Alternative to Citrus in Cocktails - Citrus Acid

When life gives you lemons, make acid – alternatives to citrus in cocktails

The amount of citrus that is used in bars is simply astonishing. Most cocktail bars I know of juice their own lemons and limes rather than buying in juices from concentrate, and also use wedges of citrus as garnishes on drinks. It may look pretty, but collecting empty glasses from tables to find so much wasted fresh fruit sitting amongst pools of melted ice really puts into perspective how much of the citrus we ‘consume’ is not physically consumed.

According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations’ 2017 report, the amount of citrus imported by Northern Hemisphere countries worldwide has been steadily increasing over the last decade, especially in the UK. From 2015-2016 the amount of lemons and limes our little island imported increased from 96,000 tonnes to a staggering 148,000 tonnes, one of the largest single increases in the world that year. Much of this citrus would undoubtedly have been used in the bar industry. Whether it be for juicing or used as garnishes on cocktails, the amount of fresh citrus potentially wasted by bars around the world is vast. Anybody who has ever done a prep shift knows the infuriating amount of limes it takes to get the amount of juice you want, and how heavy the bin bags full of husks can get afterwards. Although discarded as dead weight, this ‘waste’ still has massive potential to be re-purposed beyond just juicing; the leftover husks contain many useful organic compounds such as oils and acids. They can even be used to make new ingredients such as cordials (something we recently did in Lab 22, with rather delicious results). However, it is of-course unfair to expect all bars to have the facilities or indeed the time to extract acids and essential oils from their leftover citrus. This can understandably make the notion of little-to-no wastage of citrus seem idealistic and impractical for most bars.

So how can we reduce both our overall consumption and wastage of citrus, whilst still churning out high-quality beverages? Thankfully, there are many fantastic alternatives to fresh citrus juice to balance out our cocktails, and they come in the form of naturally occurring acids. The one you’re likely to know of is citric acid, but there several others: malic acid (found in apples, apricots, peaches), tartaric acid (grapes, bananas), and lactic acid (dairy products) to name a few. In addition, vinegars, mollases and verjuice can provide different kinds of acidity and sourness than citrus and powdered acids. At Lab 22, we keep all of the aforementioned acids in our speed-rail, and try our utmost to use them more than citrus. But how much better are they for the planet than citrus, and how good are they as citrus substitutes in cocktails?

To find out more, I spoke to Iain Griffiths, co-founder of acclaimed London bars Dandelyan and White Lyan. During his time at these bars, he and his colleagues pushed the boundaries of sustainable bartending to its limits with some of the most creative attempts at planet-friendly cocktail making the industry has seen, in which acids played a large role. “The great thing about acids is the whole industry runs on by-products” he says. “One company who juices limes will sell off the husks at a low price to someone else, who will use them to extract the acidity, dry, and powder it ready for use. Because they aren’t using new material, it’s very environmentally friendly.” It is rather comforting knowing that an industry so big can run entirely on leftovers, and even more so when you consider this extends to other products featuring citrus extracts such as essential oils, soft drinks, and even scented detergents. The powdered acids are also much lighter than citrus, and much easier to transport in bulk, taking another chunk of the carbon footprint left by shipping. Furthermore, it is often overlooked that citric acid can also act as a preservative. By using an incredibly small percentage of acid it is possible to stabilise syrups and juices, which have a natural degradation of flavour, and vastly increase their shelf life.

So they are considerably better for the planet than using fresh citrus, but what about the crucial element of taste? Many cocktail purists will argue that a margarita without fresh lime is not a ‘real’ margarita, and it is a fair point – the flavour of the fresh fruit is something that is arguably irreplaceable in many classic drinks. “I do think fresh citrus always has a place in the industry” says Griffiths. “I did a no citrus daiquiri at White Lyan, and it became one of our best sellers. Obviously it wont taste exactly the same as with fresh juice, but there are compromises you can make. One of the things we used to do was make a stock out of citrus husks, and then blend this with acids again. This makes a more citrusy-tasting acid, and you can double – even triple – how far your citrus goes. We went from buying 4-6 cases of limes a week to 2 or 3.”

This kind of innovation is one of the things that made White Lyan (although now closed) one of the most talked-about bars in London, and helped it win Best New International Cocktail Bar in the 2014 Spirited Awards. They even got so far as to having a ‘no citrus or perishables’ policy. “The idea was to try and be as innovative as possible whilst still having complete control over how the drink was made so it wasn’t incrementally different every time it was made. We kept working on drinks, kept chipping away, and eventually thought of completely scrapping perishables. We are only truly innovative as human beings if we don’t have the resources we need, so we tried to take away the bartender’s arsenal to be as creative as possible.”

And creative they were. The venue exhibited all kinds of weird and wonderful creations, such as the Bone Dry Martini – a martini featuring a roasted chicken bone dissolved in phosphoric acid. Now, at this point the bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts reading this may be getting excited, but it is very easy for those of us in the industry to get carried away with mixology and forget about the most important part of any bar – the customer. Innovation and creativity aside, how accessible is this kind of thing to the public? Your average Tom, Dick or Harry doesn’t necessarily know exactly what you’re doing with these drinks, which could be potentially intimidating or off-putting. “When White Lyan opened in 2013 I think people were a bit scared of it” Griffiths says. “People said we were killing the romanticism of cocktails, and that we shouldn’t be trying because you can’t replace citrus.” This is understandable, but in the 5 years since then acids have been more commonplace in cocktail bars, and it is becoming normalised in the industry. “Bars have a pivotal role in educating clientele, and I think consumers will eventually get used to it. I think the true role bartenders have is getting people interested in cocktails, and the education will grow accordingly.” This duty to educate is a responsibility that Iain has taken personally. He and Kelsey Ramage, also formerly of Dandelyan, currently run Trash Tiki, dedicated to responsible, environmentally friendly bartending; or as they so eloquently put it “not f*****g the planet with every daiquiri and tom collins we make”. This obviously extends beyond using acids – Trash Tiki have numerous recipes made entirely with waste products, such as avocado pit orgeat, watermelon rind cordial, and apple pulp sweet ‘n’ sour. They publish all their recipes online, and do pop-up tours around the world teaching people to “drink like you give a f**k” in all corners of the globe.

Iain and Kelsey’s efforts are as admirable as they are inspiring, and we could all learn a thing or two from them. It was mentioned earlier that home-made ingredients may not be massively practical for some bars, but there is so much aside from this that we can do collectively to reduce waste in this industry. Acids in place of citrus is certainly a viable endeavour for all bars, but what of high volume nightclubs which don’t use a lot of citrus? “Nightclubs may not go through a lot of citrus, but they use loads of packaging, something Kelsey and myself are currently pushing against” Griffiths comments. In addition to this, a huge problem in bars is single-use items such as bev-naps and straws which, according to Griffiths, “are essential to get rid of”. At Lab 22, we are always trying to do our part. Our straws are biodegradable, we use washable, multi-use coasters made from cork in place of bev-naps, and there is even talk of getting rid of fruit garnishes on our cocktails. It is easy to forget that several small changes makes a big change, and if we all take a leaf from the book of Iain Griffiths and Kelsey Ramage, we can have a serious impact on the bar industry’s waste problem.

Want to find out more? Visit Trash Tiki’s website, where you can access their recipes and read all about them.