The Basics Tips & Tricks

Alternative Acids: How and Why to Use Them in Cocktails

Their versatility allows for a wide expression of flavors.

Skytanic at Vault in Fayetteville, Ark.
Skytanic at Vault in Fayetteville, Ark. Image:

Nicholas Hamon

Acid is one of the most important elements in creating a balanced cocktail. Traditionally, acid in cocktails comes in the form of citrus or vermouth, but many bartenders are starting to experiment with other sources. The reasons are many, starting with sustainability: Lemons and limes are some of the most wasted cocktail ingredients, since typically only the juice is used and the solids are discarded, and those fruits often come with heavy carbon footprints from transportation, as well. Alternative acids are more cost-effective and allow for flavor expression through nontraditional methods and ingredients, making for increased versatility.

 In the last five to 10 years, new techniques have emerged that have made this possible. One technique is acid-adjusting the acidity level of fruits—and sometimes vegetables—or acidulating/acidifying various ingredients that need a bit more acid to balance. Acid-adjusting, simply put, means adjusting the acidity level of an ingredient, generally one that already contains some acid, to a level that provides balance in a cocktail. This nearly always means that one is increasing the acidity of the ingredient rather than decreasing it. While technically acidity could be adjusted to be more basic or alkaline, this would almost never be in one’s favor when it comes to balancing cocktails. 

For example, some citrus juices, such as orange and grapefruit, aren’t acidic enough on their own to balance a sweetener in a cocktail. Without adding higher-acid lemon or lime juice, which increase the perceived acidity and pH of the cocktail but also dilute it and change the flavor, acid-adjusting, often done by using acid powders, allows the lower-acid fruits to balance on their own. 

“When starting to use acid alternatives, sustainability was at the forefront of our minds,” says Vinny Starble, the head bartender at Bad Hunter, adding that the team wanted to reduce its citrus waste and also shift its purchasing power away from commercial farming toward local purveyors. “One of my favorite ways we've used alternate acids to date was by creating a Champagne acid.” While working on a spritz, he says, the team looked to replicate the creamy textural acidity that Champagne possesses, which exists because the wine undergoes malolactic fermentation, leaving tartaric and lactic acids behind. To do so, the team used lactic and tartaric acid powders to acidulate entire kegs of the spritz to acidity levels similar to those of Champagne.

Derek Stillman, the bar manager at The Sylvester in Miami and a top-12 finalist at Bombay Sapphire’s Most Imaginative Bartender competition, takes a more traditional approach to acid-adjustment by using acid powders and noncitrus fruits for shelf stability and balance. “We use acids for a variety of different purposes, from adjusting acid levels in certain citruses to making other citruses more stable to helping keep their natural colors like green apple juice,” he says. “We also use acids to make certain fruit syrups pop and taste fresher. We make a variation on an Old Cuban cocktail, but we replace most of the lime juice with green apple juice to give it a juicer feel. We adjust the acid in the green apple juice to mimic lime in its sharp malic tartness. We add citric as well because lime has multiple acids found in its juice, but we also add ascorbic acid (not found in lime) to stop browning in apple juice from oxidation.” 

Science Is Good, but Tasting Is Better

As science-focused cocktail expert Dave Arnold likes to point out, the human palate cannot taste pH, the standard measure of acidity and alkalinity, so measuring on that scale isn’t always indicative of flavor. The way humans perceive acidity is most commonly measured by titratable acidity (a measure commonly used in winemaking for balance and quality assurance), but this method gets a little too technical for everyday drink-making, so most bartenders use pH as a general guide and supplement that measure with tasting.

“We’re constantly checking the brix and pH levels of our juices and cordials,” says Andrew Whibley, the owner and bartender at Stillife Bar and The Cloakroom Bar in Montreal. “We have a standard formula that we use in most of our cordials, and we then make sure that it stays within that range. Our standard formula is 20% sugar plus .5% acid mix (malic, citric and tartaric) for fruits with an already high pH [of the total weight], like strawberry and pineapple. For fruits that have a slightly lower pH, like pear, we do 20% sugar plus .75% acid.”

At Bad Hunter, Starble takes a more experimental approach to dialing in acidity when adjusting with acid powders. “When attempting to achieve the right overall balance of TA [titratable acidity] in a drink, we use our palate and also look to what we know about acid levels in citrus juices and how those juices behave in cocktails for a balance point,” he says. “For instance, if I wanted to make a punch with cherry juice, I might think that I'd like to acidulate it with citric acid. … I could start by thinking about how much lemon juice a cocktail like this might need and acidulate the cherry juice with the amount of citric acid that would exist in such lemon juice.”

Oaxaction at The Cloakroom Bar in Montreal
Oaxaction at The Cloakroom Bar in Montreal. The Cloakroom Bar

Fermentation Has Multiple Applications

Another popular alternative source of acidity in cocktails is from ferments, which can include lacto-fermented ingredients, as well as vinegars, which can be made into shrubs for cocktails.

“We’re pretty hyper-aware of what we waste and where our produce comes from,” says Shaun Traxler, the head bartender at Vault in Fayetteville, Ark. “I find the use of fantastic vinegars (acetic acid) as such a welcome respite from citrus. I've been cultivating my own ‘mother’ to begin fermenting my own vinegars in-house for a while now, and it's proving to be quite a rewarding adventure. It's an amazing way to find secondary uses for spoiling produce and past-its-prime wine.”

This alternative use of vinegar is the perfect way to ensure that any wines that have been opened won’t go to waste. While vinegars can be used as an acid on their own, arguably their best application is in a shrub. Shrubs are especially flavorful when made with a homemade vinegar, and this provides a way of balancing acidity and sweetness in a cocktail all in one ingredient as well.

Lacto-fermentation is also becoming increasingly popular because of its utility with scraps and other ingredients that would otherwise be wasted. “It’s always important to keep in mind what it is that you can use to create something out of waste,” says Luiz Hernandez, a bartender and the owner of Cocktail Illustrators Consulting. Recently, he used the lacto-fermented liquid from pickled carrots to use in a milk punch to act as the acid. “The important thing to keep in mind is that if you’re using something that has acid, such as a brine, it’s a very one-dimensional liquid and needs to be acid-adjusted to be acidic enough to make a difference in certain cocktails, like a milk punch,” he says. In other words, even though the brine is itself acidic, he adds an acid powder for additional acidity to ensure the liquid is acidic enough to balance the sweet components of the cocktail.

At Stillife, rather than using citrus, Whibley utilizes various types of acids for balance, some of which are produced by fermentation. “Our main ways [to use acidity] are through cordials, for which we have a few different ways of finding balance,” he says. For example, in a pear cordial, the team adds 10% lacto-fermented pear waste to pear juice as a starter culture and allows it to ferment for two days. They then adjust the sugar and acid for balance. His team also lacto-ferments all of the pulp and waste that normally would be discarded, including citrus waste from The Cloakroom, and mixes it with their cordials so it acts like a starter culture.

Using alternative acids in cocktails requires a knowledge of subjects that strays from what’s necessary for making most classic cocktails. It represents, however, an inevitable evolution of the cocktail industry as drinks-makers seek ways to innovate and improve sustainability.

“Don’t be intimidated by using other acids,” says Starble. “Get your hands on some powders, verjus, still wine, vinegar, etc., and start mixing and tasting. The more you taste how these ingredients interact with cocktails, the stronger your palate gets at understanding the base-level balance between sugar, spirit and acid.

“There's so much room for experimentation,” adds Starble. “And if we as a community all start working with different ingredients, we can really change the way the next generation thinks about cocktails.”