Know Your Acids
Citric acid occurs naturally in lemons and limes, so it’s an obvious choice when boosting, or approximating, citrus flavor.
Malic acid, which comes from berries, grapes and stone fruit, is sour, yet milder than citric acid, often described as crisp, and offers the tang of a Granny Smith apple.
Lactic acid is formed through fermentation and is the compound that gives yogurt its tanginess. Mixing with this acid brings a creaminess to drinks and makes them feel rounder and fuller.
Tartaric acid, similar to the cream of tartar used in culinary applications, occurs naturally but also forms in the winemaking process. In cocktails, it can add brightness without the flavor of citrus.
In recent years, acid-adjusting—the method of adding powdered acids to cocktails—has followed in the footsteps of clarification and fat-washing: It’s not just for the most high-tech bars, and it’s everywhere now. Though powdered citric, malic, lactic and tartaric acids are not exactly pantry staples, they can be easily acquired online and take a lot of the prep out of home bartending. With a few in your arsenal, you can make a Daiquiri pop, easily brighten a batched drink or impart a rounder, silkier texture to sweeteners. To get started, here are three ways to use them in your home bar, and the recipes to try them in.
While acids can stand in for lemon or lime in a pinch, some bartenders feel that replacing them altogether in citrusy drinks yields a cocktail that feels too thin. Instead, to achieve the right viscosity, combine powdered acids with less-tart juices to make them pop in a drink. For example, to make The Remedy, Don Lee’s riff on the Painkiller, he adds malic and citric acids to orange juice to up its tanginess, while Garret Richard’s Daiquiri-inspired Isle Delfino adjusts bittersweet grapefruit juice with citric acid alone. The technique can work for noncitrus juices, too, like cherry or watermelon, to balance fruit-forward recipes.
Acid-Adjusted Syrups, Wine and More
By stocking a few acid-adjusted backbar staples, bartenders can brighten cocktails on the fly without needing to prep any citrus. Orlando Franklin McCray’s acid-adjusted Curaçao, for example, can be mixed into Daiquiris or Gin & Tonics in place of lime juice. Vinny Starble, meanwhile, turns to acid-adjusted white wine for highballs; the citric acid imparts the twang that a squeeze of lime would bring to a Collins-style drink. Lactic acid mixed into simple syrup, meanwhile, can yield a rounder mouthfeel and the implication of “creaminess” in a cocktail—without any cream. Try this silky syrup in highballs, sours and more.
The easiest way to introduce powdered acid to drinks is, simply, to mix them in. Using a solution makes it possible to adjust spritzes or juleps to taste. Start with a 10 percent solution (1:10 citric acid or malic acid powder to water, by weight; e.g., 1 gram acid power to 100 grams water) and experiment by introducing the mixture in a cocktail one dash at a time. Blends—like Champagne acid, a solution made from lactic and tartaric acids that mimics the flavor of wine—can be used, too, as in Christine Wiseman’s blended riff on the Pornstar Martini, Sex Work Is Real Work. Solutions are particularly well-suited to batched drinks: When supersizing a cocktail, citrus has a large margin of error, while a carefully measured solution ensures consistency. Jack Schramm’s large-format Alpine Negroni also calls for Champagne acid, counterbalancing the drink’s richer elements like sweet vermouth. The recipe is proof that acid-adjusting isn’t just for bright sours or citrus-forward drinks; the technique is a versatile tool in just about any format. As Lee puts it, acid solutions are “a workaround if you wanted to make your life easier.”