Savory cocktails: Redefining happy hour

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Savory cocktails like the martini and bloody Mary have long been staples at restaurants and bars, but more and more, savory cocktails are finding their place next to sweet cocktails on bar menus everywhere. 

With a bevy of salty, smoky, briney, spicy and umami flavors, these savory and dry drinks are just as palatable and enjoyable. If you’ve yet to try one, these drinks will surprise your taste buds. 

A savory cocktail incorporating tomato juice, tomatoes, and basil.
Tomato cocktail. Photo credit: YayImages.

Savory drink options are popping up on drink menus served throughout the day, from the bloody Mary at breakfast to unique creations at happy hour. 

What is a savory cocktail?

Savory cocktails are alcoholic drinks that prominently feature salty, briney or smoky flavors. They can also use savory, bitter and spicy ingredients like tomato juice, olives, jalapeño or bitter liqueurs. 

These drinks can also be more spirit-forward, meaning that the alcohol takes center stage in each sip, not the flavorful mixers. This is especially true in the classic martini, which contains gin, dry vermouth and a splash of olive brine. 

Drinks with a savory flavor profile typically don’t contain sweet ingredients like fruit juice, liqueurs or simple syrup, but that doesn’t deter fans of the savory cocktail. 

Gen La Rocca of Two Cloves Kitchen prefers these umami drinks to sweet ones. “My favorite cocktails are savory cocktails, particularly bloody Marys and martinis,” she said. “I prefer a bloody Mary as a brunch drink and a martini at dinner.”

A bloody mary with a celery garnish sits on a countertop.
Bloody Mary. Photo credit: Pexels

Bloody Marys

The bloody Mary is one of the most well-known savory cocktails. Made with a tomato juice base that’s been flavored with horseradish, garlic, lemon, hot sauce and Worcestershire sauce, this vodka cocktail can range from mild to zesty to spicy. 

This tomato drink has a starring role on a brunch table especially, but you aren’t likely to find it on evening menus at a restaurant. It earned the nickname hangover cure because many people enjoy it in the morning or afternoon after a night out on the town. The bloody Mary is also popular as an airplane drink order and for sporting events like tailgates and watch parties.

“A bloody Mary pairs well with savory breakfast foods, like eggs and potatoes,” said La Rocca. 

Versatile and customizable, bloody Mary mix can be combined with all the core spirits. Vodka is classic, but renditions with tequila, gin, rum and whiskey aren’t uncommon. 

Another key feature of the bloody Mary is the garnish. Bartenders often give the glass a flavored salt rim before preparing it; then, they top it off with extras. 

Classic garnishes include lemon wedges, celery stalks, shrimp, bacon, herbs, pickles and olives. Some restaurants take it up a notch with skewered sliders, hard-boiled eggs and even slices of pizza, likely hoping for social media buzz. 

A hand holding a gin martini in a beam of sunlight surrounded by darkness.
Dirty martini. Photo credit: Pexels


Then there’s the elegant martini, the movie cocktail James Bond is known for ordering. Contrary to the bloody Mary, the martini is a savory cocktail enjoyed in the evening, especially for happy hour or when dining at a restaurant.

“Martinis are the best for dinners out. They’re the classic accompaniment to a steakhouse meal,” La Rocca said. 

The Bond character famously ordered his martinis “shaken, not stirred;” however, the drink is traditionally stirred to better chill the ingredients without over-invigorating them. 

Garnished with a lemon twist or olives, a classic martini is made with gin and dry vermouth, which lends a smooth texture and flavor, plus a splash of bitters. It is also called a dry martini. 

The martini has a number of well-known variations: 

  • Vodka martini: This version is made just like a classic martini, but with vodka in lieu of the usual gin. 
  • 50/50 martini: Expect this drink to be made with equal parts gin and dry vermouth, rather than the gin-forward classic. 
  • Dirty martini: When ordered dirty, the drink is mixed with a splash of olive brine and garnished with extra olives. If ordered extra dirty or filthy, it will come with even more of the salty brine. 
  • Vesper martini: Created by the author of the James Bond series, Ian Fleming, the vesper is a drink a character in the book orders with gin, vodka and Lillet with a lemon peel garnish.
  • Pickle martini: Similar to the dirty martini, but instead of olives and their brine, the pickle martini uses pickle brine and is garnished with pickle slices or cornichons  
  • Gibson: Made with the traditional martini proportions, but this one gets a pickled onion as a garnish instead of olives or lemon zest. 

“For me, the dirty martini isn’t just another savory cocktail; it’s an experience. That salty kick from the olive brine just nails it. It wakes up your palate and says, Hey, pay attention, something awesome is happening here. It’s the one drink that always keeps me coming back for another round.”

— Mandy Applegate, Splash of Taste
Savory carrot juice cocktail on a wooden cutting board.
Carrot cocktail. Photo credit: YayImages.

Beyond classic savory cocktails

Beyond the martini and bloody Mary, bars are adding their unique savory concoctions to their bar menus. 

Vegetable juices made from beets, cucumber, carrot and celery can be mixed with the main types of alcohol to create delicious, unexpected drink flavors. They can even be made without alcohol as savory mocktails.  

Some drinks take on a spicy profile, such as drinks using jalapeño tequila or a splash of hot sauce. Others can be smoky, either featuring a smoky spirit like mezcal or being served with a smoked glass. And yet others exude umami, featuring miso or even mushroom flavors. 

Salty rims, as you’d find on a margarita, are sometimes used for extra flavor and presentation, such as with flavored salt like chili-lime seasoning or a mixture of salt and pepper. 

“My favorite is an Oaxaca cooler with a smoky mezcal, cucumber, lemon and chili salt,” said Michelle Price of Honest and Truly. “It is a great balance of smoky, sour and spicy at the same time, without being overpowering in any dimension. It’s a strong cocktail, but it’s perfect for sipping during dinner. 

What to eat with savory cocktails

Savory cocktails go best with savory foods. At brunch, enjoy a bloody Mary with your eggs and bacon. At happy hour or dinner, a martini or any other savory drink will go with cheesy, salty appetizers as well as the main course. 

“I enjoy savory cocktails because they tend to go better with meals and food. While I enjoy a good sweet cocktail, they don’t tend to pair well with whatever I am eating at the time,” Price said. 

Be sure to finish your martini before ordering dessert — if you want a drink with dessert, order a dessert martini made with sweet liqueurs instead.

While savory cocktails are a far cry from sweet drinks like the mojito, they’re worthwhile drinks for sipping and savoring all day, from brunch to happy hour to dinnertime. Next time you see one on a menu, give a savory cocktail a shot.  

Based in Charlotte, N.C., Susannah Brinkley Henry is the cocktail content creator behind the blog Feast + West. Her work has been featured in Southern Living, Oprah Daily, Buzzfeed and more. In 2019, her website was a finalist in the Saveur Blog Awards for Best Entertaining Blog. As a professional graphic designer, photographer, writer, and recipe developer, Susannah helps home bartenders and drink enthusiasts level up their cocktail skills.

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