Lemons and Limes

How to Balance a Cocktail

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.

This month, 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 tongue 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.

Other Citrus

But what about other citrus? In your box this month is a blood orange and grapefruit syrup drink. While oranges have acid, they aren't acidic enough for cocktails. Lemon juice is as sour as simple syrup is sweet, which means you can add the same amount of them in a drink and it will be balanced. But if you add the same amount of orange juice and simple syrup, it will be insanely sweet. In fact, oranges are pretty much balanced all by themselves -- you can just drink orange juice, can't you?

That's why this month's cocktail is balanced with lemon and lime, and then has orange juice on top. You can almost add as much OJ as you want and it will stay balanced.

Grapefruits are similar -- what we've done is made a grapefruit syrup with lime and grapefruit juice as well as sugar. It's all in the syrup, and the syrup is sweet/sour balanced already. All you do is add and shake.

Other Produce

Does this mean you can't use other produce?

Of course not! We use other produce all the time! But you have to use them in addition to lemon or lime, not instead of them. In the Freshie, in this month's box, we use kiwi and cucumber to make a bright, summery, refreshing Margarita variation: a perfect example, if we do say so ourselves, of how a simple addition to a classic lime sour template can make something tasty and new. Enjoy!