It’s called the “regal shake.” Drop a bit of citrus peel into a cocktail shaker to add a hint of bitterness without bitters, citrusy aroma without juice, complexity without additional ingredients.
Theo Lieberman, now head sommelier at Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, is credited as the originator of the hack. He pinpoints his “a-ha” moment to 2010, when he headed bar programs at Milk & Honey and Lantern’s Keep. Growing up, his mother would burn grapefruit oil in his room “as a calming thing.” During a particularly stressful string of days, Lieberman rubbed grapefruit peels between his palms while at the bar, attempting to channel a little tranquility. That led to experimenting with a grapefruit peel while shaking a Daiquiri. “It was delicious,” he recalls; the Regal Daiquiri was born.
Experiments with other citrus peels followed. Lemon provided a “soapy, astringent quality”; orange peels were more successful, adding orange aromatics without bringing orange juice into the mix (“orange juice is such a terrible addition to most drinks,” says Lieberman, pointing to the Blood and Sand as a particularly egregious example); lime and grapefruit peels had the most notable effect.
“It changed the texture of drinks,” he recalls of the addition of grapefruit peels. The shaking process would break up the pith and emulsify grapefruit oil into the drink, making it read brighter and lighter. “It’s drying, and makes drinks seem less sweet.” One of his favorite applications was a grapefruit twist in the shaker for drinks made with honey, such as the Gold Rush or The Business, a Sasha Petraske riff on the Bee’s Knees.
The “regal” name, recalls Meaghan Dorman, who worked with Lieberman at Lantern’s Keep, was loosely connected to the royale, a drink made by adding sparkling wine to an established cocktail. “We riffed on synonyms that could be used for a small recipe change like that, and ‘regal’ stuck out,” she remembers. “It also sounds like an upgrade, à la royale.”
While Lieberman may have cemented the “regal shake” as a term in the modern cocktail vocabulary, he’s quick to note that he’s “sure someone else has done it.” Sure enough, across town, at about the same time, Leo Robitschek began working with the technique at Eleven Madison Park. He remembers muddling lime wedges for Caipirinhas and taking note of the effect the peels had on the finished drink.
“Muddling citrus is different than incorporating citrus juice,” Robitschek explains. “When you’re muddling, you’re getting the oils and the pith of the skin of the citrus, which tend to be more bitter and aromatic.”
Now, at The NoMad, Robitschek squeezes juice from a lime quarter into the cocktail shaker for his perfected Mai Tai, then drops the wedge into the shaker. He also uses this technique for Zombies, Painkillers and, of course, Caipirinhas. The citrus peel adds desired bitterness, which comes without the additional flavors found in bottled bitters, he explains.
Like Lieberman, Robitschek favors the citrus peel technique for shaken drinks that also use citrus juice. But sometimes he uses it for stirred (juiceless) cocktails. Instead of just a quick twist over the top of a drink, stirring with citrus peels “incorporates the oils from the peel throughout the full cocktail,” as opposed to just adding a top note, he says. “It’s sort of like a quick hack of making an oleo saccharum without adding the sugar. It’s just extracting the oils into the drink.”