like? Well, I can’t really tell you explicitly with words, this is something you have to experience. However, I can offer tests.
So let’s do a little thought exercise: think about eating this steak, mushrooms and onions right now. You might notice that you are pretty excited about this idea. Well, that’s Umami for you. Simply put, it’s pretty delicious.
If you didn’t do the test with the MSG powder as discussed before, there are some other alternatives:
- Try a drop of Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce or Maggi – these are brown liquids used in cooking that really exemplify Umami.
- Have a bite of a raw steak (pretty boring right?) Now BBQ that steak and Bam! Umami all up in your mouth. Now fry up some mushrooms and onions to pair with it and you have now compounded all the Umami-Ness.
Umami in Cocktails
So let’s dive into cocktail applications. Interestingly, Umami is not a characteristic traditionally used cocktails. I once had an image of cocktails being only sweet, sour or bitter. I once regarded Umami and Salt for foods only. I can assume this is due to a long line of history with cocktails and recipes that bars and bartenders followed as gospel. Well, times have changed, and now especially after reading this article, you can start rolling your eyes when the bowtied hipster/bartender tells you what a cocktail is supposed to be because that’s the way it always has been done (I just rolled my eyes from thinking of that scenario).
Umami is kind of the rockstar of the 5 basic tastes because it can compliment any of the other 4 flavours. As I grew my knowledge of taste and taste-experience, I started making my own products to be able to add ANY of the basic tastes that I so desired in my cocktails. These manifested in the form of bitters, to which I had formed my company, Bar40 Bitters. Umami is one of the 4 flavours Bar40 Bitters offers in its Gustatory lineup, it is a nice balance of Umami and bitter (which is a difficult balance to achieve). This provides a VERY different experience than your traditional “aromatic” bitter that you’ve been using. Bar40 Umami is still aromatic, just not from traditional spices.
Ingredients that Exhibit Umami
Aside from Using Bar40 Umami, there are many ingredients that have high levels of natural Umami in them. I will forgo a massive list of foods that contain Glutamates, instead I will provide a basic list of things that you can potentially play with as ingredients or create infusions with.
This is where you can get creative based on your skillset and what level of involvement you want to make your cocktail:
- Infuse dried shiitake with gin
- Infuse bacon with vodka
- Infuse truffles with vodka
- Dash Maggi to your recipe
- Muddle roasted ripe cherry tomatoes
- Sprinkle Parmesan cheese
- Sprinkle bonito flakes
Spirits that have “Umami”
Something should be said about spirits since we are discussing cocktails. It is said that Sake is the only spirit that exhibits Umami. I am a big fan of a good sake for its amazing complexity and there are certainly sake’s that naturally exhibit umami. However there are other spirits that tend to have an Umami-likeness to them. Now that you are an Umami expert, here is the fun part: I’d like you to taste test some alcohol.
Conduct a tasting of these spirits:
- Green Chartreuse
Everyone’s taste perception is different, but what I personally find is these spirits provide notes that are very reminiscent of Umami. I can’t actually measure the amount of glutamates or inosinates in the spirit (it is probably 0) but as you try them you might notice that it’s not quite umami but has an inexplicable similarity to it. I have my theories, but I’ll spare you of them.
Umami Cocktail Recipes
Try this cocktail that I like to name “The Bastard Cocktail”. Taste for the “Umami-like” experience in it as you go.
The Bastard Cocktail:
- 2 oz. mezcal
- ¾ oz. Cynar
- ¼ oz. Green Chartreuse
Stir with ice
Now do a taste test:
- Taste the cocktail. Notice if you get a sense of Umami.
- Add 6 drops of Bar40 Salt to calm down the bitterness of the Cynar. Do a second taste test. Are the Umami notes more pronounced?
- Add 6 drops of Bar40 Umami for good measure. Do the final taste test.
- Now that you’ve added Bar40 Umami in there, notice the difference.
I find this exercise very interesting. (I also happen to enjoy the cocktail.)
A Really Dirty Martini
I love olives but I’ve always hated this cocktail with a passion. I find the brine to be very intense and unpleasantly overpowering of the drink.
The Classic Dirty Martini:
- 2oz Gin
- 0.5oz Dry Vermouth
- 0.25oz of olive brine
Sure, salt and olives are great, but for whatever reason, the brines everyone uses are horrid. So to preserve the wonderful umami-ness of the olive, my solution is to muddle olives for the drink in lieu of olive brine. It drastically changes the drink. But be careful, this makes for a fatty, muddy, colour rich, intense cocktail.
