FOR ME, A COCKTAIL can never be too tart. Give me your margaritas, your whiskey sours, lemon drops and cosmopolitans. I’m the person leaning on the bar desperately trying to flag down the bartender for “extra limes … a few more, maybe … maybe a couple more … maybe just give me that bottle of juice you have back there; thanks.”

So I am oddly delighted that modern science is creeping its robotic tendrils into my craft cocktails with the not entirely new, but newly popular, concept of acid-adjusted drinks. Acidulation, or acid-adjusting, is the practice of tweaking the acid level in candy, food or drinks to lower the pH. This usually is done with acid powders such as citric acid, which occurs naturally in fruits.

I will not lie to you about this process: It is not as appealingly crunchy as, say, artfully distressed European peasants distilling down mountains of limes in a Paleolithic cave. The various methods of producing these acidulating agents are industrial and can involve treating citrus fruits with the other kind of lime (calcium hydroxide), or harnessing the metabolic functions of various molds, like aspergillum or penicillium. It is not a terribly Instagrammable process. But the result can be photogenic, depending on where you get your favorite photo-ready cocktails.

Acid-adjusting is a useful trick because, apart from lemons and limes, citrus fruits are not always particularly tart. The flavor of unadulterated orange juice can get lost among the litany of liqueurs and vermouths and smoky mezcals that surround it, so if you want the juice to be more than a diluting agent or a whisper, a little citric acid can make that juice note pop.

This does wonders for normally muted flavors such as grapefruit or pomelo, and it is not limited to citrus fruits. Anything with acid — strawberries, kiwis, apples — can be made to sing a little louder by adding lactic or citric acid to a reduced syrup, for example, or a prepared juice mixer. If you are completely opposed to the concept of powdered acid, you also can make a drink more tart with the addition of vinegars, as with shrubs, although the vinegar will bring its own flavor notes to the party.


This is not to say that acid-adjusting is an argument for fake citrus juice. Replacing fresh lime juice with the bottled stuff — generally just citric acid, lime oil, a little lime concentrate and preservatives — will result in a drink that just tastes like the kind of candy you’re disappointed to get on Halloween: thin, sour rather than tart, and cheap. Anytime you start monkeying with chemical powders or -ites, -ates and -enes, you need to remain anchored in the fresh. Add a little citric acid to, say, some fresh pineapple juice; don’t replace the pineapple juice.

I most recently had an acidulated cocktail at Founders Club, the not-so-secret speak-easy tucked behind the bookshelf at the Fairmont Olympic Hotel. The signature flavor was orange, and the result was more orange than orange, like a child’s memory of an orange: not quite candy but not natural, either, like an orange wearing prom makeup.

The drink was called “Many the Miles” and featured tequila and orgeat, both of which are strong flavors that generally would have relegated the orange juice into a refreshing but subtle miasma in the background of the palate. But this orange burst through like a sunrise. It was sharp and mouth-puckering and undeniably orangy, if that orange came from Willy Wonka’s factory, that is. It didn’t taste fake. Properly acidulated flavors don’t taste artificial; they just taste as if that flavor, usually so subtle, put on some glitter before it came onstage. And really, with the world opening back up, couldn’t we all stand to sparkle just a little?