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Cocktails

Sour Mix for the Modern Age?

March 19, 2021

Story: Tyler Zielinski

art: Rymie

Cocktails

Sour Mix for the Modern Age?

March 19, 2021

Story: Tyler Zielinski

art: Rymie

Fresh-squeezed citrus juice is increasingly being traded for clarified, acidified, shelf-stable alternatives that resemble the imitation citrus of the ’70s and ’80s—only better.

If there’s one ingredient that has consistently defined cocktail culture since the genesis of mixed drinks, it’s citrus. Fresh lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit juices played an instrumental role in the cocktail’s progenitor, punch, before starring in classic golden age formulas like the daisy, fizz and sour. In the post-Prohibition dark ages, citrus’s acidic bite manifested in artificial forms via sour mix and juice concentrates; in the wake of the disco drink days, fresh citrus once again took center stage as a hallmark of the cocktail revival. In the years since, avant-garde applications—from clarified and acid-adjusted citrus to citrus stocks and beyond—reflect the current movement toward technique-driven, sustainability-minded recipes. In other words, the story of citrus is, in many ways, the story of cocktails. To understand how we got from fresh to artificial and back again, let’s take a quick trip through cocktail history.

It all began with punch, that timeless mixture of spirit, citrus, sugar and spices that was a staple as early as the 17th century. While it found its footing with the British Royal Navy, by the 19th century, the citrus-spiked punch was making a bigger splash on land, where pioneering bartenders such as Jerry Thomas, William “Cocktail Bill” Boothby, Tom Bullock and Ada Coleman were approaching celebrity-like status with the popularization of their original mixed drinks. Many of them borrowed from the punch template, albeit in single-serving sizes. It was the golden age of cocktails, and citrus was at the core of many classic formulas, from the sour to the crusta, daisy, sling and beyond.

This momentum wouldn’t last long, though. Prohibition stunted the growth of cocktail culture, ushering in the so-called dark ages—a decades-long dearth of cocktail innovation during which convenience was king, even at the expense of freshness. The Blue Hawaii. Bahama Mama. Long Island Iced Tea. Appletini. Common to these icons of dark age drinking was the utter absence of fresh citrus. The unifying thread was, instead, an artificial tang courtesy of bottled sour mixes and cordials.

We all know what happened next since, well, we were there. Just as it had set the standard in the cocktail’s golden age, fresh citrus became the defining hallmark of the modern cocktail revival, thanks in no small part to the golden age-inspired recipes sent across the bar by New York bartender Dale DeGroff in the late 1980s and ‘90s and Sasha Petraske in the early aughts.

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Over the past decade, however, bartenders have pivoted away from fresh citrus—one of the most wasted ingredients in any bar—toward manipulated products, not unlike the citrus facsimiles of the past. It’s easy to see this shift as a reversion, a return to a practice best left in the past. But today’s fresh citrus–adjacent products—Ryan Chetiyawardana’s “fake lime juice,” for example—are born not out of convenience, but driven by innovation and sustainability. Rather than merely reverting to dark age practices, these experimental ingredients might represent, instead, one of the few legacies of our second golden age of cocktails, a rare instance in which we’ve broken from the grasp of the past to create something forward—instead of backward—looking.

Key to this shift was the application of culinary technology to cocktails, spearheaded by Dave Arnold, renowned culinary tech wiz and author of Liquid Intelligence.

One of Arnold’s foremost contributions has been the creation of the Spinzall, a bar-friendly centrifuge capable of creating clarified solutions, i.e., lime or lemon juice with the solids removed. The result is a shelf-stable, citrus-flavored liquid that not only challenges preconceived notions of what a citrus cocktail looks like—a stirred Jungle Bird, anyone?—but offers insights into creating a more sustainable bar program.

“We use fresh citrus every day, and most days we’ll end up with surplus juice at the end of a shift,” explains Jack Schramm, who worked closely with Arnold at Booker and Dax and Existing Conditions. “So if you save up your surplus juices everyday over the course of a week … then, once a week, clarify it in one batch and turn the whole thing into a shelf-stable cordial … now you’ve got a product that’s entirely composed of waste that you can use for another six weeks.”

At Remy Savage’s recently opened bar in London, he and his team have experimented with new ways to utilize expired citrus juice to have it taste as close to fresh juice as possible. While his exploratory research is sustainable in nature, Savage also uses these techniques to present familiar ingredients in novel ways. “Mostly, those types of projects are important to us because they push the conversation a little further,” says Savage. “They also allow us to continually innovate.”

For Savage’s “recomposed” citrus concept, he uses a rotary evaporator to isolate the aroma of lime from its juice via vacuum distillation before mixing the water-based “lime distillate” with lime acid solutions (i.e., citric and malic acid powders mixed in water), salt and sugar to create a shelf-stable lime juice–adjacent product made from waste. “[T]he idea of using citrus juice that we would naturally pour down the sink at the end of a shift as a base for a stable citrus solution opens many doors,” Savage says.

These high-concept techniques yield products that are, in many ways, analogous to the sour mixes of the dark ages—highly manipulated citrus, several times removed from its fresh form. The difference, however, is in the approach, which puts flavor back into the equation. “A Rose’s [Lime Juice]–style product [using authentic ingredients] could be something delicious,” explains Schramm. “As long as it’s delicious, it’s worth exploring.”

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Tagged: citrus

Tyler Zielinski is a freelance journalist with a passion for drink culture. In addition to his writing, Tyler serves as a consultant for bars on cocktail development and other creative direction. His previous work has been featured in outlets such as Condé Nast Traveler, Imbibe Magazine, Wine Enthusiast, Whisky Advocate and more.