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In cocktails, there’s a world of acidity beyond citrus

Acidity doesn’t need to be limited to lemons and limes – here are some alternatives. By Sostene Costantino.

In the cocktail world, there is no escaping acidity. As explained by food writer Dave Arnold in his book Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail, “it is rare to have a cocktail that contains no acid. Sometimes the acidity is hidden… but it is almost always there.” And in the majority of cases, we rely on citrus fruits for that acidity – particularly lemons and limes.

However, as the need for citrus often means a great deal of waste from rinds and pulp, an ever-increasing attention to sustainability in the industry has pushed bartenders to experiment with alternatives. At famously eco-conscious Native in Singapore, for instance, you won’t find any citrus at all – instead, they use kombucha, water kefir, vinegar, yoghurt whey, kefir whey, kvass, ants (which have formic acid), sorrel (oxalic acid), tamarind, and acids such as citric, malic, tartatric, ascorbic and more. While co-owner Vijay Mudaliar explains that one reason is to reduce waste, at the same time, “it’s exciting to be creative and look for acidity in different forms so as to surprise our customers.”

Of course, ultimately you won’t find an exact replacement for the freshness and acidity of lemon or lime juice, but being inventive can lead to unique and unexpected cocktails. But where to start?

“It’s about experimentation,” says Hannah Keirl, managing director of Spirits Box. “You need to take into account how using a citrus alternative will affect the overall flavour of the cocktail. When you’re learning and testing, I’d suggest taking a classic cocktail and trying three to four substitutes – taste them, see how the balance changes; see what works and what doesn’t.”

With all that in mind, here we take look at some alternative acids and how to use them.

Powdered acids and acid solutions

Powdered acids and acid solutions (a mix of crystallised acids and water), whether on their own or in blends, can mimic the acidity of natural ingredients (to a certain extent). Juan Yi Jun, co-founder of No Sleep Club in Singapore, does a Hemingway Daiquiri (recipe below) that uses a citric acid solution in place of lime juice – it’s a different expression than the classic and with a fuller mouthfeel, she says, though perhaps less refreshing.

One of their biggest advantages of these solutions is consistency. “As crystallised acids are a pure extracted form of acid, bartenders are able to have ultimate control over their influence on a drink,” explains Louis Tan, former head bartender of The Old Man in Singapore. Try a ten per cent solution for citric, malic, tartaric, lactic and ascorbic acids, as Native does.

However, their chemical simplicity is also their main drawback – when it comes down to it, most agree that acid solutions only provide acidity and “do not taste at all like the natural fruit,” points out Louis. “Generally speaking, you cannot use acid alternatives in a one-for-one replacement for a citrus fruit. Acid solutions, while being very versatile and shelf stable, will show serious limitations in simpler cocktails.” Instead, he keeps a bottle on hand to re-balance syrups and reinforce acidity in citrus fruits.

“They’re great for consistency, for creating clarity in cocktails, and for reducing waste,” says Hannah, “but I find that simply replacing lemon with an acid solution doesn’t work. Acid is what makes a lot of cocktails ‘pop’ in flavour, so think about what flavour you’re trying to bring out in your cocktail, and when using the solution, make sure that still comes through.”

So, think of solutions as ingredients for balancing and adding that “pop” Hannah mentioned. “Instead of trying to ‘recreate’ citrus notes, try to explore with new flavours,” says Vijay.

Disclaimer: In China the use of powdered acids and solutions is regulated by law and the establishments who use them should possess a special license. Be sure to check your local regulations.

Hemingway Daiquiri
by Juan Yi Jun
(One batch makes about six cocktails)

600ml White rum
200ml Sugar syrup
250ml Clarified grapefruit juice
200ml Filtered water
50ml Maraschino liqueur
5g Citric acid powder

Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a chilled coupe glass.


Vinegar

As a cost effective, low waste ingredient with a long shelf life, Max Tang of Shanghai’s Hungry Lung’s Kitchen (HLK) sees vinegar as “easier to operate than citrus fruits.” 

Vinegar’s acidity is similar to citrus (in terms of pH), but the big difference is the type of acid it provides – acetic instead of citric. That key differences makes for a unique flavour profile in drinks. “When using vinegar, you have to employ great care when tweaking the recipes to account for the extra flavours produced by acetic fermentation,” points out Louis. As he explains, acetic fermentation can also result in “fluctuations in the resultant flavours, depending on each batch based on environmental conditions”.

While this unpredictability can hinder consistency, it can also lead to diversity. “We make our own vinegars to bring a different layer of acidity to drinks,” says Jun. “At the same time, some vinegars can be sweeter and add to the sugar content in the drink, which could be a happy accident.” Likewise, Max gives the example of coconut vinegar, which offers “a slightly softer flavour compared with other fruit vinegars, and a sweet aftertaste that can open new doors for cocktail creativity,” he says. For Louis, “a dash or two of sherry vinegar can really help boost the profile of a drink.”

