Defenders of the much-maligned monosodium glutamate (MSG) like to remind you that it’s everywhere. The naturally occurring compound lends umami flavor to Parmesan cheese, tomatoes, anchovies and other savory foods, and when used as an additive, it’s what makes Doritos and instant ramen so craveable. Now, it may even be in your cocktail.
The flavoring has been a mainstay in cuisines around the world. MSG is often in packaged Sazón and Adobo seasonings, a staple in many Latin American recipes, for example. And home cooks and chefs alike find frequent uses for it elsewhere—topping popcorn, lending savoriness to vegetarian soups and stews; it’s even found a home in a legendary pitmaster’s rib rub.
Despite its ubiquity, MSG still faces racist stigma. What started as a misconception—in 1968, a letter to The New England Journal of Medicine suggested that MSG in Chinese food was causing heart palpitations and other physical effects—quickly spawned widespread fear over the now-debunked “Chinese restaurant syndrome.” Still, in 2015, $9.2 billion worth of packaged goods were sold with “No MSG” labels on them.
Recent years have seen more industry leaders combatting the misinformation. In 2020, a coalition of food and medical professionals even banded together with Ajinomoto, a Japanese producer of MSG, to petition Merriam-Webster to update its definition of the “syndrome,” and the campaign worked. The culinary world is reclaiming the ingredient for what it is: a multipurpose seasoning that should be considered a part of everyday cooking, not unlike salt.
At Bonnie’s, chef Calvin Eng’s Cantonese restaurant in Brooklyn, the flavoring makes an appearance in a Chinese ranch dressing and, prominently, on the bar menu through the MSG Martini.
“Calvin is really big on changing the narrative about what MSG is,” says Channing Centeno, who developed the drinks program at Bonnie’s. Eng was sure he wanted MSG on the menu, and incorporating it into a dirty Martini felt like a “perfect fit,” according to Centeno. “It’s been a fight within the Asian American community for years and years and years, so I thought it’d be really fun to not just have MSG as an ingredient, but MSG in the name,” Centeno says.
Integrating the seasoning into cocktails isn’t as simple as sprinkling it into the glass, however. “I would definitely not just put straight-up MSG in something,” Centeno says. “Your best bet is to make a solution of some sort.” At Bonnie’s, he makes a proprietary MSG-olive brine for the cocktail, which is paired with a choice of gin or vodka, plus drinking-grade Shaoxing wine, a traditional fortified wine often used in Chinese cooking. The ingredient makes an appearance in other parts of the bar, too, like in the salt rim of the Ribena Highball.
In solution form, MSG is also on the cocktail menu at Southeast Asian restaurant Hai Hai in Minneapolis. In the Best Life cocktail, a tequila-based drink, the MSG solution adds an umami note to a blend of grapefruit-guava cordial and Campari. And at Cote in New York, the Master Bandit reflects the Korean steakhouse’s approach to multifaceted seasoning, adding an MSG solution to Hwayo soju, navy-strength gin, lemongrass syrup and lime. It likewise adds a savory element to Aeon Ginsberg’s bourbon-based Che Vuoi? cocktail, where it bolsters an “Italian seasoning” syrup made from garlic powder and oregano.
The MSG Martini at Bonnie’s is one of the restaurant’s most popular drinks, even among people who don’t typically drink dirty Martinis. Part of that is intrigue; people want to know what drinkable MSG tastes like (almost like a “cool broth,” according to Centeno). But it also owes to the inherently craveable flavor of MSG. “It’s one of those things that makes you want to go back for more,” he says. “It’s one of those ingredients that makes you think, ‘Do I like this?’, so you take another sip. Before you know it, it’s gone.”