A long time ago, in a house not so very far away, some friends and I were thirsty for margaritas. We were out of margarita mix, though, so we made due without. Of course we could have used limes, but this was the early 1990s, and fresh citrus had yet to return to the cocktail vernacular.
Fast forward to today. Lemons, limes, oranges and other citrus are now so routinely called for that the “fresh” part is pretty much a given. They’re juiced, sliced, muddled and zested. We express their oils over the surface of drinks, infuse them and macerate their peels with sugar to make oleo saccharum. Citrus isn’t so much an ingredient as it is a cocktail pantry staple — and for good reason.
“(Citrus) can show the layers of a drink, lighten the body and pull nuances from spirits and whatever other components there are,” says Jeff Lichtenberger, who tends bar at Extra Virgin. “It can really make or break a cocktail.”
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From the Whiskey Sour and Tom Collins to the Paloma, Harvey Wallbanger (it’s making a comeback — really) and Queen’s Park Swizzle, citrus plays a starring role. Which variety? The choices are vast, and “Citrus” (Ten Speed Press, 2015) champions a number of unique ones as well as farmers’ markets and pick-your-own orchards.
While it’s unlikely we can find orange blossoms or just-harvested Page tangerines in Kansas City, I have in recent months spotted everything from vibrant blood oranges and sweetly floral Meyer lemons to key limes, kumquats, super-size pomelos and Buddha’s hand (a type of citron) in area supermarkets. They make for intriguing cocktails, but the workhorses remain readily available: Eureka lemons and Persian (sometimes called Bearss) limes.
The supermarket standard Eureka yields exactly the pleasantly tart lemon flavor needed in cocktails like the French 75 (lemon juice, gin, simple syrup and Champagne). For its part, the Persian lime is equally essential in drinks as varied as the Last Word, Caipirinha or Moscow Mule.
Orange juice is a less compelling ingredient, in part because it is both sweeter and less acidic than other citrus, but it does match well with tequila, bourbon and bitter-edged aperitifs such as Campari for those willing to experiment. Or you can stick with the classic Blood and Sand, which combines orange juice with blended Scotch whisky, cherry heering and sweet vermouth and tastes much better than it sounds.
Grapefruit fares better in the drinks world because, as “The Drunken Botanist” (Algonquin Books, 2013) puts it, “the compelling mixture of tangy citrus and bitterness make grapefruit an astonishingly good mixer.” That’s exactly what Margot Thompson, until recently the bar manager at The Farmhouse, likes about it.
“It plays well with different flavors in a different way,” says Thompson, whose Risque Ruby combines grapefruit juice, gin, bitters and hibiscus syrup. “Bitterness is a part of a balanced cocktail.”
So, rule No. 1 is use fresh-squeezed. Rule number two? Shake anything made with juice.
Shaking integrates flavors, emulsifies polysaccharides such as pectin and adds texture, says Andrew Niemeyer, the bar manager at Journeyman Café. While any shaker and ice will do, he prefers an all-metal shaker and solid cubes of ice (as opposed to the smaller, softer cubes often found in refrigerator ice makers and bagged ice).
“Big clear cubes and metal-on-metal, to me, tend to create a foamier texture, a more velvety and airy texture,” says Niemeyer, who also tends bar at Extra Virgin.
Citrus is more than juice, though. There’s plenty of goodness in the zest, which according to “The Drunken Botanist” contains oil glands, fatty acids, flavor, enzymes, pigments and a bitter aromatic compound called limonene.
Translation: Don’t skip the garnish. A twist or wide swath of zest on or in the glass not only looks pretty, its essential oils provide an aromatic and flavor boost. Don’t believe me? Try making two versions of a stirred drink like the Old Fashioned. Cut a swath of lemon zest, express the oils over the surface and drop the peel into the glass of one drink but not the other. Then, smell and taste the difference.
“Especially for a stirred drink, an Old Fashioned-style drink, just that hint of acidic element can add a lot to how you perceive it,” Niemeyer says.
You can change things up even more by flaming the peel. It’s admittedly a bit of showmanship, but not something that’s hard to pull off. First, cut a swath of peel and set it aside. Next, light a match and hold it an inch or so over glass. Hold the peel in your other hand, aiming it so when you pinch the cut sides together the volatile oils pass through the flame and ignite.
“Flaming gives a drink more of a warmer, robust burnt feel,” Lichtenberger says “It really plays well with some whiskey cocktails.”
Citrus also infuses well. Combine zest, sugar and vodka to create a refreshing summer spirit. Use both the zest and juice, add more sugar and wait a bit longer, and you get the classic Italian liqueur limoncello. Or, you can mix the peels with nothing more than sugar for an even more versatile ingredient called oleo saccharum.
The sugar draws out the citrus oils, resulting in an intensely flavored and aromatic syrup that was commonly used in 19th century punches. David Wondrich resurrected the technique in “Imbibe!” (Perigee, 2007 & 2015) and later explored in “Punch” (Perigee, 2010), and bartenders have since embraced it for other creations as well.
