Verjus Is the New Citrus

Verjus—the fresh juice of unripened grapes—has long been a chef's staple in European kitchens. Now it's making its way into America's bars and cocktails.

Chefs have long known the versatility of verjus. Derived from the French vert jus—that is, “green juice”—it’s pressed from wine grapes that have not yet ripened, giving it far more acidity than familiar, drinkable grape juice. In some French regions and across Europe and the Middle East, it’s used to add an accent of acid in much the same way vinegar might, like in a salad dressing or a light marinade.

“[Chef] Phillip Kirschen-Clark has been pestering cocktail bartenders for years to play with verjus,” says Alex Day of Death + Co. and Nitecap in New York. And bartenders across the country have begun to do just that.

Despite the “green juice” moniker, verjus can be made from red or white grapes, and of any grape variety. White verjus tends to have more powerful acidity, with a bright, crisp character, not unlike some high-acid white wines; whereas red verjus is often earthier and less aggressive—much like the difference between red and white wine vinegars. Though it’s unfermented and thus nonalcoholic, it’s generally made at wineries, where winemakers take an early wave of grapes and press them. Since they’ve yet to fully ripen, few sugars have yet to develop so the juice retains a distinctly high acid level when bottled. (It’s sold at some specialty food stores alongside the better vinegars, and some wineries also market their own or sell directly to bars.)

Bright acidity is verjus’s most obvious virtue. Think of lime, and you can recall its taste instantly. Lemon is no different. They both play a central role in cocktails lending tartness to balance other elements. But verjus can take on the same role without such a distinctive character. “It does not contribute as much flavor as it does a light acidity and mouthfeel,” says Stephanie Griber of Baltimore’s Shoo-Fly Diner, a branch of Woodberry Kitchen whose dedication to hyper-local products has reduced the use of citrus in cocktails. It slides seamlessly between many spirits, dialing acidity up and sweetness back without the distinction of citrus.

Due to the current lime shortage, some bartenders have turned to verjus as a replacement. In Seattle, Jason McClure of Sazerac is using it to mimic lime’s acidity in a Moscow Mule variant he’s calling the Vintner’s Mule. And because citrus isn’t shelf-stable, Xaiver Herit of Wallflower in New York uses verjus for an acid hit in bottled cocktails, like the Adam and Eve, alongside Calvados, sherry, cider and a cranberry-apple shrub.

Though it plays well with a range of ingredients, verjus’s clearest affinity is for other grape-based ingredients. Natasha David of Nitecap created a cocktail called the Pinkies Out, incorporating a Slovenian orange wine (Kabaj Rebula), Cocchi Americano and chamomile-infused Dolin Blanc. With so many layered, complex ingredients—all grape-derived—citrus would be an odd man out, but verjus added the necessary balance.

Similarly, it blends beautifully with sherries and brandies like in Wallflower’s “Ambrosia #2” made with oloroso and pedro ximénez, a splash of champagne and Cardinal Mendoza brandy—again all grape-based. In this case, verjus allows other flavors to take center stage while inconspicuously punching up acidity—a critical yet unobtrusive role that lime wouldn’t play so covertly. “When you need just a little lift in flavor,” says Tyler Stevens of Teardrop Lounge in Portland, Oregon, “verjus could do it without masking a cocktail’s delicate, spiritual flavors.” He uses it in his Fleur-de-Lis, which features an entire ounce of Peychaud’s bitters alongside Pierre Ferrand Ambre. “I have never had a cocktail that boasts a full ounce of bitters taste so palatable. Verjus can take an ingredient that is too condensed, harsh or bitter and blow it up like a microscope to reveal all of its beautiful complexities.”

Where cocktails using citrus must be shaken to emulsify and blend ingredients, drinks using verjus, do not. “That gives us access to the holy grail of cocktail creation: surprise,” says Day. “When a stirred, crystal-clear cocktail arrives before a guest, they make assumptions (boozy, aromatic; like a martini), and then when they taste that zip of acid, all conceptions break down.”

Verjus’s built-in virtues—gently acidic, dry, non-alcoholic—are what make it so versatile. (Wallflower even relies on it for virgin cocktails, such as a Salty Dog variant with grapefruit, homemade grenadine and and tonic water.) And since it doesn’t amp up the alcohol or overpower other ingredients, verjus can function as something of a canvas on which other flavors can emerge. Natasha David agrees: “Verjus has this wonderful ability to elongate flavors.” As it pulls at a cocktail’s levers from behind the curtain allowing other flavors to take center stage, verjus emerges as the ideal supporting character.