Last summer, a small berry from West Africa commonly known as “miracle fruit” challenged my perception of flavor. This soft, red, coffee bean–sized berry has little in the way of actual flesh, and the entire fruit is filled with large seeds that taste like an unripened green grape—slightly tart and sweet.
But once eaten, miracle fruit has a remarkable transforming effect, and with its addition, drinks and foods that would normally be perceived as exceptionally sour become noticeably sweet. This isn’t to say that lemon juice turns candy-like when accompanied by miracle fruit, but acidic foods and drinks do develop less bite, and underlying layers of flavor become more perceptible.
But despite its ability to turn sour flavors sweeter, miracle fruit does not work like a traditional sweetener. The berries contain a glycoprotein that coats the tongue, changing the tastebuds’ perception of acidity to sweet. The effect can last anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. For maximum effect, Curtis Mozie, the sole commercial miracle fruit grower in the U.S., who sells the berries through his web site (miraclefruitman.com), recommends chewing the entire fruit for approximately 45 seconds to a minute, moving it continually through the mouth to ensure a complete coating of the palate before swallowing. Then taste a sour food or drink to experience the effect of the fruit.
The history of miracle fruit reaches back several centuries. In 1725, the French explorer Des Marchais noticed that West African natives would eat miracle fruit before consuming their traditionally sour foods. But the miraculous fruit didn’t migrate beyond Africa until the early 20th century, when USDA employee David Fairchild introduced it to the United States. The fruit grew in small quantities at a USDA agricultural station in Puerto Rico without much fanfare until the 1960s, when a group of American businessmen tried to market miraculin, an extract of the fruit, as a food additive for diabetics. Buried by a regulatory quagmire, miraculin never made it to market, and miracle fruit faded back into obscurity in the U.S.
Today, however, miracle fruit is beginning to gain some attention from adventurous cocktailians. As a bartender, my first experiments with the fruit involved eating it before sampling different juices—orange, grapefruit, lemon, lime and pineapple—to see how the flavors would transform. I was particularly intrigued by how the glycoprotein alters the taste of grapefruit and lemon juice. Grapefruit juice becomes a slightly sharper version of orange juice, while lemon juice tastes similar to lemonade. Lime juice maintains a sharp edge and doesn’t yield quite the depth of flavor that emerges in lemon juice, while pineapple juice becomes cloyingly sweet.
When it came time for actual cocktail experimentation, I chewed a miracle fruit and 45 seconds later drank a classic Corpse Reviver No. 2 (lemon juice, Lillet, pastis, gin and Cointreau). New layers of flavor surfaced, with pastis coming forward and the lemon’s acidity taking a backseat. It was enjoyable and eye-opening, showing more of a savory side than usual, and I discovered a different interpretation of one of my favorite cocktails. But not all cocktails remain as balanced as the Corpse Reviver No. 2 under the influence of miracle fruit. For instance, miracle fruit can disrupt the delicate balance of an Aviation, which contains too little acid and just enough residual sugar in the maraschino.
While I don’t expect miracle fruit to become a bar staple in the near future, it does offer bartenders and cocktail enthusiasts one more option in their repertoire of ingredients, and classic and new cocktails are perfect canvases for experimenting. But there are rules. Some may want to use miracle fruit to create drinks with multiple flavor profiles, while others may challenge themselves to re-interpret a classic cocktail, but in order to use miracle fruit successfully, a significant amount of acid or bitterness must be present in a drink’s accompanying ingredients. Background flavors should also be carefully considered, because they may move into a starring role once miracle fruit enters the equation.
The most exciting challenge in creating miracle fruit cocktails can be trying to craft a balanced drink that remains harmonious as the miracle fruit takes effect. Achieving that balance can be tricky, so it helps to taste ingredients individually and separately when they are under the influence of the fruit. Using miracle fruit as a garnish—rather than mixing it into a cocktail—is also a good introduction to the ingredient, because it allows you to easily control the flavor profile of a cocktail, and to taste the drink with and without the magical powers of miracle fruit.
Story by Lance J. Mayhew