Advice from America’s Bartenders on Coping with the Lime Crisis

As the lime shortage continues, bars are learning to cope with the reality of an expensive necessity. From cutting them out all together to using alternative acids, six spirits experts share their trials, tribulations and solutions.

limes brooklyn gin shannon sturgis

Is this the end of daiquiris as we know it? Due to a ravaging bacterial disease and inclement weather, the price of limes imported from Mexico has climbed from $25 to over $100 per case causing restaurants, bars and grocery stores to rethink their consumption of the coveted citrus. Nearly 95% of America’s limes are sourced from over our southern border, and because the majority are of one variety—the Bearss or Persian breed—our supply chain is at the whim of the shortage. In an effort to understand how bars (and one spirit brand) are creating solutions, we canvassed five experts who are dealing with the lime debacle as it develops. From eating the cost to using every scrap of lime zest, here’s how America’s cocktail world is coping:

Stephanie Griber | Bar Manager at Shoo-fly Diner, Baltimore

“I’ve worked for Woodberry Kitchen, a locally-focused restaurant, for three years, and we’re total locavores—to a crazy extent sometimes. Shoo-Fly Diner is an extension of that mindset, and the bar program I’ve been running doesn’t use lemons or limes in any of our cocktails [they do not grow in the area]. I do keep a few on hand for guests who request them, but I limit my use as much as possible.

Instead of citrus, we use verjus, hard cider, vinegars and kombucha to brighten up the flavors of cocktails and add acidity. It’s never exactly the same as lemons or limes, but it works. For instance, we have a Whiskey Sour on the menu that is made with verjus and preserved nectarines, whose liquid adds an egg white texture without using egg. To bolster the flavor of the nectarines, I add a couple of dashes of sumac tincture that adds some depth and bitterness without the acidic bite. It takes some testing, but when creating cocktails, especially recreating classics, we have to think outside of the box. It’s just a different kind of thought to get your brain accustomed to.

Any bar program that wants to lower their lime intake, can begin by just cutting back on proportions. A little goes a long way, and it works well when combined with something that has a soft acidity. For example, when making something like a gimlet, use one-quarter ounce of lime juice and make up the rest with verjus or hard cider or something with a funky acidity. We make a lime tincture using the zest of three or four limes in an over-proof neutral grain spirit, which is another way to add lime flavor without using too much.

It’s a constant conversation we have. I’ve researched organic producers in South Carolina and West Virginia, which is closer than Mexico. It’s tough though. Since we use so few, I go across the street to a friend who has an organic juice bars buy limes from him. It seems like a better option than dealing with additional shipping for the handful we keep on the bar. By no means is it wrong to put a lime in your drink. We just don’t do it readily. Most people are understand that we’re trying to do something different, and they’re okay with that. It can be difficult, but we’re working really hard to provide an answer to any question or an alternative.”

 

Toby Cecchini | Bartender & Owner at Long Island Bar, Brooklyn

“We were doing a house gimlet with lime cordial, but we’ve cut limes out all together. We were paying $106 a case for these dried, shriveled up, worthless limes. I was using two cases to make a batch of cordial, and then fresh limes on top that. It was becoming about $300 for one 22-liter batch of cordial not counting the gin, so in the end, we’d be losing about $3 on the drink.

Instead, we’re making lemon cordial with lemon oleo-saccharum and lemon juice, and then mixing it with quinine syrup to make a lemon quinine fix, which is an old term for a sour made with something other than sugar. I just started selling in on Saturday and it went like gangbusters.

If people want a gin and tonic, we’re not giving out lime wedges. They can do as the British do and have a lemon slice.”

 

Bobby Heugel | Bartender & Owner at Anvil, Texas

“It’s not good, especially for us in Houston. We’re selling an $8 margarita with almost no margin to begin with. But it’s not the first time something like this has happened. It may be the worst, but about five years ago there was a pretty big lime crisis. This will pass over time.

One thing that we do at the bar is order what’s called “packer’s cases.” Limes are sold by the case and by specific ounce sizes. You order a case of 120 limes of a specific ounce or size. After distributors have packed up all of the boxes with their respectively-sized limes, the mismatched leftovers are packed into “packer’s cases” and sold at 30-40% off the usual price due to the varying sizes. You’ll get some boxes with limes the size of your fist. Almost every distributor sells them, and it’s a great solution around the country. Maybe not so much in Houston anymore because I’ve told everyone, but you should be able to find them other places.

