In recent years, it’s become common practice for bartenders to employ acid-adjusted citrus juices, liqueurs and even cordial-like “citrus stocks” in an effort to maximize the effectiveness of their toolkits. Now, acid-adjusted wine is joining the fray to ramp up flavors and add citrus-like zing—without any citrus.
When Chicago restaurant Bad Hunter re-opened in 2019 after a fire, bar manager Vinny Starble made a concerted effort to incorporate powdered citric, malic and tartaric acids into his repertoire for both sustainability- and business-minded reasons. He bristled at the thought of purchasing out-of-season lemons and limes, which vary dramatically in quality, and creating waste with the leftover hulls. Acid powders were the natural next step after experimenting with other “alternative acids,” such as shrubs, verjus, vinegars and white wines.
Starble quickly realized it made sense to acidify wine itself: The tweak amps up the existing flavors, adds citrus-like punch, and extends the shelf life of an open bottle, making it a useful technique for rescuing the last glass of wine that might otherwise get thrown down the drain.
“I talk about where they hit on the tongue,” explains Starble, of how the palate perceives these acids. Malic acid provides a pucker he likens to sucking on Sour Patch Kids; lemon-like citric acid hits the back of the palate; and tartaric acid provides “a high note that pops right at the front and sides of the tongue, but not the top.” The latter is a grape-based acid commonly found in wine, making it particularly harmonious for punching up vermouth, sherry and other wines, allowing them to pop in a cocktail more than they ever could on their own.
From a creative standpoint, meanwhile, acid powders allowed him to avoid “forcing the narrative” that certain drink styles, like sours, always need to contain citrus, he says. For example, he points to his Six Leeks Apart, a closed-loop highball that reuses the portion of leeks traditionally discarded in the cooking process to create a vegetal syrup, while citric acid is used to “adjust” white wine, approximating the effect that a squeeze of lime might have in a Collins-style cocktail, without adding actual citrus juice.
It’s a technique that works with a variety of cocktail styles. By the time Bad Hunter permanently closed its doors at the end of June, another victim of pandemic-related uncertainty, Starble notes that they were using acid powders in all of their cocktails, giving extra oomph to everything from stirred classics to kegged cocktails.
Fizzy, forgiving drinks tend to work particularly well with acid-adjusted wine, according to Starble. Once other elements are added—carbonation, sweeteners, water—“the whole acidity level is comparable to lemon or lime juice.” It even works in his Rhymes With Orange, a Cosmo riff that uses acid-adjusted dry vermouth and white wine verjus in place of the usual lime juice.
It’s not just for white wines, either. As part of a rotating menu of spritzes offered at Bad Hunter, Starble created the Red Spritz, which began with an “over-acidulated red wine.” Once diluted with other ingredients like syrup and soda water, “it would drink at the same [acid] level it would normally,” he explains. In other words, the wine loses none of its bite, despite the addition of diluting elements.
Stirred-style drinks also benefit from this technique, receiving “a little bump” without the unwanted addition of citrus juices. For an Old-Fashioned variation he dubbed the Sake Swizzle, the Japanese rice wine is “given a bit of a lift” with tartaric acid, then rounded out with chamomile liqueur, pear brandy, a blueberry-sage tea syrup and bitters. “We thought grape acid would be nice because it wouldn’t overpower the delicacy of this drink,” says Starble, describing the end result as “really floral, fresh and bright.”
Though there’s not a uniform formula that works for every drink, Starble recommends trying to match the acid levels of the wine to something more familiar, like lemon, so it can be easily substituted into existing templates.
“I’m looking for what’s going to make sense in the cocktail,” he says. “If lemon juice sits at 5 percent citric acid and most table wine sits at 2 percent acid, I might need to bump [the wine] to 5 percent, to where I can use it in a similar volume ratio for a cocktail.” Overall, he encourages drinkmakers to think about the balance of the finished cocktail, and work from there.
“It seems like everyone wants me to have rules—but I don’t have rules,” he says. “Maybe throw out the rule book this once.”