The Bar Code: How to Make Summer Cocktails During the Lime Shortage

For those of us who came of age during the current cocktail renaissance, it’s easy to take fresh-squeezed fruit juices for granted. After all, it’s a rare bar that still uses Rose’s Lime for anything other than attracting fruit flies. Yet the current lime shortage, due both to drought and the insidious impact of Mexican drug cartels, is forcing us to re-evaluate a slew of summertime drinks. That’s right, it’s more than just idle bar talk: We’re facing a full-on disaster here. A “limeageddon,” if you will (sorry for that one).

The problem is twofold. Limes are scarcer and thus more expensive, and the ones we’re getting are generally poorer in quality: dry and mealy, not lush and ripe. Bars and bartenders throughout Seattle are grappling with the issue, as are cocktail drinkers.

The simplest solution is to use something other than fresh lime juice to approximate the taste. Rose’s Lime Juice is a blend of high-fructose corn syrup and lime juice concentrate, and as such has a few strikes against it. One, high-fructose corn syrup; two, it only slightly tastes like actual limes. Other lime-juice concentrates suffer from the same problem: The taste can’t really compare to fresh lime juice, and in drinks where lime juice is a key ingredient, the drop-off is noticeable.

There have also been a lot of substitutions of lemons for limes, and while that might be acceptable for garnishing a drink, it rarely passes muster in an actual cocktail—mostly because lemons are higher in acid and tend to be more astringent than limes, and those differences can wreak havoc with a cocktail’s balance.

For example, in that most classic of lime-based drinks, the margarita, using lemon juice would produce a nearly undrinkable beverage. Instead I like to use a combination of grapefruit and lemon juices, in a ratio of about two to one, to maintain some of the cocktail’s sweetness and depth of flavor. In general, tequila takes well to most citrus fruits, so you can play with other combinations (maybe orange juice, if you like sweeter drinks).

Rum drinks, unfortunately, are much less flexible. For whatever reason, rum tends to really work well only with lime. In particular, mojito season is going to get ugly this year, leaving bars with a very difficult choice: tinker with a much-loved drink, or make it with crappy lime juice. I wish I had a solution, but the best I can say is that if you load up on the mint, you can probably cover up some of the less-pleasant aspects of lime-juice concentrate.

The place I might miss limes the most will be as a garnish in a gin and tonic; here again the choices are a bit grim, as lemons don’t do the trick. I’d encourage you to consider a cucumber slice instead; it doesn’t have a lime’s tartness, but the cooling quality is damn pleasant on a warm summer day.

Whatever the solution, the current lime shortage is forcing bartenders and drinkers alike to confront what might become a growing issue in the bar community. Between climate change, increased transport costs, and the volatility of the global economy, being able to find fresh, inexpensive citrus year-round might not be a reality in colder climes like Seattle in the future. If so, it’ll be more than just our drinks that suffer.

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