At New York City’s The Eddy, the menu changes every quarter, but the winter 2016–2017 menu is especially full of surprises: Head bartender Luis Hernandez created a “no citrus” cocktail menu (before his departure from The Eddy January 12).
How do you make drinks without any lemon or lime? Hernandez broke out the science books, relying on ascorbic and other acids; vinegars, pickling liquids, switchels and shrubs; and more unorthodox techniques and ingredients to add tangy, tart and bright notes, including—wait for it—termites. Hernandez explains the method behind the madness.
Why did you create a menu without citrus?
You can go anywhere and have a variation on the Margarita, the Daiquiri. They’re classic cocktails, they’re everywhere; they’re people’s safety blanket. I wanted to move away from that. You can’t recreate any of the old cocktails without lemon or lime. Having one more guideline forces you to research and taste things you otherwise wouldn’t.
How did you build the menu?
All the cocktails are created on paper first. That helps to match the flavors in your mind. As long as you know a flavor works in a certain way, you can manipulate it to have more acid and more sugar or be a little sharper or drier.
Walk us through some of the drinks on the menu, please.
Summer’s Last Stand [Reyka vodka, fermented honey-rose, white tea whey, dried honey]: I started with the idea of a cocktail from the season before, so this is our “summer” cocktail. Roses are the thing I wanted to push. A lot of chefs pickle flowers; I thought if I could ferment the rose I could get something interesting out of it. It also amplifies a bit of funkiness to it.
I came up with lactic acid for the roundness of the lemon and citric acid for the sharpness of the lemon, and we basically created a clear “lemon juice.” As long as you have the acid, your brain will think it’s lemon, even if the flavor isn’t there.
This drink also includes whey.
Yes, it wasn’t sharp enough, and it was lacking a bit of texture. We did a bit of lactic acid in the “lemon juice,” but it wasn’t enough; it didn’t have the bulk that lemon has. I wanted to bring something a little heavier. Whey isn’t overly acidic but has some acid. Instead of having just one acid, having it from two or three sources helps to round the flavor out.
The 1st of the Month [Monkey Shoulder blended malt scotch, Ancho Reyes chile liqueur, pineapple, fermented coffee, tonka bean, cream, nougat]: This was the second one we worked on. I always knew coffee had a lot of acid; I just didn’t know how to extract it. We took a pineapple rind and threw it in with cold-brew [coffee]. The yeast on the pineapple rind starts to ferment, and then it goes after the coffee. It’s enough to give us the sharpness we need from the coffee. We create the source of acid.
Can we talk about the termites?
I got the idea from watching Chef’s Table. At Pujol [in Mexico City], there’s a dish that Enrique [Olvera] makes. He went to Oaxaca and saw someone cooking with termites and tasted them. The termites were really bright and had this really cool nuttiness and an acidity to them, and it was almost like a lemon blast. And automatically that was my thing. I said, I have to find the termites. We use a website called Thailand Unique; they have their own harvest. They’re a really cool flavor on their own. So we created a cocktail that’s bitter, dark and smoky, and the brightness comes from the rim, the termites themselves.
Looking back, what was the big takeaway for you?
My entire way of seeing cocktails has completely changed. There’s’ a quote: In order to learn anything, we need to question everything we know. That stuck with me. Getting rid of classic cocktails was liberating. I feel like I found my own style, and now I can go anyplace I want.
Would you recommend a no-citrus approach to others?
Our industry is very much thinking about being less wasteful. Prep-wise, it takes us 30 seconds to make about a quart of the clear “lemon juice” instead of juicing it. It’s not the same thing, but it can be used in a similar way. I wouldn’t say go completely no citrus. But I think it’s a cool idea to explore.