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How Citrus Transforms Cocktails

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a cocktail with citrus in it. If you’ve enjoyed a few cocktails in your life, then your hand is probably raised right now, because there are countless cocktail recipes that call for citrus as an ingredient and/or as a garnish. Why is that? Because citrus has the power to transform any beverage—either enhancing flavors or taming them, depending on the other spirits or bitters that are in play (2017).

Citrus has a deep history in the spirits world. In the days where long sea voyages were commonplace, they were always on hand to treat Vitamin C deficiencies (which led to scurvy). Sailors would actually drink spirits (like rum or gin) to counter the sour citrus. It was discovered that the more sour citruses, like lemons and limes, actually tasted better when a bitter agent was in the mix (Shenton, 2016).

Why does citrus have the power to transform cocktails?

Citrus–such as limes, lemons, oranges and grapefruits–are acidic. That acidity can tame the burn of ethanol, while simultaneously adding a bright flavor to your drink. Beyond that, each type of citrus has a different level of citric acid and sugar. The amount of citric acid and sugar in each fruit will determine how “sour” we perceive the flavor (Liu, 2018). For example, oranges are low in citric acid but high in sugar, so we perceive those to be more sweet, whereas a lime is high in citric acid but low in sugar, so we perceive those to be more sour.

There are numerous drinks that have been made popular in the spirit world using citrus, such as the Old Fashioned cocktail with its essential orange slice or the slice of lime that closely follows a shot of tequila (2017). Attempting to sub one citrus for another in a tried-and-true drink combination would result in a much different flavor profile, throwing off the balance and making the drink too sour or too sweet. As an example, a strong, unaged alcohol such as vodka pairs really well with lemon because the lemon’s acidity balances the strong flavor, cutting through the ethanol. In contrast, lemon has the ability to overpower a more subtle spirit (Liu, 2018).

A common question that arises when it comes to citrus is whether it really matters if you use fresh squeezed citrus in your cocktails. In the bartending world, the recommendation is always for fresh squeezed juice, but it really depends on what you’re trying to enjoy, and what you consider to be fresh. Juice that sits out will begin to lose its aromatic compounds, reducing the flavors and aromas. With lemons and limes, freshly squeezed juice that sits out for several hours can actually improve the flavor, as air can reduce the sour taste in the citric acid (Shenton, 2016).

Taylor Sacco shaking a cocktail

Lastly, you’ve likely heard this common rule of thumb—to shake if there's citrus, and stir if there's not. The pulp in citrus can create a light or frothy texture in cocktails rather than the velvety texture of a stirred cocktail. The act of shaking opens up the appealing citrus aromas. Shaking also mixes the citrus more thoroughly in with the spirit, whereas when you stir, the ingredients may separate before you have an opportunity to enjoy your drink. (The same rule applies to cocktails with egg whites. Never stir, always shake!) 

When you order a cocktail at a bar, you might not think very long about the ingredients. You might not realize that each item is working in harmony to create a delicate and delicious balance of flavor, but that’s exactly what is happening, and that’s especially true when it comes to citrus in your drinks. The acid and sugar content of citrus is working in concert with all the other ingredients to enhance or tame flavors. It’s a science, really. Luckily, hundreds of years of skillful bartenders have done a lot of the heavy lifting for us, so we don’t have to guess what goes best with each spirit. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with a little experimenting if you prefer things a little more sweet, or a little more sour. 

Happy mixing!

Written and edited by Brianne Lucas. Published July 18, 2022.

S. (2017, July 7). The Importance of Citrus in Bartending. Sunday’s Grocery | Buy Our Goods Online. Retrieved July 15, 2022, from

Liu, K. (2018, August 9). Cocktail Science: 8 Tips and Tricks For Getting the Most Out of Citrus. Serious Eats. Retrieved July 15, 2022, from

Shenton, W. (2016, April 25). Why Cocktails Love Citrus. Bevvy. Retrieved July 15, 2022, from

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