Why savoury cocktails deserve the spotlight

Oysters, oils, onions: cocktails are getting increasingly savoury. Number one fan Millie Milliken argues that it’s time for less sweet libations to shine

Words by Millie Milliken

savoury cocktail soma
London bar Soma serves up the Mooli: a savoury mix of vodka, curry leaf vermouth and pickled mooli

Believers vs heathens, Conservative vs Labour, Roger vs Rafa, Christina vs Britney… for time immemorial, people have seen themselves split into idealogically opposed groups. There’s a proclivity for pitting ideas against each other that’s in our very nature. While I don’t always agree that matters are so clearly cut, when it come to sweet vs savoury, it is the latter’s camp that I most naturally and fervently gravitate towards.

It’s always been that way – years of family dinners turning my nose up at my mother’s lovingly homemade sherry trifle has caused a chasm larger than the one I created that time I forgot her birthday (sorry, mum). If I were to ever be a guest on the Off Menu podcast (on which guests choose their dream three-course meal for co-host comedians James Acaster and Ed Gamble to pick apart), Acaster – a dessert disciple – would expel me from the fictional restaurant on the utterance of ‘um, can I just have another starter?’

The same can be said about my taste in cocktails. While I am partial to a Grasshopper, Milk Punch or Piña Colada, the promise of a savoury edge to a libation is what really whets my appetite: Martinis topped with olive oil and accompanied by a side of Gildas (the Spanish snack on a stick comprising peppers, olives and anchovies); Bloody Marys with lashings of Worcester sauce and featuring St George Spirits’ Green Chile Vodka; anything with cheese in it. In American sitcom terms, I’m less Leslie Knope, more Lucille Bluth.

bloody mary savoury cocktail
A Bloody Mary might be the first savoury cocktail to come to mind for the uninitiated

Despite my propensity for going against the crowd (hands up if, like me, you’ve still got a Samsung), it seems that I’m not the only one opting for the cheeseboard equivalent of the cocktail canon. Bars across London – and further afield – are dialling back on the saccharine and smacking us around the chops with bold, unapologetically savoury options: with tomato often acting as the dominant ingredient to balance out the sweetness. At London’s Mandarin Oriental and its hotel bar The Aubrey, Salome is a cocktail that combines sake, rice shochu, Etsu ocean water, tomato liqueur and umami. Tomayto Tomahto from famed east London bar Callooh Callay also uses tomato liqueur together with Tequila, rum, lime and salt. Meanwhile, Crossroads in Camden has a cocktail named ‘Tomato’, which mixes burnt butter gin with gazpacho, oak and smoked birch.

Bars across London – and further afield – are dialling back on the saccharine and smacking us around the chops with bold, unapologetically savoury options

Perhaps my favourite savoury-leaning menu of late has to be that of Two Schmucks in Barcelona (after three days at the city’s Primavera music festival, cocktails here were a welcome respite from the ubiquitous Aperol Spritzes and JD & Cokes). The bar’s creative directors Pom Modeste and Juliet Larrouy have crafted three standout drinks that mix sweet and savoury deftly: the French Soup Manhattan (a bonkers yet brilliant take on the classic, with mushrooms, onions and bayleaf smoke), Melon, Cheese, Pepper (with mozzarella foam and pepper), and Topinambur (a Dirty Martini of sorts featuring Jerusalem artichoke and olive oil).

Back in London, and Piccadilly Circus’s hidden gem Soma is knocking out some savoury bangers too, influenced by the flavours of India. A new menu is afoot, but I’m praying they keep on the Mooli: Haku vodka, curry leaf vermouth and some heavily pickled mooli (a type of radish also known as daikon) make this a savoury Martini-style cocktail with a sharp and not-too-sweet edge.

My love for savoury liquids extends to the drinks cabinet, too. I’ve already lauded the rise of the savoury gin, but there are other cabinet staples and one-off bottles that are giving my at-home cocktail-making an even more saline edge. Take, for example, Vault Vermouth’s Champagne & Oyster Vermouth: with a botanical base of oyster shell, olive leaf, pine and green coffee, it’s an excellent addition to a 50/50 Martini or a Negroni. Asian spirits can be a sure-fire way of bringing some earthiness to cocktails too, like Ryukyu Awamori from Japan, made from rice, yeast and black koji and coming with flavours of mushroom, umami and soy sauce.

vault vermouth oyster
Vault Vermouth's Champagne & Oyster bottling adds a savoury flair to classic cocktails

Speaking of, let’s not forget the kitchen cabinet when it comes to packing some savoury flavours into those drinks: olive oil, fish sauce and soy sauce are all your friends (when used in moderation). And never underestimate the power of salt: it may be the poster boy for high blood pressure, but it can easily moderate sweetness with just a pinch.

Are the days of sweet cocktails behind us? Of course not – but my tastebuds have never been so well catered for. In the words of Xtina, and on behalf of savoury cocktail lovers everywhere, you can’t hold us down.

writer millie millliken drinking from a tasting glass
By Millie Milliken

Millie Milliken is a freelance drinks writer and winner of the IWSC 2022 Spirits Communicator of the Year, sponsored by Chivas Brothers.