Experimenting with acid (for cocktails)

By / Wine + Drinks / October 3rd, 2018 / 7
Citric acid in cocktails

Remember the bad old days of powdered lime bar mix? If not, consider yourself lucky. In the 1980s and ‘90s, just about every juicy cocktail, be it a daiquiri, margarita, gin rickey or Tom Collins, started out with a bag of green powder — a less-than-artisanal blend of sugar, sodium, artificial flavour, green colour and citric acid. All bartenders had to do was add water and shake to produce a week’s supply of slightly glowing green “juice.”

Craft cocktail bartenders of the first decade of the new millennium put an end to all that by investing in juicers and promoting a fresh-is-best mentality. In a surprising new development, however, a new crop of bartenders is questioning the virtues of fresh juice and starting to experiment with acid. This time around, though, bartenders assure us it will be better. No day-glo lime bar mix. Promise.

“In the 1980s and 1990s, it was sold by big companies who added colour, bad artificial flavours and a lot of sugar to deal with the mouthfeel problem of straight citric acid,” says Nick Kennedy, co-owner of Toronto’s Civil Liberties, “Citric acid can be really hard on the palate, but you can easily fix that just by adding an essential oil.”

Kennedy builds his sour mix by starting with an oleo-saccharum — an antique punch base revered for its ability to release intense fruit flavours into drinks — that’s dead simple to make (recipe below). To that, Kennedy adds his signature “LSD mix,” a blend of citric, tartaric, malic and lactic acids, each of which adds a particular flavour profile to the cocktail base. Says Kennedy: “At that point, it’s really hard to distinguish it from fresh lime juice, because it’s got all the acids and all the oils your mouth is looking for.”

So why even bother? If you’re thinking convenience, you’re mostly wrong, since the chief virtues of the acids are stability and precision. Fresh is great, but bartenders grow frustrated over finnicky recipes failing when seasonal changes in produce lead to sweeter or more acidic citrus. Home bartenders might shrug this off, since consistency is less important for home entertaining than in a bar that charges $16 per drink, but Kennedy argues it might make even more sense for a home enthusiast, since home users typically face more problems with spoilage than high-volume bars.

“One of the most common questions I get is how we get such great shelf-life off our house-made mixers,” he says. “In a lot of cases, it’s making use of these acids.”

Kennedy’s favourite acid-juice is orange since it solves another age-old bartender problem, namely that fresh OJ can easily overwhelm a cocktail. That’s why we don’t see as many craft cocktails with an orange juice base — a problem that acids fix. Here’s his solution for the legendary but not actually very tasty Blood and Sand cocktail, beginning with the oleo-saccharum base.

Blood and Sand (and Acid)

3/4 oz Monkey Shoulder blended Scottish whisky
3/4 oz Heering Cherry liqueur
3/4 oz Sweet Vermouth
3/4 oz Orange Acid Mix*

Add all ingredients to an ice-filled cocktail shaker and shake well. Strain into a chilled coupe glass. Garnish with a Luxardo cherry and an orange twist.

*Orange Acid Mix

5 g citric acid
2 1/2 g malic acid
1 1/4 g lactic acid
1 1/4 g tartaric acid
100 g fresh orange juice

Mix all ingredients together and bottle in a sterile vessel. Kennedy notes that the orange acid formula works better with fresh juice than oleo-saccharum, which he uses to make sour mix.


Christine Sismondo is a National Magazine Award-Winning drinks columnist and the author of Mondo Cocktail: A Shaken and Stirred History as well as America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops.

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