Being a fine upstanding cocktailian such as yourself, I'm sure you've heard about the current lime shortage, or at least noticed the alarming uptick in prices. The produce aisle of the grocery store is now the scene of little-peeling-sticker shock. Wholesale prices have at least quintupled, due to a perfect storm of bad weather, a citrus blight in some areas, low production season in others, and even drug cartels blocking the roads and extorting truck drivers, which of course disrupts the supply chain greatly. Airlines are dropping limes from their beverage service, and bartenders are doing all sorts of things to cope with the current crisis.
Which is what brings us to this post. Slate contributed its idea for substitutions: "Lemons. Use lemons. Come on, people, this isn't rocket science", going on to note that "Lemon juice and zest work well in place of their lime counterparts in virtually every recipe." So that's it, right? End of discussion, game over, and why are we bothering to suss this out? The post drew lots of comments (including from your humble correspondent, who Slate quoted in their followup) pointing out that actually, lemons and limes aren't exactly the same thing, and taste different. Slate then responded with a cute video in which blindfolded staff members can successfully distinguish limes and lemons 74% of the time. No word if they're backing away from L.V. Anderson's original assertion that lemons were just fine in everything usually requiring limes.
But yeah, surely everybody can tell the difference when you're sucking on a wedge of something sour -- or at least 74% of the Slate staff can -- but that's not how we typically use citrus. We zest it, or we use the juice mixed in with other things. And as cocktailians, we decided to conduct our own tests: can you tell the difference between limes and lemons in a drink? And up against various substitutes for fresh limes, can you distinguish the real thing, and which do you prefer?
I enlisted Cocktailians co-author Tony Hightower and frequent Cocktailians Guest Star Joanna Scutts in the single-blind experiment. I made nineteen different half-size portions of five different cocktails, all chosen because they're sours that really showcase the interplay between a different spirit, a sweetener, and the citrus. Three of the cocktails chosen classically use lime, and two classically use lemon. Four of the five use different base spirits from one another (and the fifth uses a combination of aged spirits, so it's a different animal anyway.) I used commonly-accepted proportions for each recipe, straight out of the Museum of the American Cocktail's recipe guide, from Robert Hess and Anistatia Miller. And I presented all the drinks up, without garnish, giving the citrus no place to hide.
For the lemon cocktails, I made versions with lemon juice and lime juice, and asked Tony and Jo to see if they could tell the difference, and if so, which one they preferred. For the lime cocktails, I did the same, but also made versions using three substitutes for lime juice. I mixed all the cocktails in another room, and Tony and Jo didn't know which was which. (I also tasted the cocktails and recorded my preferences, but since I'd recorded which drink was in which glass, it wasn't a blind test for me like it was for them.) And to correct for any variations with individual fruit, I juiced six large limes and six large lemons and combined each fruit's juice in a nonreactive measuring cup. We had lots of seltzer in between each drink to keep our palates nice and cleansed.
- The Daiquiri (2 oz. Cruzan light rum, 1/2 oz. lime juice*, 1 tsp rich Demerara simple syrup)
- The Aviation (2 oz. Ford's Gin, 1/2 oz. Maraska Maraschino liqueur, 1/4 oz. lemon juice*)
- The Margarita (1 1/2 oz. Maestro Dobel tequila, 1 oz. Cointreau, 1/2 oz. lime juice*)
- The Mai Tai (1 oz. Appleton V/X Jamaican rum, 1 oz. El Dorado 5 Demerara rum, 1/2 oz. Cointreau, 1/2 oz. Fee Brothers Orgeat, 1/2 oz. lime juice*)
- The Whiskey Sour (2 oz. Buffalo Trace bourbon, 3/4 oz. lemon juice*, 1/2 oz. rich Demerara simple syrup, 2 dashes Angostura bitters)
* Lime juice was of course switched out with lemon and the other substitutes, as described above.
The Contenders (the Days of Lime and Rose's?)