The key, as with all things cocktail, is achieving balance. Too much acidity, and a drink tastes harsh (something a bit more sugar or spirits can help remedy. Too little, and it’s dull and flabby. You can add a bit more lemon or lime, but citrus isn’t the only source.
A neutral-tasting citric acid solution can bump up the bite without changing the flavor. It’s available at natural foods stores and can be mixed to taste. Shrubs are another option, and one Lichtenberger enjoys working with because of their versatility. They can be made with almost any vinegar (he prefers apple cider), non-citrus fruit and sweetener. Thompson agrees: shrubs are delicious.
“You can impart the flavors of fruits and botanicals along with acidity,” she says. “That’s a fun way to do it.”
After all, fun is the key. Buy different citrus fruits, make a shrub or oleo saccharum and try them all in your favorite cocktails. There’s no way to go wrong, Thompson says.
“The big thing is trusting your palate,” she says. “Everybody’s palate is different.”
Cut a swath: A peeler with a y-shaped head gives you greater control and consistency and less bitter white pith when cutting a wide swath of zest.
Cut a twist: Use a channel knife with a shallow v-shaped cutting edge to cut narrow strips of peel.
Express citrus oils: Cut a wide swath of zest, hold it over a cocktail (colored side down) and pinch the cut ends together or give it a corkscrew-like twist to spritz the oils over the drink’s surface. If you’re using a thinner twist, pull the ends slightly to achieve the same thing.
Juice lemons and limes: Swing-away manual hand press is efficient, easy to use, gets as much juice as possible from the fruit and is easy to clean.
Double-strain: When pouring a cocktail made with citrus juice from the shaker, hold a fine mesh or tea strainer over the glass to filter out any bits of pulp that will cloud the drink or create unpleasant texture.
Make an oleo saccharum: Combine thin strips of almost any citrus peel with sugar in a bowl or resealable zip-top bag. Mix the peels so each piece is coated with sugar. Cover or seal and set aside for several hours, or until the sugar has pulled all the oils from the zest. Add a bit of hot water to dissolve any remaining sugar; strain and refrigerate for up to a month.
Most accounts place the creation of this cocktail in either World War II-era London or Paris. Regardless of provenance, it’s delicious enough that Jeff Lichtenberger, bartender at Extra Virgin, counts it as a summertime patio favorite.
Makes 1 drink
1 ounce gin
1/2 ounce lemon juice
1/2 ounce simple syrup
2 ounces chilled Champagne
Lemon twist, for garnish
Fill a shaker with ice and add gin, lemon juice and simple syrup. Shake, and then strain into a chilled cocktail glass or ice-filled highball glass and top with Champagne.
Per drink: 143 calories (none from fat), no fat, no cholesterol, 7 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 1 milligram sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Limoncello is an easy Italian classic. This version is from “Citrus” (Ten Speed Press, 2015).
Makes about 4 1/2 cups
6 Eureka lemons
1 750 milliliter bottle high-quality vodka
1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cups water
Using a razor-sharp vegetable peeler, remove the peel from the lemons in long strips. Make sure you remove only the colored portions of the peel, with no bitter white pith attached. Cut the lemons in half and juice. Pour the juice into a large, sterilized jar and add the peel. Pour in the vodka and stir to mix well. Cover the jar with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for 2 weeks.
After the 2 weeks have passed, place the sugar in a saucepan, add the water and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes, until the sugar has dissolved. Set the syrup aside to cool completely.
Pour the cooled sugar syrup into the vodka mixture and mix well. Let stand for 1 hour to infuse. Line a fine-mesh sieve with cheesecloth, then strain the vodka mixture through the sieve and decant into 1 or more sterilized bottles with screw top lids. Label and store in a cool, dark cupboard for up to 1 year.
Per 1-ounce serving: 137 calories (1 percent from fat), trace total fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 13 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 2 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
Margot Thompson, until recently bar manager at The Farmhouse, expresses grapefruit oils from the garnish over this drink to create a beguiling aroma.
“When you’re bringing the glass to your mouth, you smell this really super fresh grapefruit. It creates a really satisfying experience,” she says.
Thompson buys dried hibiscus flowers from Phoenix Herb Company at 43rd and Main streets or phoenixherb.com/
Makes 1 drink
1 1/2 ounces Uncle Val’s Botanical Gin
1 dropper Bittermens Burlesque Bitters
1/2 ounce house-made hibiscus syrup (see note)
2 ounces grapefruit juice
Swath of grapefruit zest, for garnish
Fill a shaker with ice and add gin, bitters, syrup and juice. Shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Hold the zest over the glass and give it a quick twist, spritzing the oils over the drink, and drop it into the glass.
To make the hibiscus syrup, combine equal volumes of water, sugar and dried hibiscus flowers in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, turn off heat and allow flowers to steep until cool. Strain and refrigerate until use.
Per drink: 151 calories (1 percent from fat), trace total fat (no saturated fat), no cholesterol, 9 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 2 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.