Bartender Know How: Using Lemon & Lime to Balance Cocktails

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Ever wondered why almost every cocktail recipe on the planet (aside from direct, stirred booze-only drinks) calls for fresh lemon or lime juice? Speakeasy Co. has you covered with Citrus 101:

Cocktails, like most things, are all about balance. A great cocktail can take many different forms, but the one thing that unites all great cocktails is a perfect balance.

[Today], we’re going to talk the unsung heroes of the great cocktail; the unsexy, but necessary (and interesting!) supporting cast that enable it to be possible at all.

“Why is it always lemon and lime juice in cocktails? Why not strawberries? Why not do something new?”

This was a question put to me the other day by a novice bartender. Indeed, why is it that for every “shaken and refreshing” drink on every menu in town (as opposed to the “stirred and direct” drinks, with no juice or mixers at all) we always lean so heavily on lemon and lime for cocktail infrastructure?

The answer is deceptively simple, and instructive for anyone trying to make drinks at home: acidity.

Your [palate] can be engaged 5 ways: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and savory (umami), and the use of citrus recruits more of it. You may not be able (or willing) to drink gin on the rocks but you can drink a Tom Collins. The reason for that is because in a Collins, a big loud sweetener (sugar) matches up with a big loud acid (lemon), and their little balancing act provides misdirection for your tongue, essentially distracting you from the fact that alcohol would otherwise burn.

That is, in essence, the secret infrastructure of all shaken cocktails. A balance of two strong, opposing flavors, with alcohol on top of them as flavor.

Sours, as we call them, are the most satisfying drinks in the world. This is the same principle as lemonade and why it’s so refreshing. Have you ever noticed that Coca-Cola is very acidic? It’s because the acid (and the salt) balances the sweetness, and the whole thing is incredibly satisfying to drink. It’s also why coke, when added to rum, makes the bitter alcohol heat go away.

That’s why the majority of your favorite bar’s cocktail menu is devoted to drinks that have lemon and lime in them: because there aren’t many other ingredients that have the acidity required to make a sour. There are some — passionfruit, cumquats, vinegar, and a few others — but none have the versatility of our old friend citrus. Lemon and lime are cheap, and readily available, and they go with everything.

That’s why not strawberries. Not nearly enough acidity.

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{ This post first appeared on the Speakeasy Co. (formerly Thirty3Club) blog. }

If you’re looking to test out some sour-style cocktails at home, try my Lavender Gin Lemonade, Blood of the Scorpion or Pineapple Vodka Limeade

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