The bar world is driven by dogma: Martinis are stirred, not shaken; vermouth belongs in the refrigerator; and a proper Irish Coffee does not contain Bailey’s.
For decades, the notion that fresh ingredients are the only option for proper cocktails has fallen into this bucket of non-negotiables. In fact, it was this ideal that became a central tenet around which the cocktail revival coalesced; fresh citrus in particular served as a rebuttal to the reign of sour mix that had sullied the cocktail’s reputation in the so-called dark ages. But in recent years, a handful of bartenders has challenged the relevance of fresh citrus behind the bar, using revolutionary techniques to mimic its flavor and acidity with substantially less environmental and economic impact.
“I think the definition of ‘fresh’ is vague and misleading,” says Nickle Morris, bartender and owner of Expo in Louisville, Kentucky. “Is freshly squeezed citrus juice the best way to get the flavor of the fruit? Absolutely not. Is it the best solution for the environment? Absolutely not. Fresh citrus isn’t a grand gesture of better ingredients, it’s the literal bare minimum.”
Morris, who has been bartending for over a decade, has spent the last few years developing and refining an ingredient he considers to be an evolution of citrus. He calls it oleo citrate, and it forms the base of his so-called “super juice,” a sustainable alternative to freshly squeezed citrus.
The ingredient is made by combining citrus peels with acid powders (e.g., lime peels with a blend of citric and malic acids) to extract the essential oils from the skins, mimicking the acidity typically found in the raw citrus pulp. This slurry forms oleo citrate, to which Morris adds water before blending and fine-straining the liquid. The last step before the mixture becomes “super juice” is to add the fresh juice from the peeled limes, eliminating any waste. The technique has the additional benefit of significantly reducing cost, thanks to the increased yield per fruit. With only about 10 to 12 limes, Morris creates at least one liter of what he describes as “better-than-fresh juice,” more than double the volume of what the fruit could yield without his technique. “I really don’t want people to think that oleo citrate is like Rose’s [lime juice], or sour mix, or some other bullshit,” says Morris. “It’s not—it’s a modern technique for juice extraction.”
Similar to Morris and his super juice creation, Remy Savage, owner of London’s A Bar With Shapes For A Name, has developed his own evolution of citrus called recomposed lime. To make it, Savage vacuum-distills spent, slightly oxidized lime juice that otherwise would be wasted. He uses a rotary evaporator to capture the aromatic elements of the citrus before adding a mix of acid powders, fructose and salt to replicate the taste and texture of the real lime. “Now that we are becoming more and more aware of the impact of using fresh lime all year long, we are looking into other ingredients that can be used in a similar fashion,” says Savage.
The biggest barrier to the widespread acceptance of these manipulated citrus products, however, is challenging the dogma of “fresh is best” that has been ingrained in drinkers and drink-makers alike for the past several decades. “When it comes to classics, no matter how much progress is made in developing ingredients closer and closer to fresh citrus, we will always fight with the perception of it,” says Savage.
But for a number of forward-thinking bar owners, the potential for citrus alternatives is an exciting frontier. “Using alternative acidulants, different sources of acidity—or simply reducing a focus on fresh citrus—can open up a wider range of serves,” says Ryan Chetiyawardana, owner of Lyaness, Super Lyan, Silver Lyan, and the soon-to-open Seed Library. While Chetiyawardana maintains that fresh citrus will never entirely disappear from the bar, its use is not always feasible or necessary to modern bartending. “Acidity is one of the foundational aspects of balance, so we’ve looked to explore many different forms over the years,” he says. “Some of these have been to find an alternative that was stable and didn’t generate waste (like we did at White Lyan), but some of my favorites have been combinations [of ingredients] that have allowed us to explore different profiles and have opened up different creative angles.”
One such example is found on Lyaness’ latest menu, which features an ingredient called Blood Curaçao. It’s made from dried pig’s blood—an often-discarded consequence of humane animal rearing—which is layered with Sichuan peppercorn, parsley, oranges, balsamic vinegar and other components that strike a complex balance of sweet, sour, savory and spicy elements. It’s used in the bar’s Blood Brown Derby, a combination of bourbon, grapefruit honey and fermented rose, for a reimagined take on the citrus-laced classic, the Brown Derby. Though it is not intended to act as a direct substitute for fresh citrus, the Blood Curaçao belongs to a broader movement toward employing alternative acids, with ingredients from verjus to vinegar shifting the importance away from fresh citrus.
“Alternative [citrus] varieties and other acid sources are a really exciting area,” says Chetiyawardana. “Nature provides so much for us to explore, and we have barely scratched the surface.”