Pro tip when using vinegar – beware of balance. “The taste of acetic acid is potent,” explains Max. “When it is combined with alcohol, the flavour of the drink’s base spirit should be richer or stronger.” He suggests tequila, cognac, rum or whisky are a better match than the more delicate profiles of spirits like vodka or gin.

Last Call
by Max Tang

45ml Cognac VSOP
20ml Amaretto
15ml Coconut vinegar
7.5ml Pernod

Shake well and strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with ground clove.


Verjus

Verjus (or verjuice) is the juice of unripe grapes, and contrary to its meaning in French – “green juice”– it can be made from any type. Its sour, tart notes make it a good alternative to citrus fruits while also coming with an extra perk: “a distinctive taste rather than just acidity,” says Vincenzo Pagliara, co-founder of Arch by Taste Buds in Shanghai.

It’s a versatile ingredient that acts as “a compromise between vinegar and citrus,” he explains. “It’s easily made in house, not aggressive and can be easily personalised.” It’s delicious on its own, too – at Arch, you’ll find the house-made verjus on the menu as a soft drink.

When using it as an alternative to citrus, Vincenzo specifies that the first difference is quantity – verjus is less acidic and you might need to use more to achieve the same acidity. Also, the level of acidity varies depending on the type of grape used. “For consistency in terms of acidity and taste, you always need to count on a good palate to adjust it with a bit of citric acid,” he explains.

One drawback is that the seasonality of grapes means homemade verjus can be more expensive to make during their off-season. Make a big batches during peak season and freeze for later use, as Arch does.

Verjus
by Vincenzo Pagliara

2kg unripe green grapes
Citric acid solution

Process grapes through a juicer, then pour juice into a container and cover with cheesecloth. Allow to ferment for 12 hours, then filter juice through cheesecloth, repeating until the juice is clear. Adjust to desired acidity using citric acid solution. To preserve, vacuum seal and keep in the fridge for up to four days or in the freezer for up to two weeks.


Whey

The whey strained out from milk, yoghurt, cheese and kefir is a uniquely acidic ingredient. “It adds different flavour and acidity that you find commonly in drinks or food, and a creamy mouthfeel for drinks that call for it,” explains Jun.

The Native team, for instance, has recently been playing with kefir whey in particular. Their cocktail Bilembing from their latest menu combines gin, wild starfruit and tamarind leaf reduction with kefir whey, which “adds a great mouthfeel plus a light froth to the drink,” shares Vijay.

Jun points out the many upsides of using whey – it keeps well in the refrigerator and it doesn’t need to be shaken or stirred, making it great for batching. When coming from a salty, acidic cheese (like No Sleep Club’s house-made ricotta), it’s great for savoury cocktails. In that sense, it’s also a good way to use up an ingredient that would normally go to waste.

Whey is obviously not a stand-in for citrus, and you’ll need to experiment to achieve what you want. “It really depends on the balance and what the bartender is trying to make,” says Jun. “Maybe some people are not used to it and may find the sourness off-putting – but a good recipe can fix that.”

Bilembing
by Vijay Mutaliar

50ml Rojak gin
25ml Clarified starfruit juice
15ml Kefir whey
5ml Tamarind leaf syrup**

Shake all ingredients together and strain into a chilled glass.

*Tamarind leaf syrup: 100g foraged tamarind leaves; 500ml water; 500g xylitol. Blend all ingredients and strain.


Other fruit and produce

Citrus fruits aren’t the only ones with acidity. “I love using tamarind, raspberries and blackberries – through to fresh apples and sumac,” says Hannah. “Hibiscus tea is another alternative that packs an acid punch.” Vijay opts for things such as green mango, sorrel, starfruit, tamarind, and fermented fruits – especially natural fermentations, as occurs with pineapple – while Jun tries everything from grape skins to various leaves.

In terms of sustainability, the idea of replacing citrus with other fruit may seem as just perpetuating the same waste problem. As Hannah explains, “from a sustainability standpoint, anything where you can use the whole fruit is best – for example, turning rinds into citrus stock, or in the case of tamarind, dehydrating the pulp for garnish.”

Louis has also experimented with fruit by procuring them early in their ripening cycle, before  their natural acidity has converted in sugars. “This is quite common for passion fruits (naturally high in acids when under-ripe), pomelos, raspberries, etc,” he explains. “However, this will leave you very susceptible to natural forces, and for the sake of the argument, will be pretty unreliable when you are running a bar.”

No Lemon Clover Club
by Hannah Keirl

45ml The West Winds Sabre gin
45ml Raspberry and sumac syrup*
Egg white (optional)

Stir on ice and strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with lemon peel.

*Raspberry and sumac syrup: 350g raspberry puree; 3-4 tsp dried sumac or sumac powder; 200g sugar; 350ml water. Bring ingredients to boil and then fine strain.

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