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Acid-Adjusting Liquids for Cocktails

In 2013, the launch of White Lyan in London thrust a movement of sustainability into the hospitality world. A bar with no ice or fruit challenged the way bartenders approached drink creation. With no citrus, the team developed a number of acid rich solutions to create balance in their drinks. 

Since then, bartenders across the globe have implemented the technique in drinks and more recently have begun experimenting with acidity as a way to tweak or manipulate other liquids, known as ‘acid adjusting’ or acidulating.

Although undoubtedly an impressive substitute, acid solutions are still in many ways an imperfect solution as personal experience has taught me the acidity can often play havoc with your palate and give some guests undesirable throat burn as they punish their third acid laden cocktail. As noted by Dave Arnold, the liquid can often be ‘relatively thin and missing any viscosity’. 

Tasting a solution vs. the real thing, its clear that there is an element to where it does taste fake, without the use of other flavours to back up the acidity its difficult to create a well rounded flavour. Acid adjusting works to create balance but also ensure complexity of the final liquid. 

While the use of acid solutions are nothing new, a few forward thinking bars have found that using them to amplify existing flavours in ingredients is an alternate way in which bartenders can balance a drink without the use of citrus. Keeping in mind that by understanding these different types of acids, you can manipulate texture and flavour enhancement. 

Before we take a deep dive into the adjustment of acidity in liquid, we need to first define it, and look at how they present themselves differently in each form. By adjusting acidity, we are playing with the pH (potential of hydrogen) of an aqueous liquid (liquid containing water) which refers to how acidic or alkaline it is based on its hydrogen ion concentration*. The pH scale is a numeric scale, running from 0 to 14 and is broken down like this:

  • A pH of 0 indicates high level of acidity
  • A pH of 7 is neutral
  • A pH of 14 indicates it is alkaline

Food that is considered acidic must have a pH level of 4.6 or lower, so when looking at lemon (approx. 2.00-2.60 and with 0.6g sugar per 30ml liquid) and lime (approx. 2.00-2.80 and with 0.2g sugar per 30ml liquid) they are both on the heavily acidic scale. When looking at an orange with a pH of between 3.69-4.34 and with 3.1g sugar per 30ml liquid, you can start to look at how the use of citric or malic acid can manipulate the pH of orange juice to create a liquid reminiscent of lemons or limes in a cocktail but with the texture and base flavour notes of orange. 

One who knows the technique more than most, Zachary D Morgan (ex Bulletin Place, currently Black Pearl) mentions, ‘Juices such as pineapple, orange, or grapefruit can be seasoned with powdered citric, malic, tartaric, lactic or a specific blend of the former to maintain a more consistent product throughout the year’ as fruits vary in pH levels depending on ripeness, time of the season they were harvested and the origin of the fruit. Classic cocktails that require fresh juice are most affected by this, with a Blood and Sand or Mary Pickford two examples Zach mentions that can be drastically improved with the acid adjustment. 

Alex Talbot and Aki Kamozawa’s book Ideas in Food: Great Recipes and Why They Work looks at techniques in ways of intensifying flavours, unleashing creativity and exploring why great recipes… well, they just work. In looking at many of these recipes, each call for the use of a small percentage of acidity as a way to amplify flavour, noting, ‘as we matured in the kitchen we began using [aciditity]… realizing that its balanced and flavourful nature has a lot to offer’. 

Through this technique, you can acid adjust grapefruit juice in a drink to transform the juice into a brighter, more cocktail friendly ingredient, for instance acid adjusting grapefruit juice in a daiquiri riff or orange juice for a sidecar or whisky sour by replacing the lemon juice. Taking the time to measure the pH of a liquid then recreating or adjusting will give your customers a better drinking experience and will allow you to better control a very volatile ingredient in cocktails.

Tips & Tricks:

  • Acids are by nature corrosive and should always be treated with care when included in drinks. 
  • Always make sure they are food-grade
  • Keep acidic solutions in glass containers as to ensure they don’t react with metal or plastic.
  • Acid adjustment of liquids should be treated similar to seasoning in cooking, it’s a way to elevate existing flavours
  • Properly measure the pH of the liquid prior to any adjustments and use the base levels previously mentioned to guide your new liquid

Experimenting with acid-adjusted recipe: Australian Native Acid Adjusted Syrup

  • 100ml Grapefruit Peel Oleo-Saccharum 
  • 20g Chopped Dried Kaffir Lime Leaves
  • 15g Dried Lemon Myrtle Leaves
  • 30ml Karkalla Juice
  • 200ml Water
  • 2% of final yield Citric Acid
  • 1% of final yield Malic Acid