How to Use Citric Acid in Cocktails

citric acid in cocktails

The Laurel Canyon cocktail at Estrella brings acid to the house tonic syrup for extra zip.

Citric acid, the same acid found in lemon juice, is one of those ubiquitous ingredients on food and drink labels, and lately, it’s also been popping up in cocktails as bartenders use it to mimic the flavor of citrus.

At Otaku Ramen in Nashville, bartender and partner Ben Clemons says citric acid is especially useful in batched cocktails. “Punches and large-format cocktails are only good for a few hours because fresh juice, just like anything else ‘living,’ begins to go bad the moment it’s juiced,” he says. “Citric acid allows you to balance sour with sweet without using organic, shelf-unstable ingredients.”

Citric acid (as well as malic acid) can also be used to amp up the acidity level of fresh juice. Picture pineapple juice but with the tangy zip of lemon, or fresh orange juice that can balance a cocktail with the acidity levels of lime juice. “The addition of citric or malic acids aids in ensuring consistent flavor and pH,” says Gaby Mlynarczyk, Los Angeles-based bartender and menu consultant at spots like Accomplice and Vacation. “It does maintain flavor [of the juice], but it needs to be used sooner rather than later, as it tends to lose its zip.”

Bartenders have found a variety of other uses for citric acid, too. Darwin Pornel, lead bartender at Faith & Flower in Los Angeles, makes a syrup with the ingredient, combining a teaspoon of the powder with sugar, water, chili flakes, anise, lemon zest and salt. When mixed with club soda or into a cocktail like the Rye With Me (below), the syrup adds the same brightness of real juice. Meanwhile, Gia St. George at Estrella uses citric acid to add an edge to the bar’s house tonic syrup (also below).

The use of citric acid has another unexpected benefit at the bar: it helps reduce ingredient waste. Bars like Ryan Chetiyawardana’s Mr. Lyan bar group in the UK have long tinkered with alternative acids in cocktails to reduce the need for fresh citrus juice, and stateside bars like Pouring Ribbons, MAD and Bad Hunter have followed suit.

In Chicago, Bad Hunter bar manager Vinny Starble doesn’t throw away pounds of spent lemon and lime hulls after every service because none of the cocktails call for fresh citrus juice. “The choice to not use citrus came from wanting to focus on seasonal and local produce (citrus being a winter fruit), thinking about different types of acids and what they taste like (citric, malic, tartaric, acetic and all acids have different affects on the palate), and attempting to reduce our waste as a bar program,” Starble says, adding that the process has been a satisfying creative challenge to make drinks that are still balanced and approachable. “Creating drinks without citrus juices has been difficult in the sense that we’ve had to think outside of the cannon of cocktails all bartenders have used as inspiration for decades. This has allowed us to focus on flavor.”

In powder form, you can easily buy citric acid online or in grocery stores, and once you do, try mixing it into these cocktails.

Rye With Me
1½ oz. rye whiskey
¾ oz. chili-anise syrup
2 dashes orange bitters
2-4 oz club soda
Tools: shaker, strainer
Glass: Collins
Garnish: lemon wheel

In a shaker, add all ingredients except the club soda. Shake and strain over fresh ice in a highball or Collins glass. Top with soda and garnish with a wheel of lemon.

Chili Anise Syrup
8 star anise pods
1 tsp. red chili flake
2 cups white sugar
2 cups water
1 tsp. citric acid
1 tsp. salt
2 lemons

In a medium pot, toast the chili flakse and star anise over medium-high heat. Add the water to the pot and simmer for 5 minutes over medium-high heat. Once the spices and water have fully blended, turn off the heat, add the sugar and salt. Whisk until the sugar and salt are dissolved. Using a microplane, add the zest of 2 lemons to the syrup. Add the contents to a blender and blend on high. Strain the syrup through a fine chinois and paper filter. Add the citric acid. Whisk until the citric acid is dissolved.

Darwin Pornel, Faith & Flower, Los Angeles

Laurel Canyon (pictured) 
1½ oz. gin
¾ oz. tonic syrup
3 oz. soda water
Tools: barspoon
Glass: highball

Combine the gin and tonic syrup in a highball and stir to combine. Add ice and top with soda water.

Estrella Tonic Syrup
3½ cups of water
3½ cups of sugar
¼ cup chopped cinchona bark
¼ cup citric acid
3 limes (peels only)
3 lemons (peels only)
2 oranges (peels only)
1 stalk lemongrass (chopped)
4 whole allspice berries
3 cardamom pods
1 tablespoon dried lavender

Put all ingredients in a saucepan and bring to a simmer. Allow the liquid to simmer until it thickens to a syrup consistency. Remove from the heat and let cool before straining the syrup into a container. Keep refrigerated for up to 2 weeks.

Gia St. George, Estrella, Los Angeles