A PRO’S GUIDE TO ACIDITY IN COCKTAILS
Acidity in drinks is extremely important. From the well know citric acids to the more unusual vinegar style acids, Ryan Chetiyawardana, aka Mr Lyan, shares knowledge and inspiration to ensure your cocktails hit the mark with your customer every time.
A Balancing Act
Creating structure in your drinks requires balance. Depending on the profile, this is usually seen as a ‘yin and yang’ seesaw contrasting strong and weak, and sweet and sour. This blueprint forms the backbone of many of the classic cocktail families and formulae and has guided many drink innovations for centuries. But referring to these old drink structures, you’ll find that the most common form of acidity comes from citrus fruits. Of course, these are useful – they are readily and universally available, reasonably consistent, and economically feasible for your drinks. Plus, they often are delicious. However, this reliance on citrus fruits has not only limited some of the opportunities for innovation, but it has also clouded the role (and possibilities) that acidity can play in our drinks. White Lyan launched in 2013 in part to highlight this point. Not as a vendetta against using citrus acid in cocktails, but to highlight that there were other options – in terms of variety of acidulating sources, use of our ingredients from a sustainability and focus point of view, and understanding their role more (like we did at Dandelyan).
Different Forms of Acidity
A tangible example is the sensation of biting into a very green apple compared to a lemon. Citric acid (dominant in the lemon) is a big punch – it almost borders on being bitter it’s so punchy – and it makes your mouth pucker with the astringency. Whereas the malic acid-dominated apple is lighter, zippier, and gives a more refreshing profile. Neither is better, but it is clear they behave differently. Of course, these are combined with different levels or acidity, sweetness, water and aromatic properties, but the difference is clear, and is something you can play to in your drinks. Even the association is powerful and useful – a simple (low concentrate) solution of citric acid is often described as tasting ‘lemony’. This effect also changes the sensation and experience of the flavors it surrounds. Thinking of balance in this way, rather than simply as a way of equalling out the sweetness will allow you to highlight different aspects of your drinks.
Manipulating Acidity in Cocktails
A simple starting point is a 10% solution. This works well for the powdered organic acids you can buy – citric, malic and tartaric are all good building blocks. Simply cold whisk 10g powdered food grade acid into 100g water. Keep refrigerated and start to see how they can add brightness to your drinks. This concentration will allow for a pretty close substitution for fresh citrus (albeit without the other components citrus juice will add), but what is more interesting is when you start to combine these acids. Most fruits will have a complex blend (oxalic, succinic and even vanillic and more will all feature, adding their own effects), and manipulating these will allow you to layer in brightness (acidity) as well as texture and a different presentation and hierarchy of your other flavors.
Effects of Using Acids in Cocktails
Lactic acid is produced by lactobacillus and gives the creamy tang to wines, yogurts and pickles. This gives a profound effect in areas where you wouldn’t necessarily identify a big ‘sharp’ profile. Think of a martini – not a drink where you’d associate acidity per se, but the sharpness the vermouth brings is a crucial aspect of the drink. In a similar manner, if you wanted to omit vermouth – perhaps in a vodka martini where you want to highlight the texture of the spirit – you can use a very low level of lactic acid to give a bright, creamy profile. Using a 5% solution and adding it like a bitters will allow you to dose this appropriately.
Phosphoric acid is an aggressive inorganic acid (as with all these elements, be careful storing and handling them, and do research to ensure you’re using a safe application – but especially so if working with phosphoric acid!). It behaves in an interesting way. As it’s not associated with anything you will have tasted in nature, you find a suggestion of zippy effervescence that comes from the most common occurrence of it – in fizzy drinks. Using it in a much lower concentration (1% – and ensuring its food grade), it can bring a surprising lift to a variety of drinks. Famously, the ‘Bone Dry Martini’ at White Lyan used phosphoric acid to break down roasted chicken bone for a mineral-led Martini where the zip of the acid helped dry out the drink. But using it in a sour will help add an extra layer of sherbet-y fizz like using a (vinegar-based) shrub does. Again, an example of how acidity can shape the profile of the flavors and textures that surround it.
There are of course many other forms – acetic acid found in vinegars is one of the most common – and doing a side-by-side comparison will allow you to see different nuances but employing them in practice really starts to demonstrate their role in creating new sets of balance. Mastering alternative acidulates in this way will give you a much wider base to create a whole host of new drinks.
Five Key Takeaways
- Acids do not only create balance in drinks, but they can also create different textures depending on the type of acid.
- Citrus acid is the most common, but try experimenting with malic, tartaric, or even phosphorus or lactic.
- Acids can also be used in combination, producing a wider variety of textures and flavors.
- Think not only about the acid itself, but how it can change the profile of flavors and textures around it.
- Do your research and ensure that the acids are food-grade and doses are safe.