MSG Martini

MSG discovered

Your cocktail calendar entry for: July
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For July 25 we’re mixing the MSG Martini because that’s the day in 1908 when Ajinomoto was founded in Tokyo.  You know them as developer of the most common flavor enhancer in the world:  MSG.  You may also recoil in horror, but as we’ll soon see that is unwarranted.  MSG does the world good, being the key purveyor of umami, that savory taste, and it applies to cocktails as well as food.  This particular use is a variation on the Dirty Martini but an exemplar for upping the savory component of your drink.  It started out savory with its olive brine, and the MSG raises that to a new level.  So today we’re going to cover an MSG Martini recipe and talk about MSG in cocktails.

The Story of MSG

The story begins in 1907 when a professor of Chemistry at the Tokyo Imperial University, Kikunae Ikeda, got interested in dashi broth.  He liked the stuff made from seaweed (kombu) and dried bonito (katsuobushi).  Ikeda also noticed it had a unique taste different from the previously described basic flavors (sweet, salty, sour or bitter).  He called the taste umami  (“pleasant savory taste) and set out to determine what did it.

Soon enough he isolated glutamic acid from the kombu by simple water extraction and crystallization.  From there he set out to determine what form worked best for taste and concluded the sodium salt was the most soluble and palatable.  He called it monosodium glutamate (MSG) and filed a patent to produce it.  Production began in 1909 under the company name Ajinomoto, with translates as “essence of taste.”

This caught on, but that’s no surprise.  MSG is really just one of several forms of glutamic acid which is pervasive throughout nature and used by almost all living organisms in the synthesis of proteins.  It’s naturally prevalent in foods such as parmesan cheese and anchovies and is added to all kinds of chips, snacks, condiments and processed foods.

But it hasn’t been without controversy.  That started in 1968 when a letter of correspondence to the New England Journal of Medicine coined the term “Chinese restaurant syndrome.”  The author attributed symptoms such as numbness, headache, dizziness and palpitations to the MSG these restaurants used.  The letter was met with satirical responses, but the legend lived on and still exists.

Double blind, placebo-controlled studies completely debunked these claims, and by 1987 the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization placed it in the safest category of food ingredients.  Nonetheless, one still sees “no MSG” on many menus.

The MSG Martini

So how do you use MSG in cocktails?  What should you be adding it to?  You might be surprised to learn that a dash added to a Margarita works.  Add a bit to your next Bloody Mary.  Bartenders are experimenting with it left and right.  Really, it’s good to go with any drink that has a savory element, whether from whiskey, agave spirits, gin or what have you.

Our version of the MSG Martini follows directly from the Dirty Martini we mixed in honor of FDR signing the Cullen-Harrison Act and beating back Prohibition.  But we up the entire savory side of taste by using more olive brine and augmenting that with MSG.

Now, as far as actually using MSG in a cocktail goes, you have a choice.  You can dissolve some in water and add a few dashes when you mix.  That MSG solution is good to have for experimentation.  Alternatively, for this recipe alone, you can simply add a pinch to an ounce of olive brine and ensure it has dissolved before making the drink.  Either way,  you will have taken the Dirty Martini to a new level.

msg martini

MSG Martini

The MSG Martini is really a variation on the Dirty Martini, but it's an exemplar of using MSG in a cocktail to up the savory side of the equation. In this case our recommendation is to mix a pinch of MSG into an ounce of olive brine and use half of that in each drink. Alternatively, one can make a more concentrated solution (two parts water to one part MSG) and delivered in drops or dashes.
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  • oz Gin
  • ½ oz Dry vermouth
  • ½ oz Olive brine
  • 1 pinch MSG
  • Garnish: Olives


  • Add a pinch of MSG powder to an ounce of olive brine. Stir to dissolve.
  • Add 1/2 oz of this MSG/olive brine mixture to your trusty mixing glass. Follow that with all other ingredients besides the olive garnish.
  • Add ice and stir until chilled.
  • Strain into pre-chilled Nick and Nora glass.
  • Garnish with olives on cocktail pick.
  • Drink.
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