The Really Dirty Martini:
- 2 Muddled Green olives (Optional use red olives)
- 2oz Gin
- 0.5oz Dry Vermouth
- 4 drops Bar40 Umami
- 4 drops Bar40 Salt
Shake and double strain.
This is my favourite “Umami Bomb” Cocktail!
A while ago I was on a caesar kick. I’m sure most of you reading this are American, so let me explain:
The Caesar is the Canadian bastard child of the Bloody Mary. I don’t know how many times I’ve been hungover down south and asked for a caesar to cure what ails me and I got nothing but a raised eyebrow. Caesars are almost the same as a bloody mary, however, Clamato juice is used instead of tomato juice, making for an added element of umami (clam juice). I like the caesar because it embodies everything that is umami. However, I was still not satisfied with what was usually served, so I “Umamied” it up a little.
- Rim glass with powdered Nori
- Muddle 3 broiled cherry tomatoes
- 2oz Bourbon
- 6oz Motts Clamato Juice
- 18 drops Bar40 Umami
- 2 dashes of habanero hot sauce
- fresh cracked peppercorns
- sea salt to taste or 6 pinches of Bar40 Salt
- 1 tablespoon of steak jus (that’s right, the drippings from a pan fried steak)
- A bacon slice and gibson onions for garnish
Build in glass and stir with Ice
Here’s a quick breakdown of this cocktail and why each ingredient was used:
- Rim: Most Caesars traditionally use celery salt as the rim. I personally hate salt on a rim as it overwhelms the taste buds on your tongue just before the actual cocktail enters your mouth; the experience is terrible in my opinion. So I substituted the celery salt with powdered nori (I bought nori sheets used for sushi and ran it through a small blender, pulverizing it into a powder). You can also get creative with using powdered bacon or parmesan cheese.
- Broiled Tomatoes: Cherry tomatoes on their own are delicious, but broiling them unlocks the glutamates and gives them an even more umami kick.
- Bourbon: Traditionally Vodka is used for this cocktail. Sure it gets me drunk, but I felt it was limited in what flavour it provided. Surely, a good cocktail is pivoted on its base spirit. Substituting with sweeter/corn heavy Bourbon really compliments this cocktail.
- Clamato Juice: A bloody Mary calls for straight tomato juice. But I find this rather boring. Use it here if you feel it is necessary, however, for a stronger Umami kick, try the Clamato Juice. It’s still tomato based so it’s not too far off.
- Bar40 Umami: Many people use worcestershire in their caesar recipe. However, for a more intense Umami experience, Bar40 Umami really does a better job here.
- Habanero Hot Sauce: Tabasco sauce is delicious, but fermented, offering a sour quality. It is excellent in many things but for this Umami bomb cocktail, I find the sour of it detracting from the Umami quality of the drink. Habanero is one of my favorite hot peppers for its distinct and intense flavour. Be careful since it is one of the hottest peppers, so use it sparingly.
- Salt and Pepper: Fresh Cracked pepper is just nice, and since this drink is more reminiscent to a meal than a drink, it deserves some nice lively pepper. However, the salt is a key component, the Salt will magically blend the flavours together and enhance all the Umami in this drink. you can use saline solution, but I prefer Bar40 Salt since it has other spices along with salt.
- Steak Jus: Steak is the epitome of Umami. I love it, and I want it in everything. To this point, I even want it in this cocktail. I’ve had Caesar’s with Lamb Drippings in it before. I liked it, but not everyone likes lamb, for meat eaters, Beef is quite unanimously enjoyed.
- Bacon and Onions: Cured meats are amazingly umami, Bake sliced of bacon so they cook straight and drop it in. Add pickled onions for fun on a skewer.
Conclusion & Giveaway
I hope this article provided the building blocks for understanding Umami and how it can be used in cocktails. Using umami in cocktails may seem difficult because not many products are catered to it. However, as we are seeing more professional bar-chefs play with this magical 5th Taste perception, more people are opening up to it and becoming creative with their own cocktail program.
Win a set of Bar 40 Bitters!
We are giving away a full set of Bar40 Bitters to let you give them a try in your own cocktails at home or behind your bar.
All you have to do to enter is comment on this blog post and tell us about any cocktail you’ve had (or would like to create) exhibiting the Umami flavor.
Entries will be accepted between December 7th, 2015 and midnight PST on December 20th, 2015. Good luck!
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