Once the exclusive domain of science-minded cocktail bars, powdered citric and malic acids have become a common fixture anywhere with an eye on sustainability. But while these acids are often used in place of the more traditional lemon or lime juice, they can also be used to in tandem with citrus juices to amplify flavors, or create new ones all together.
At its most basic, an acid powder solution is “a workaround if you wanted to make your life easier,” says Don Lee of Existing Conditions. Combined with water, citric acid can be used in place of lemon juice; alternatively, combining two parts citric acid and one part malic acid creates what co-owner Dave Arnold calls “lime acid,” a common substitute for fresh lime.
Despite the relative ease of the technique, there’s a catch: While an acid solution can accurately approximate the tang of citrus, some bartenders feel that without any actual juice the result can feel too thin.
“It has a lighter mouthfeel than lemon or lime juice,” says Orlando Franklin McCray, bartender at Blind Barber and Brooklyn’s Maison Premiere. “I added Curaçao to add viscosity,” he says of his house blend. He had originally observed the technique at the Boom Boom Room, a clubby high-volume spot in New York’s Meatpacking district, where it rounded out crystal-clear Gimlets. At Blind Barber, McCray uses the acid-Curaçao mix in pre-batched drinks, including riffs on the Rum and Coke and Gin and Tonic, adding a mouthwatering acidity that mimics lime, without the added prep-time. He also stashes a bottle at home to mix into Daiquiris, where he subs it in place of lime juice for on-the-fly ease.
Beyond turbocharging lemon or lime, these acids also an be used to manipulate other juices, such as orange, grapefruit or pineapple, a tweak known as “acid adjusting.”
“It’s a way to work with different flavors,” says Arnold. At Existing Conditions, the technique is used in The Remedy, a Painkiller riff in which acid-adjusted orange juice rounds out Plantation Pineapple Rum, agricole rhum and caramelized coconut. Similarly, Garret Richard uses acid-adjusted grapefruit juice in his Daiquiri-inspired Isle Delfino to replicate the more citrus-forward profile of grapefruits in the past.
These acid-adjusted juices can go places regular juice cannot. While orange juice, for example, is notoriously difficult to use in cocktails (it’s noted for ruining the Blood and Sand, for example), acid-adjusting transforms it into a brighter, more cocktail-friendly ingredient. For at-home use, Lee recommends mixing citric acid with orange juice to create “lemon-adjusted orange juice,” which works well in Sidecars and Whiskey Sours, replacing lemon juice. Arnold also suggests mixing citric and malic acid to create “lime-adjusted orange juice,” which can be frozen into cubes and shaken with a Margarita, to help chill and dilute the drink while also adding an orange-y note plus an extra burst of lime-like zing.
The key to working with these acids, Arnold says, is to treat them like salt or sugar or even MSG in cooking—it’s a way to punch up flavor.
“If you’re trying to fool me into thinking there’s citrus in a drink, you’re cheating me,” he says. “If you’re trying to change the impact of citrus from orange juice to lemon, I see that as a different project.”