Seaweed adds complex, salty flavor to cocktails across a variety of spirits.

The Level2 bar at George's At The Cove in San Diego makes the La Jolla cocktail (pictured), in which seaweed provides an oceanic, salty flavor and mimics the venue's coastal surroundings.
The Level2 bar at George's At The Cove in San Diego makes the La Jolla cocktail (pictured), in which seaweed provides an oceanic, salty flavor and mimics the venue's coastal surroundings. (Photo by Stephen Kurpinsky)

Though it doesn’t command a leading role in most cocktails, seaweed is a flavorful additive that can supply sophisticated elements to many drinks. The salty, vegetal qualities of seaweed can play with a variety of spirits—from Scotch to Tequila to gin—resulting in complex concoctions that garner attention from consumers, especially at waterfront bars.

George’s At The Cove in San Diego houses a restaurant, bar, and lounge along the Pacific Ocean. Its drinks-focused Level2 bar has a cocktail menu with more than 40 selections, including 20-plus offerings that are named for different neighborhoods in San Diego. The venue’s best-seller is the La Jolla ($15), an upscale Margarita made with Cimarron Blanco Tequila infused in-house with dried mango, lime zest, and chilies, then mixed with fresh lime juice and agave. The drink is strained and served over a “sea cube”—an ice cube made with a saline solution that has roughly the same salinity as seawater and has seaweed frozen inside of it. “The seaweed is intended to mimic the look of the cove below our bar,” says George’s At The Cove bar director Stephen Kurpinsky. “And as the ice cube melts, it slowly imparts salinity into the drink.” Kurpinsky notes that the La Jolla is the bar’s most popular drink, with guests appreciating both the presentation and taste. “Seaweed can add a beautiful briny flavor to cocktails,” he says. “It’s a great way for us to showcase the coastal freshness of our area.” Ocean Terrace, the outdoor rooftop space at George’s At The Cove, also utilizes the flavor in its Coastal Gin and Tonic ($14). The drink is made with locally produced Oakland Spirits Automatic Sea gin, which is a grape-based spirit distilled with freshly foraged seaweed, sage, lemongrass, and bay leaf.

San Francisco bar Dirty Habit in the Hotel Zelos uses powdered seaweed as an edible cocktail garnish. Bar manager Raul Ayala says the seaweed provides a “wow” factor and complements a variety of flavors. Ayala makes a furikake seasoning in-house that combines dried seaweed, kelp, sesame, chili powder, salt, and sugar. The powder is sprinkled liberally on top of his Kyushu Island cocktail ($15), which mixes Kikori Japanese rice whisky, fresh-pressed carrots, house-made cashew orgeat syrup, lemon juice, and egg whites.

“The seaweed adds a savory saltiness and intensifies all of the cocktail’s other flavors, delivering an umami factor,” Ayala says. “It’s sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. The rice-based whisky imbues floral and funky notes, and the consumer response is usually, ‘I can’t believe this works.’”

Scotch also plays well with seaweed. At Marvel Bar in Minneapolis, general manager Peder Schweigert steeps  dried seaweed in Laphroaig 10-year-old Scotch overnight. He strains the mixture and adds distilled water to create The Old Man and The Sea ($11). Schweigert uses dried sheets of nori seaweed because they’re easy to work with and provide consistent quality.

“Seaweed adds a light salinity and depth that you can’t achieve elsewhere,” Schweigert says. “People often look to peated malts for smoke, but what’s beautiful about the Islay region of Scotland is its exposure to the ocean. Almost all the whiskies from that region are somewhat salty. Seaweed provides the oceanic flavor and that’s why we use it.”

Schweigert notes that the drink doesn’t necessarily appeal to all of his guests. “I tell people they have to like both aspects of the drink—the Laphroaig and the taste of seaweed—because they have to enjoy both the smoke and the sea,” he notes. “The drink has aromas that aren’t light or delicate. It’s complex and layered. While it’s not necessarily a go-to ingredient, seaweed is one of those components that can spark a great idea.”