Using acids in cocktails - Tips, recipes & tricks!
Updated: Mar 29
One of the most powerful tools in the modern bartenders arsenal & one of the techniques that has become more & more present in cocktail bars around the world is use of acids as replacement for citrus in cocktails. Through the ‘Molecular Mixology’ revolution that has swept the bartending world all over we have started experimenting with citric, malic, tartaric & ascorbic acids frequently.
One of the important things to understand is that acids are all around us in different concentrations in most of the natural food we consume whether we taste the ‘sour’ flavour or not in that specific item. Today we’re going to dive into the subject as history, uses & tips of how to use them in your drinks!
Citric, Malic & Ascorbic Acid The most common trio of the acid world & the easiest to get your hands on from beer home-brewing, wine-making & gym online shops around the world. In terms of strength Citric happens to the be the most aggressive & is the usual one found in Lemons & Lime whilst Malic is the predominant flavour of acidity in green apples such the Granny Smith variety. Ascorbic acid can be always called by its alternative name - Vitamin C Powder - & is the lightest in acidity as well as flavour but has the great use of helping stop oxidisation of fresh juices. Back in the day when I worked behind the bar we used to juice green apples for a cocktail almost daily. We would juice the first 3 into about 20g of Ascorbic acid powder, mix to create a solution & then juice the rest. The low acidity of Ascorbic acid stopped the apple juice from oxidising & going cloudy at the same time we could use pH sticks later & add malic acid to the correct level we needed for our final product. This way we replaced lime & lemon juice in some of our ‘Sours’ with an acid-adjusted green apple juice. Tasty.
Tartaric & Acetic Acid The above duo are 2 more naturally occurring acids in the great big world out there. Tartaric is the one found as the predominant acid in grapes with higher concentrations in unripe ones & acetic is the acid that makes vinegar what it is. Tartaric also occurs in smaller doses in things like lime juice & a careful balance can be made to use its unique flavour profile when adding it to cocktails. Again tartaric acid can be found as a powder online & is usually sold in online stores for home wine-making kits. Acetic acid will be much more harder to come across for the regular bartender & is corrosive at higher concentration so should definitely be handled with care. The flavour profile really gets you in the back of the next just like swallowing pure vinegar would be. I still haven’t found a good use for the ingredient.
This is another one you can find online & another one that can burn your hands & eyes out. Phosphoric acid was even once used by a cereal killer to dissolve his victims so if thats not fair warning to anyone ignoring my warnings then I don’t know what is. It is an ‘inorganic’ acid that does not occur naturally in the world of the living & is synthesised to be used mainly in the food industry. It occurs in all your sweet fizzy drinks & can be found on the label in the back of brands like Coca-Cola for example. It is by itself a more neutral acid that doesn’t quite bring much to the party but it does boost other flavours in a unique way. Call it the vodka of the acid world & think of it this way - it makes everything else shine brighter!
This is the last of the common bunch you can get your hands on & one of the least played with due to its unique qualities. This is also the acidic flavour in kefir, yoghurt & part of the whole ‘lacto-fermentation trend’ as well as in cheese making. Slightly higher in pH than citric or malic & with an interesting tang it is unique in giving cocktails a rounder more fuller mouthfeel. Just test it for yourself!
Below is also a graph I’ve found to help you understand & dive into the world of acids. It should serve as a handy guide of where they can be found & maybe inspire you to use them in the flavour pairings or you could contrast them completely I don’t particularly care. You do you fellow bartender…you do you!
Other thoughts The key in using acids in your concoctions is CONTROL & BALANCE in everything you work with when it comes to acids. Most of the time it is best to dilute acids into water solutions that allows for better control of the pH of the ingredients. I’ve used acids in puree’s, syrups, infusions & even in spirits with every different final product the approach has to be measured & controlled. If you’re making fruit syrups or purees you have to measure the existing pH of the raw products before adding your acids. This is to allow for a final cocktail component to be consistent throughout the length of the menu it is listed it on.
I’ve talked before about the importance of CONCENTRATION of flavours when it comes to cocktail creation. The same methodology can be applied here when it comes to the use of acids & you have to always think about the final cocktail you’re going to have to create with this ingredient PLUS dilution through water. Your syrup/puree/solution might taste balanced on its own but could completely lost itself & all flavour by the time you’ve added all the other ingredients & shaken the cocktail. Alway bear this in mind when working with ANY flavours but acids in particular as they can easily make or break a drink & ruin a guests experience.
RECIPES Find below some basic recipes for making acid solutions stolen from the bartenders behind White Lyan, Superlyan etc. To Make a Citric Acid 10% Solution: Combine 10 grams of citric acid powder with 100 grams of water. Whisk to dissolve and bottle. To Make a Malic Acid 10% Solution: Combine 10 grams of malic acid powder with 100 grams of water. Whisk to dissolve and bottle. To Make a Lactic Acid 5% Solution: Combine 5 grams of lactic acid (usually comes as a 70 percent solution) with 100 grams of water. Stir to blend, and bottle. To Make a Phosphoric Acid 1.25% Solution: Combine 1.25 grams of food-grade phosphoric acid (usually comes as a 75 percent solution) with 100 grams of water. Whisk to dissolve and bottle. SAFETY:
Acids are by nature corrosive and one should always be careful when handling them. The easiest, safest and most consistent way is to make acid solutions by mixing powders (or liquids in the case of lactic and phosphoric acids) with water. Do still handle them with care.
The solutions keep a long time and technically don’t have an expiration date.
To use acids in drinks, use a dasher or a pipette.
Always keep your solutions and acids in glass containers. Avoid plastic or metal.
The easiest place to source all acids is online, but do make sure they’re food grade.