Lemon vs. Lime: Everything is Science

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The Whiskey Sour, Sidecar, Daiquiri and Margarita are all drinks that follow rules. These rules were not necessarily created by us aloud, yet they passively dictate the structure of nearly every citrus cocktail I’ve come across – at least the mainstream players. The Whiskey Sour and Sidecar use brown spirits and lemon juice, while the Daiquiri and Margarita prefer white spirits and lime juice. And it all fits, gosh dang it. Ever have a Whiskey Sour with lime juice or a Daiquiri with lemon? Not quite right.

Now, you might be the kind of person who likes strange, parallel-universe versions of the classics, but we can’t argue that the popular cocktails became what they are because more people preferred them a certain way. Contrarian or not, the masses will dictate what’s written in books to some degree.

So, we’re aware that most people like a Whiskey Sour with aged whiskey and lemon juice, and a Daiquiri with white rum and lime juice. But there has to be an explanation, right? Right. Let’s start with the juices: both lemon and lime juice are roughly a 6% acid solution, meaning that 6% of the weight of their juice is acid. In the case of lemon juice, this is mostly citric acid, and in the case of lime juice, it’s a combination of citric and malic acid. Citric acid hits your palate right away and fades quickly. Lemon juice is the embodiment of citric acid, to me. Malic acid hits a bit delayed and sticks around a touch longer. For an example of lime juice’s malic acid, think cranberries or tart green apples.

To summarize the differences, lemon juice hits you up front then fades quickly, and lime juice hits a little in the front, and continues to do so as the malic acid takes over for the citric. The important difference between these two juices, for the sake of this argument, is that lemon juice has very little in the middle, and lime juice is full of it.

Brown spirits – at least those that turn brown because they spend time in wooden barrels – gain polyphenols, which largely hit our palates in the middle. In the case of unaged spirits, such as tequila and rum, which do not gain these chemical compounds, they lack the middle aggression of the aforementioned dark spirits. We want our drinks to have body, but we don’t want to go on a rollercoaster ride, right? If you take a sip of your Daiquiri, you’ll find the ethyl alcohol and citric acid hit you up front, then fade away to make room for the malic acid to make its impression in the middle. The Whiskey Sour you’re about to drink will still have that ethyl alcohol and citric acid up front, but as they fade, they make room for the polyphenols added from wooden barrel aging.

Just like in a puzzle, certain pieces fit together, and others don’t. Sometimes you can press really hard and get them to fit together all ramshackle, but there’s nothing like a piece that fits perfectly. By following this simple rule, you can find your favorite drink’s practically perfect pieces: white spirits with lime, dark spirits with lemon. If you for some reason forget this rule, you may refer to the classics for advice – most of them will steer you in the proper direction.

Your guests may drink whatever they like best, but may you help them better find what they like now that you’ve read this!

 

Don’t miss Donny Clutterbuck’s informative 2018 Nightclub & Bar Show session “When Life Gives You Limes,” an exploration of balancing cocktails before they’ve even been made. You’ll also learn how to extend the life of your painstakingly fresh-squeezed juices.