Classic cocktail lovers know the key role citrus plays in their beloved libations. What would a Daiquiri, Mule or Margarita be without fresh lime, a Shandy, Sidecar or Whiskey Sour without lemon, a Manhattan without orange bitters and a Paloma without grapefruit? Think of the role citrus plays as a garnish, finishing a cocktail with a twist of zest, a slice of peel, a fresh orange round or a lime wedge. Clearly, besides spirits, citrus may be the key ingredient in cocktails. Finally, citrus is one of the key profiles in flavored beers.
Just to be sure we are on the same page, if you look at over 100 classic cocktails, approximately 90% contain some element of citrus, 60% contain citrus juice; and 35% contain a form of citrus bitters, zest or expressed oils. There is no denying that whether crafted behind the bar or sipped from a ready-to-drink bottle, fresh citrus is an essential component of many cocktails.
But why is citrus a key component in cocktails? Because it has so much to offer. Citrus brings acidity, it drives flavor complexity and how do you signify freshness in an alcoholic beverage? With a squeeze of lime, a twist of lemon, a slice of orange or freshly squeezed grapefruit juice.
To gain an even deeper understanding, we hosted our TasteTrek® Citrus Spirited Champions event. Before going further, if you are not familiar with our TasteTrek® Citrus program at the Givaudan Citrus Variety Collection (GCVC) at the University of California Riverside, you may want to invest a few minutes in checking this out – it details the GCVC.
Givaudan’s TasteTrek® Citrus Spirited Champions
We invited seven spirit industry experts (bartenders) from around the country to join us at the GCVC to explore this historical citrus treasure with our team. We walked among the trees draped with brightly colored citrus fruit and branches decorated with fruit of every shape and size. Along the way, we stopped at trees and picked the fruit, zesting and tasting the rare citrus varieties while chatting about using them to reinvent classic cocktails or create unique, new beverages.
As we walked among the trees we collected samples of our favorite citrus for use in the upcoming beverage creation competition, part of our event. We sampled and gathered over twenty-five different rare and unique citrus varietals. We sampled fruit like the Calamondin Kumquat Hybrid, Lapithiotiki Lemon, Hawaiian Pummelo, Excalibur Red Lime Hybrid, Shahani Sweet Orange, Zhulan Sour Orange, Bitrouni Lemon Hybrid and Taveras Limequat.
“I Can Describe that Citrus Fruit’s Flavor in Five Words…”
After collecting the fruit in the grove, we assigned them descriptors – it was fun to listen to the clever and original descriptors the bartenders assigned and to hear their banter about where they would use a specific citrus if they had it behind the bar. Above is an example of the Taveras Limequat.
“I’m Thirsty – Let’s Create Cocktails”
The next day the friendly cocktail (and mocktail) creation session (competition) commenced, and what a fun day it was. The competition was fierce, and along with citrus juice, creative juices were also flowing. Here are some of my memorable creations.
The Grove Soda entailed five different citrus fruits – Red Pummelo, Tieu Mandarin, Lapithiotiki Lemon, Dalandan Orange and Excalibur Red Lime blended with strawberries and a non-alcohol-like spirit that tastes like an English country garden in a bottle. This was just a perfect citrus agglomeration with sweet red, berry and green garden notes.
Summer Wine refresher used the most ingredients, including three citrus fruits – the Marumi Kumquat, Italian Pink Fleshed Lemon and Tieu Mandarin blended with carrot, mandarin leaf, Niagara grape, rose and vermouth. It was a little savory and so perfectly balanced.
Dalandan Dirty Chai stood out from the Cafe session. It expertly marries coffee, chai spice, coconut, and citrus, highlighting the Dalandan Orange, a popular variety from the Philippines, and the Millsweet Limetta, famous for its sharp lemon and lime blended with peppery notes.
And finally, from our high-proof session, a shining stand-out for me is the Scotchy Scotch Scotch – which highlights the Rex Union Pummelo with strawberry and raspberry jam flavors, warm brown spices, and yep, you guessed it – Scotch. I typically am not a Scotch fan, but I loved this, and I still recall the creator’s comment about it “Makes me think of a T-Rex wearing a Scotch plaid kilt.” Maybe the visual is why I like it – a T-Rex holding this cocktail in his tiny hands attached to his tiny arms and drinking it from a long bamboo straw because he cannot reach his mouth.
Why is Citrus a Component in 90% of All Classic Cocktails?
- Because it is acidic,
- Brings body and mouthfeel with its juice and pulp,
- The flavor is complex
- A squeeze from a citrus wedge signifies freshness to our nose and tongue.
Let’s explore the complexity – the descriptors I shared from the Taveras Limequat demonstrates the flavor complexity of citrus – grassy, peppery, lemongrass, melon, candy lime, citral, celeriac, green apple and malic acid. Other stand-out descriptors from the around 25 citrus fruits we tasted include: green cardamom, dried cranberries, eucalyptus, smoky, brown sugar, grape, beet, “chicken soup” note, sweet bell pepper, animalic or barnyard, “funky juice,” honey and Honeycrisp apple, curry leaf, pear, lily of the field- I could go on and on and some might say I did go on and on.