Acid nouse: Top bartenders ditch citrus in cocktails for alternative sources of sour

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Sick to death of squeezing lemons? Worried about the air miles of your limes? Then it might be time to investigate the world of alternative acidifiers. Alice Lascelles asks four bartenders for their tongue-tingling tips


Marcis Dzelzainis, Sager & Wilde and Bassoon Bar at Corinthia Hotel
‘Verjus is more rounded and gentle and lets other flavours shine through…’

Meadowsweet Martini

Glass: Coupette
Garnish: Lemon discard and a sprig of baby’s breath
Method: Stir all ingredients in a mixing glass till chilled and sufficiently diluted. Strain into a coupette, spritz with the lemon zest, then garnish with a sprig of baby’s breath.

50ml vodka
25ml Grüner Veltliner Verjus
15ml meadowsweet syrup
10ml apricot liqueur

If all your drinks have lemon and lime in them, it’s not sustainable or cost effective – and it’s a lot of work if you’re having to juice 10l of citrus every night. But you can’t just replace citrus with something else and expect to get the same result. You will get a different drink.

We use verjus, essentially unripe grape juice, a lot. It’s a great product because it is effectively a waste product for winemakers, being too acidic to be turned into wine. The acidity and flavour profile is very different to citrus, with a less aggressive acidity. It’s more rounded and gentle and lets other flavours shine through, which makes it ideal for more delicate drinks. We import ours directly from a winery in Austria that makes a Riesling verjus and another with Grüner Veltliner. I particularly like the Grüner, which is soft and not too acidic – it has notes of hay, clover and green apples. It’s £4 to £5 for a 50cl bottle, so it’s on a par price-wise with citrus, but unlike a lemon, the price doesn’t fluctuate. A good source for verjus is austrianshop.de.

Another good thing about verjus is that it has a longer shelf life than fresh citrus – a lemon peaks after about two hours, whereas a bottle of verjus will keep for two weeks in the fridge once you’ve opened it.

I also like working with vinegars, but you have to be really careful about choosing a good one as the cheap ones can be quite pungent. We use Oliver’s Orleans Method Vinegar, a Herefordshire apple cider from the Fine Cider Company. It doesn’t taste like vinegar – it tastes more like tart apple juice. And what’s more it’s very good for your gut.

But I’m not writing citrus off altogether. After all, if we didn’t use lemons and limes sometimes, we’d all end up dying of scurvy.

 

Matt Whiley, Scout and Iron Stag
‘We use wine a lot – and English wine is not short on acidity…!’

Cedar Wood

Glass: Old fashioned
Garnish: Edible flowers
Method: Stir all ingredients in a metal tin and strain over an ice block.

40ml rye whisky
5ml malt syrup
30ml Jarr Original Kombucha
2 drops cedarwood tincture

At Scout we only use British products, so we don’t use limes or lemons. Instead we use things like wines, verjus or vinegars to give drinks acidity, and then boost them with a drop or two of acid solution if necessary.

Not all my bartenders agree, but I like using vinegar as an ingredient. I like acetic acid and shrubs, and I drink kombucha all the time. I use kombucha like a soda to lengthen a drink, cut with a bit of sparkling water. I’ve also just created an Old Fashioned twist with a splash of kombucha (above), which gives it a nice bit of acidity and a touch of effervescence. Food is more of a feature in the new Scout bar and kombucha can be great with food.

We use wine a lot – English wine is not short on acidity – and we always have a Bacchus in stock from Lyme Bay. We also use Verjuice’s verjus from Sussex, which is more mellow than vinegar.

We use citric and malic acid very sparingly, because they’ve got a different mouthfeel and make your mouth feel dry. Malic acid has a more ‘green’ character so we tend to use it with more ‘green’ ingredients like peas and apples. I find citric acid more floral. We’ll often make up a drink with both types and then choose. Or if a drink is a touch too sweet, you can use an acid solution to balance it out on the spot, like seasoning.

We use kefir, which has a totally different acidity; it’s really sour and super fizzy. We use it to lengthen drinks as you would with a soda. You can make an amazing Paloma with tequila and Pure Earth Sparkling Grapefruit Kefir, instead of grapefruit soda.

In the end, whatever acid you use it’s still got to be about balance. And as more people get turned off sugar, finding a way to balance the drink becomes a challenge. If you cut down the sugar you have to dial back the acidity too. As sustainability and waste become more important, I think we’ll be flying a lot less produce around the world. And that means it will be more and more about finding alternatives.