In addition to that, one of the biggest problems we’re seeing is not so much the cost of the limes, but the quality. This hasn’t been talked about a lot. Sure, the cost of limes is really high, but the quality of limes is awful. Why not recommend a customer a better drink made with lemon juice and tell them why? Our verbal recommendation is helping, and we’re shifting the menu to be more lemon-focused. It’s about making a better drink.

However, some people don’t have the option with things like Margaritas. If someone wants a Margarita, they’re going to have a Margarita. We use Key limes as part of our house Margarita, and we’re getting key limes at nearly half the price of Persian limes. It may have something to do with being in Texas though. I think key limes are a really underrated kind of citrus, and some bartenders may discount them because they’re tiny, but their yield is really high. It may be double or triple the labor, but to me, that’s not a huge deal.”

 

Toby Maloney | Head Bartender & Partner at The Violet Hour, Chicago

“We’re not taking drastic measures. We’re not taking anything off the menu or raising prices. I can’t personally justify charging $13 for a cocktail made with lemon juice and $14 for one made with lime juice. If there’s a bumper crop of limes and they start coming in at $12 a case, I don’t think anyone is going to lower prices, so we’re not raising prices.

At the Violet Hour, we’re busy. The end of the night is just as busy as the beginning. So we’re going with the philosophy of “use all of it.” We’re peeling the limes, adding them to sugar and creating an oleo-saccaharum. And at the end of the night, if we have leftover lime juice, instead of throwing it out, we add it to the oleo-saccaharum to create lime cordial. We’re then using the lime cordial in dealer’s choice cocktails and things like that.

When it comes down to it, you have to approach this stuff the same way a chef would with something like meat. Respect it and use all of it. Squeeze the ends of the limes by hand. Squeeze the limes at room temperature—you get 30% more juice out of them if you do. Be conscious about using everything.”

 

Emil Jattne | Owner of Brooklyn Gin, Brooklyn

“We use 100% fresh citrus for the distillation of our gin, and, though I can’t disclose specifics about the recipe, the majority of that citrus is made up of lime peels—probably about 50%. When limes aren’t as available, it becomes tricky because we use fresh peels where most gins use dried or frozen peels, which you can buy in bulk and store for a long time.

We hadn’t planned on or thought about an impending lime shortage, so unfortunately, we just pay more because we can’t compromise on the set recipe for our gin. It’s something we spent a lot of time perfecting, and we think—in the end—using fresh peels makes a difference. As we’ve seen, the limes coming in are still fresh, though the price has gone up a lot. It feels surreal, like we never really thought this could happen.

We’re an American company, so we try to source American ingredients where possible. We source New York state corn for our base spirit. The lime question hadn’t really occurred to us until now, since the most easily sourced limes come from Mexico. But now we’ve begun thinking about where we might source them in the United States. We’ve just now begun looking around. We’ve also just begun talking to bars about using the remainder of the naked fruit for juicing so that we’re making use of the whole fruit. Some restaurants around us have used our lemon juice in the past as well.”

 

Maxwell Britten | Bar Manager at Maison Premiere, Brooklyn

“We’re charging a little bit more and being more conservative, like we would with gas or any other commodity. We just can’t do what other people are doing and changing cocktails that have been in demand for three years. We don’t want to compromise the integrity of our drinks, or not be able to serve something a guest requests.

Every week we call all the different lime suppliers and purveyors we work with to determine where we order. They set different prices and they change regularly. The lime market wasn’t volatile before, but it wasn’t consistent enough to say that every week limes are between X price and Y price.

If it gets down to it, I don’t think people are going spend $20 in a dive bar for a Margarita. The price has increased 150% compared to a year ago, so if you’re thinking about it from a business standpoint, you increase the price. We’re charging $1 extra for [drinks with] lime juice, which should cover the cost. It’s much like you think about a base spirit—if the base spirit costs more, you increase the price.”

FROM AROUND THE WEB

Leslie Pariseau is the Deputy Editor of PUNCH. She has written about food, drinks and people for GQ, Esquire and Saveur among others. In her former life, Leslie worked for Momofuku Ssäm Bar, reported at the United Nations and dropped out of grad school to become a professional drinker. She has a degree in art history from University of Michigan, and lives (immoderately) in Brooklyn, New York.

Drink With Us

Drink With Us

Subscribe to our newsletter for weekly updates and recipes.



* indicates required