- Fresh-squeezed lime juice (unaged)
- Fresh-squeezed lemon juice
- Sicilia lime juice from the little plastic lime, made from Peruvian lime concentrate, lime oil, and water, preserved with sulphur dioxide (I should point out here that the Pegu Blog conducted a bottled-lime-juice taste test a little while back)
- Rose's Lime Juice, which is actually a lime cordial, made from water, high-fructose corn syrup, lime juice concentrate, natural flavors, and FD&C Blue No. 1, preserved with sodium metabisulfite
- Extinct Chemical Company Acid Phosphate, a partially-neutralized phosphoric acid, used in soda-fountain phosphate drinks since 1868. The Art of Drink describes it as a "'blank palate' sour flavor" that brings a sour taste without any of the other flavor characteristics found in citric or lactic acids.
Were I to try this again, I'd further complicate it by also trying some sort of vinegar or shrub as an acid, as well as key limes, Meyer lemons, a solution of straight citric acid, Employees Only's kaffir-leaf lime cordial, and also by trying some lightly aged lime juice.
Prior to making the drinks, I had Tony and Jo close their eyes, and handed them each identically cut wedges of lime and lemon and asked them to determine which was which. They tasted and both of them could correctly identify them.
We started our drinks with one of the classic lime cocktails, the Daiquiri. With sugar as the only sweetener and no flavor from anything else besides the rum, the citrus really has to shine in this one. The five drinks were very different, and if you couldn't tell the difference, you really should be drinking one of those frozen grain-alcohol "Daiquiris" sold on Bourbon Street. Tony and Jo both declared the real lime their favorite. Tony's second-favorite was the Rose's Daiquiri, and Jo's second-favorite was the lemon. Jo observed that the lemon Daiquiri was a less-integrated drink than the lime, and that it abruptly pivoted from sweet to sour. Both described the Sicilia plastic lime drink as off-puttting, and the Daiquiri made from acid phosphate was just bad, with an aroma and flavor described as "old bread", "plastic-y", and "chemistry set."
The Aviation was next, and because it was a lemon cocktail, I just made versions with lemon and lime juice. We could instantly tell the difference, and all agreed that the lemon version was superior to the lime.
For the Margarita, the fresh-squeezed citrus once again beat out all the substitutes. The real lime Margarita was Jo's favorite and Tony's second-favorite, and those choices were reversed with the lemon Margarita. The acid phosphate Margarita was "horrible", the Rose's was described as "not awful" and "fake-tasting", and the Sicilia plastic-lime drink was described as tasting "a little medicinal, but not bad", and was Tony and Jo's third-favorite each. We were surprised that the Margarita, probably the cocktail that most people would name if you asked them to come up with a drink involving lime, worked so well with a lemon. And that if you weren't tasting them side-by-side, if you got a lemon Margarita at a bar (or a plastic-lime Margarita at a lower-end bar), you might not send them back.
The Mai Tai's results were similar to the Margarita's: the real lime was Tony's first choice and Jo's second, while the real lemon was Jo's first choice and Tony's second. Jo observed that she quite liked the acid phosphate Mai Tai, but that the lack of citrus flavor made the drink more almondy, with the orgeat's flavor coming through much more cleanly. Tony agreed, pointing out that the Rose's Mai Tai was very orgeat-forward, and the lime flavor just disappeared into the drink. All agreed that the Sicilia plastic-lime Mai Tai was flatter, with a chemical finish, and not nearly as much depth as the other drinks. "It's all in the nose," Tony noted.
And with the Whiskey Sour, lemon was the clear favorite. The lime version was described as "spiky, angular, all knees and elbows", while lemon was "smoother, fuller, better integrated into the drink." There's a reason bourbon and lemons are such a great combination.
Well, there's absolutely a discernible difference between lemons and limes, under almost any conditions. 74% of Slate staffers agree, and so did our single-blind tasting panel, pitilessly stacking them up against each other. When it came to drinks, fresh citrus was head and shoulders above the other alternatives, but somewhat to our surprise, lemon could work well in some lime-focused drinks even if it was identifiably different from the original. (Check the chart and writeup at point #3 of this Serious Eats: Drinks article, on perceptions of sourness with differing sugar levels.) And, while you can sometimes substitute lemon for lime, you go the other way and put lime in lemon drinks at your peril.
My suggestion to cocktail bars? Rather than fake the funk, perhaps concentrate on more of the brown-bitter-and-stirred type drinks and minimize the sours for the time being. Or, you could offer a "Cartel Margarita" made with lemon, and explain the reasons for the shortage while presenting a different variation on a classic.