 

Robin Honhold, Cub 

‘Powdered acids should only ever really be measured in drops…’

Cub tries to look at drinks from the point of view of sustainable luxury and that drives us to try new ingredients. We don’t have a ban on using ingredients from outside the UK, but we do look at different ways of sourcing things or finding more sustainable alternatives wherever we can.

Fife Coast Cooler

Glass: Highball
Garnish: One edible flower and two red gooseberries
Method: Add all ingredients
to an ice-filled highball
and stir to combine.

35ml Dewars 12yo Scotch
20ml elderflower cordial
50ml Chardonnay
15ml green gooseberry juice*
100ml soda

*To juice a gooseberry: Pick off unnecessary stems and add gooseberries to food processor. Blitz until roughly chopped. Add to a muslin cloth or tea towel, fold edges up to create a pouch and squeeze juice out.

Pegasus Gimlet

Glass: Coupette
Garnish: Apple crisp on rim of glass, disco lime wheel style
Method: Add all ingredients to a mixing glass or tin full of
ice and stir until ice cold.
Strain into chilled glass.

40ml Bombay Sapphire gin
10ml Somerset Cider Brandy
20ml sea buckthorn cordial*
2 dashes orange bitters

*To make sea buckthorn cordial: Add 200g mineral water, 100g sea buckthorn juice, 300g white sugar and the peel of two limes to a pan. Bring to just below a simmer, then remove immediately from heat. Stir occasionally to dissolve sugar and leave to cool. Strain through a tea strainer and store in the fridge.

Sometimes we might want the sourness of a lemon, but not the flavour – then we would look at other fruit from around the UK. Gooseberries, especially before they are quite ripe, are great. Crab apples, cooking apples and rhubarb can be nice sources of acidity. You can make fruit vinegars with unripe strawberries or raspberries, which can be a great way of using up fruit that would otherwise get thrown away.

We use a plum vinegar from Brogdale Farm in Kent, a lot. It’s sweeter than normal vinegar and a bit salty too. Then you’ve got more unusual, foraged ingredients like sea buckthorn, which has bright orange berries that are incredibly tart, with an orangey, grapefruity, tropical sharpness, or pineapple weed, which grows all over the place.

I think one of the biggest problems you see when it comes to powdered acids is people not being accurate enough. You see people using jiggers to measure out something that should really only be measured in drops. It must be really, really controllable.

We always use powdered acids in solution, 1g powder to 10g water, so that it’s a level playing field. And all our droppers are exactly the same, because even just an extra drop or two can make a huge difference.

It’s also really important to label every solution very, very specifically. Remember this is stuff than can clean a coin or melt your teeth if you don’t use it right.

 

Bobby Hiddleston, Swift
‘There’s far too much complex chemistry in a lemon or lime for us to replicate it accurately…’

West to East

Glass: Flute
Garnish: Grapefruit twist, discarded
Method: Shake and strain.

30ml Nikka from the Barrel Whisky
20ml Akashi-Tai yuzushu
15ml pineapple sherbet
2 dashes Bittermens
Boston Bittahs
50ml champagne

Personally I think there’s far too much complex chemistry in a lemon or a lime for us to replicate it accurately. I’m not saying you must just use lemon and lime juice – any soft drink contains citric acid after all – but there is so much more complexity to an actual fruit. I’ve experimented with powdered acids and it’s easy to be very heavy-handed with it, so you end up getting this metallic tang. It’s very easy to overdo it.

Most of the time I still like using real fruit. We have a champagne cocktail called West to East that’s this amazing celebration of these different types of acidity – there are many layers of citrus involved that all work harmoniously together.

The sherbet has a base of lemon juice and peel, which gives a bright sharpness; the pineapple gives sweet, tropical acidity; the yuzushu brings a candied element; and the Boston Bittahs, which are made with several types of citrus and chamomile, add citrusy depth. Meanwhile the champagne has a malic touch, and the grapefruit on the top completes the nose.

Expand your mind with acid(ity)

Don’t know your acetic acid from your ascorbic? Not sure if it’s malic or phosphoric acid your drink is looking for? Then you need to check out Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail by Dave Arnold, which has a great section on acidity (pp.58-61), covering all the key types of acid, as well as the best methods for the preparation and storage of citrus fruits.

About Author

Alice Lascelles

Alice Lascelles is a founding editor of Imbibe and also the spirits and cocktails columnist for The Sunday Times and The Times. She has been writing about drinks for more than a decade during which time she's also been a regular contributor to the Financial Times, Prospect and Square Meal, with further writing credits including The Telegraph, Time Out and The Spectator. When she’s not drinking for a living, Alice has a second life as a musician which has seen her tour with the White Stripes and record sessions for BBC 6 Music, Xfm and Radio 2. She lives in London.

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