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The Year of Yuzu

An outlier in the citrus field, the once-obscure yuzu is having its moment.

Yuzu, unlike lemons and limes, is utterly absent from the canon of classic sour cocktails. But a survey of bar menus today paints a different picture entirely: yuzu has arrived, reshaping the way drinks are acidified.

A hybrid of a primitive citrus and sour mandarin orange, yuzu originated in China, but, today, is widely cultivated in Japan and Korea, and has long played an integral role in East Asian cuisines. It made a splash Stateside in 1994, when celebrated restaurateur Nobu Matsuhisa first opened his eponymous restaurant in New York; Nobu’s Asian fusion cuisine was anchored by a signature yuzu dressing, which added garlicky zing to a wild mushroom salad, and soon became widely imitated.

Bartenders were not blind to the trend, but largely lacked access to the fruit, which, until recently, was prohibitively expensive—about $20 a pound—if it could be found at all. A measure enacted in the late 1980s prevented whole yuzu from being imported into the U.S. and it wasn’t until the 1990s that a handful of California farmers began growing it domestically. Only within the past few years, however, has the supply reached a level capable of driving prices down and within the reach of cocktail bars.

In the meantime, most bars have made do with either bottled yuzu juice or frozen concentrate, in place of fresh produce. In fact, some prefer to use these products, still, (or a blend of frozen and fresh) to help keep prices in check as well as for greater consistency. Atlanta-based bartender and consultant Tiffanie Barriere, for example, uses frozen concentrate in her fizzy Golden Time of Day cocktail, made with pisco and yellow Chartreuse, topped up with fizzy Topo Chico. “It’s not really a swap [for lemon juice], just an alternate,” she notes of yuzu’s flavor. “It’s a different type of acid that takes most spirits to a sweet and tart level.”

Aided by a growing demand for Japanese-style bars and with it, Japanese flavors, bartenders have been experimenting with the fruit’s nuanced aroma, flavor and acidity, which is typically milder than lemon with floral hints and a touch of sweetness, although some bartenders say it can offer higher acidity.

On the opening menu of New York’s Katana Kitten, yuzu starred in the Yuzu-Shio Daiquiri, adding an Asian accent to the expected lime and the duo of rums—one from Barbados, one from Japan. Further uptown at the George Washington Bar, yuzu adds an acidic counterpart to the 1738 Punch, a Cognac-based drink with Cointreau and melon cordial.

In the current cocktail revival, where the spirits landscape is continually evolving, while lemons and limes stay, well, the same, it’s hardly surprising that bartenders would find the unique acidity of yuzu so alluring.

“It’s so exciting to have a different citrus to acidify cocktails with,” says Beth Dixon, bar manager of Richmond, Virginia’s Perch, which marries flavors like kimchi or furikake with Southern comfort food.  “The chef-owner of Perch, Mike Ledesma, is Filipino, so we like to bring in a lot of Asian flavors to enhance our cocktail flavors and pair drinks with the cuisine.” To that end, Dixon incorporates yuzu into drinks such as a Ramos Gin Fizz variation and a playfully blue-tinted Blue-Zu Daiquiri. “As far as flavor, it definitely tastes more like a sour orange or grapefruit,” she says, adding, “I like the little bit of floral aromatics as it gives depth to a cocktail.”

To avoid burying yuzu’s delicate flavor, in general bartenders tend to pair yuzu with white spirits like gin, vodka or unaged rum. At Katana Kitten, however, head bartender Masahiro Urushido incorporates the fruit however he can, stretching the flavor as far as possible. “When the whole fruit is available (and budget is not a concern) it makes absolutely delicious oleo saccharum or sherbet,” he says. Urushido uses the entire fruit: skins, juice, the spent husks, and even saves the seeds hoping to one day cultivate his own trees. Though the skins, and their delicately aromatic oils are “the best part,” he notes that more often he relies on bottled yuzu.

While the bumpy-skinned fruit grows more ubiquitous by the day, it will likely never reach the level of lemons or limes. After all, it’s function is often just as much about the flavor it imparts as the symbolism it provides—a nod to the Asian heritage of the bar or ingredients. The same cannot be said for the humble lemon or lime.

No wonder some bartenders have developed an almost cultish devotion to yuzu. As Barriere says: “It takes cocktails to a higher ground.”

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Tagged: sours, yuzu