When looking at classic cocktail books, it’s rare to go several pages without coming across a drink that calls for some sort of citrus. Today, however, the practice of using acidity to balance drinks goes far beyond lemons and limes. In fact, drink-makers have gone deeper, using science to explore different kinds of acidity.
Even in the case of fresh ingredients, types of acidity can vary; lemons, for example, are citric acid-dominant, while rhubarb contains mainly malic acid, with a touch of citric and oxalic acids—and understanding what each type of acid offers in terms of texture and flavor enhancement can have a major impact on how you mix. At White Lyan (which closed this month), due to our “no fresh citrus or perishables” policy, we were constantly experimenting with organic and inorganic acids, blending them to recreate acidity found in nature, or simply using them to play around with the balance, weight or mouthfeel of a drink.
While for the average home bartender this might seem like an untenable exercise, there are some basic ways to incorporate acid solutions into drinks, whether working in lieu of citrus, or looking to achieve a texture that is hard to replicate. Here, a quick primer on mixing with acid solutions, and what to expect when you do.
Acid Solutions - Tips and Safety
- Acids are by nature corrosive and one should always be careful when handling them. The easiest, safest and most consistent way is to make acid solutions by mixing powders (or liquids in the case of lactic and phosphoric acids) with water. Do still handle them with care.
- The solutions keep a long time and technically don’t have an expiration date.
- To use acids in drinks, use a dasher or a pipette.
- Always keep your solutions and acids in glass containers. Avoid plastic or metal.
- The easiest place to source all acids is online, but do make sure they’re food grade.
Citric and Malic Acids
The most well known of the acid bunch is definitely citric acid; it’s an organic acid found naturally in high concentrations in both limes and lemons that can be described as acrid if overused. Naturally, citric acid is a great substitute for fresh citrus when dissolved in water. In fact, if you gave someone a glass of water with a sprinkle of citric acid powder, the majority of drinkers would say it tastes of lemons. Malic acid, meanwhile, is quite sour, but not quite as harsh as citric. Imagine biting into a juicy Granny Smith apple—the sourness is refreshing and puckering but much different than biting into fresh citrus. This is the kind of acid we call on to mimic the type of acidity you might find in apples, grapes or rhubarb.
When batching drinks at White Lyan, we used these two acids in many of our cocktails. In the Ribs cocktail (Mr Lyan Bourbon, chipotle, mint tea, rosewood) we used citric acid solution as a replacement for lemon acidity. While in the Gold Lady (Mr Lyan Gin, bourbon, nettle, tannins), we found that malic acid solution combines with nettle flavors to give a much more mellow acidity, not unlike the sort you’d find in a crisp white wine.
When looking to precisely mimic the sort of acidity found in fresh citrus—say, for a Daiquiri—we often combine both citric and malic acids, which is why our recipe for “fake lime juice” contains citric, malic and tartaric acid. (The latter is typically found in grapes and tamarind.)
To Make a Citric Acid 10% Solution: Combine 10 grams of citric acid powder with 100 grams of water. Whisk to dissolve and bottle.
To Make a Malic Acid 10% Solution: Combine 10 grams of malic acid powder with 100 grams of water. Whisk to dissolve and bottle.
At White Lyan, we used lactic acid—perhaps best known as the agent that gives yogurt or kefir its tang—when looking to not only enhance savory flavors, but to round off the edges of a drink; as a milder acid, it actually helps add a fuller, creamy mouthfeel to cocktails, as has a slightly higher pH than citric or malic acid. We used it in a version of the Bloody Mary, which we called Delicious and Nutritious, and in our Creamy Martini to, well, give it creaminess.
To Make a Lactic Acid 5% Solution: Combine 5 grams of lactic acid (usually comes as a 70 percent solution) with 100 grams of water. Stir to blend, and bottle.
What all of the aforementioned acids have in common is that they are “organic” acids, which means they occur naturally. But inorganic acids, like phosphoric acid, which is common in the food industry (it’s a notable component in Coca-Cola, in fact), can also be used in cocktails. Since phosphoric acid doesn’t occur naturally, we don’t link it with anything we’ve ever tasted before—unlike with malic or citric acid. While it does not impart any additional flavor, we do find it to have an almost effervescent acidity that can give drinks an immediate boost, bring flavors into relief. For example, when added to the Curdled Colada, our fizzy take on a Piña Colada, it helped highlight the delicate pineapple acidity and gave the soda that extra spark.
We also use phosphoric acid to turn solid minerals into tinctures. In our Bone Dry Martini, for example, we used phosphoric acid to dissolve a chicken bone (rather gruesomely, this was a disposal technique used by a serial killer) for a tincture meant to provide acidity, minerality and a dry finish. We’ve also done the same with scallop shells for our Mermaid Conservation Fund (Mr Lyan Gin, sea-shell acid, lemongrass, marine bitters). For each of these drinks, just a drop or two of phosphoric acid solution is sufficient. And, when making the solution, keep in mind that all acids in high concentrations—such as the phosphoric acid used here—can be corrosive. Always use protective gloves when handling them.
To Make a Phosphoric Acid 1.25% Solution: Combine 1.25 grams of food-grade phosphoric acid (usually comes as a 75 percent solution) with 100 grams of water. Whisk to dissolve and bottle.
Lastly, while not an acid, tannins—a group of polyphenols that naturally occur in red wine, teas and certain fruits, like sloe berries—definitely deserve a mention. Tannins are responsible for astringency—a drying, rough and “sandpapery” sensation in your mouth that’s caused by tannins binding with salivary proteins. While astringency is not the same as acidity, they can both be described as puckering. While we use black tea (as in the Ribs, mentioned above) or green tea syrup (as in the Green T, a cocktail of gin, green tea syrup, fake lime juice and soda water) to add tannin to a drink, we’ve also used a solution made with wine tannin powder in drinks like the Ground Up (Mr Lyan Gin, nasturtium seed, red clover, buzz bitters).
To Make Green Tea Syrup: Combine two parts freshly brewed, strong green tea to one part sugar. Stir until the sugar has dissolved and bottle.