A key component to entire categories of cocktails (like the sour, the fizz and the smash), citrus has historically been the leading source of acidity in mixed drinks. But achieving balance through acidity can extend well beyond lemons and limes.
For reasons that range from sustainability to mouthfeel, bartenders have increasingly been reaching for alternative forms of acidity when creating cocktails. Some, like acid solutions, mimic the taste of traditional citrus without the need for fresh produce, while others, like verjus, offer a unique acidic bite that can inform the texture of a drink without unwanted assertive flavor.
Here, four alternative forms of acidity and how to use them.
For sustainably-minded drink-makers, acid solutions can mimic the natural flavor of lemons in markets where citrus is not readily available (the fact that these solutions are shelf-stable is an added bonus). But for Orlando Franklin McCray, head bartender at Blind Barber, there is also appeal in terms of flavor: “Different acids achieve different sensations,” he explains. “Malic acid tastes like apples, tartaric acid tastes like grapes, lactic acid can provide mouthfeel.”
Verjus—the pressed juice of unripened grapes—offers the acidity of citrus, and the attendant ability to cut through sweetness, without the overbearing citric flavor. “Verjus brings a fruit-based acid to the drink with an upfront acidity and clean, soft finish,” explains Corey Polyoka, co-owner and beverage director of Washington, D.C.’s A Rake’s Bar and Woodberry Kitchen, where the team made the switch from fresh citrus to verjus five years ago as part of their mission to strictly spotlight regional ingredients. “We use it in drinks where we need to balance other components and want a softer, more blended aspect to the sour component.” In his Mint & Flower, mint verjus cuts through the bold fernet base for an unorthodox spin on the sour.
“Vinegar plays an important role and a varied one depending on its type,” explains Polyoka, who introduced vinegars to his alternative acidity repertoire in recent years for its vegetal and fruity notes. Eryn Reece, of New York’s Freeman’s and Banzarbar agrees; she finds apple cider vinegar in particular to be a useful tool in offsetting the round, sometimes sour notes of verjus, and will often use both ingredients together. Her Vermouth cocktail, for example, is a lower proof, modern spin on the Martini with a crisp, refreshing finish, which cuts through the vermouth base.
Biologically Aged Sherry
Among the driest wines in the world, manzanilla and fino sherries have the unique capability of bringing perceived acidity to cocktails. “While technically the palomino grape has less natural acidity than other white varietals,” explains Chantal Tseng, “the oenological character of dry sherry, biologically aged under flor, adds bright nuance to many cocktails.” With yeasty, sourdough notes combined with hints of almond, apple and dried citrus, the mineral character of dry sherry often reads as perceived acidity.