Back in college, I got what I thought would be a great job at a bookstore. I imagined reading breaks, helping customers discover new writers, but mostly it turned out to be restocking and trying to avoid the backroom, where the guy who handled magazine receiving daily held up copies of Hustler, open to the centerfolds, yelling, “Hey Carrie, this one looks like you!”
As a freckly redheaded person, I found it amazing how many women — tiny Latinas, triple-D blondes — seemed to resemble me.
I cherished my lunch breaks.
During them, I would walk over to The Fancypants Grocery Store, which carried foodstuffs I’d never seen: loaves of brioche and tins of caviar, pomegranates and jars of aioli (what mayonnaise starts calling itself after spending a semester in Paris).
I could afford none of them. But once a week I would splurge on a pint of fresh-squeezed orange juice. This juice was a revelation. In our home, orange juice came frozen, in cardboard tubes, dropping with a slorrrrp into a plastic pitcher to be diluted with water. Genuine fresh orange juice was nothing like that. It tasted like liquid sunlight.
Imagine my bewilderment when, years later, I entered the world of cocktails and discovered that this ambrosia is seen by many bartenders as the fruta non grata of the citrus world. If it weren’t for their peels, which exude fragrant oil to twist over drinks and rub over glass rims, many bars probably wouldn’t even stock them. The remnants of oranges — about 95 percent once they’ve been stripped of peel — tend to pile up wastefully behind bars, their shaved circumferences gradually drying out. Per various condemnations I’ve heard over the years, OJ is weak, boring, murky and adds nothing to a drink. A few times I’ve even heard it described as “flabby.” Poor body-shamed orange juice!
Craft bartenders, though, never met an ingredient they couldn’t improve, and OJ has gotten a particularly dedicated tinkering. It’s gotten clarified, acidified and “fluffed,” all in the name of making it a more useful screwdriver in the cocktailer’s toolbox (and allowing it to become something more interesting than a Screwdriver).
To understand why orange juice isn’t as useful in drinkmaking, you need to go back to some basics. The main role of citrus in cocktails, historically, is in the family of drinks known as sours. There are multiple subcategories, but the family includes classics like the daiquiri, the whiskey sour, the margarita, the Cosmo, the sidecar and many more.
At its most basic, the sour template is spirit, sweetener and citrus. And in hardly any of the classic sours is orange juice a player. When it does come into play, it almost always has a partner such as lime or lemon giving it a lift.
The key to a perfect sour is balance: Too much sugar, and it’s like sipping candy; too much souring agent, and it’s like sucking on a lemon. Orange juice just doesn’t bring that balance. “It’s roughly 11 percent sugar, so it’s not nearly as sweet as simple syrup, which is 50 percent sugar, and it contains not 6 to 8 percent acidity, like lemon or lime juice, but closer to 0.8 percent, based on citric acid,” says Dave Arnold, co-owner of Existing Conditions in New York and author of the most fun chemistry book ever, “Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail.” In other words, it’s not sweet enough to play the sweetener, not sour enough to do the souring.
Arnold has been hacking citrus for years. His early experiments with oranges were partly driven by seeing all the stripped oranges stacking up at his old bar. “We had no application for the juice,” he says. “We’d just give juice to the staff or to the restaurant or whatever. But all this citrus was going to waste because we were just using the peels.”
He saw opportunity to upgrade orange juice by boosting it chemically with various acid powders to give it the punch of lime juice. Thanks to Arnold’s book and blogging, the technique has been widely adopted; if you see a drink that includes “corrected,” “improved” or “acidulated” orange, it’s likely gotten the treatment. In the Dr. J, one of the first drinks he remembers using the juice for, it provides a bright, cheerful punch, like someone shook up a daiquiri using a Creamsicle for ice.
Another common citrus hack is clarification. Most fruit juices, unaltered, add a murky opacity that — especially in our Instagram-driven hospitality environment — destroys the gemlike clarity that makes many cocktails so pretty. Clarifying juice removes that haze; it’s a fun but time-consuming project that can be done by a variety of means (from using coffee filters to strain out particles to using milk proteins to bind with and remove them). If you really want to geek out on it, Arnold’s book is the place to go.
Keep in mind that clarification impacts flavor as well; the particles that get removed to produce such clarity are part of what give any juice its taste. A while back I attempted a Last Word with clarified lime; the resulting cocktail, though delicious, was more of a Quiet Murmur — a pale, clear green, sweeter and more subtle than the original.
One of my favorite “improvements” of orange juice is the one in the Garibaldi they make at Dante in New York. I first tried this drink at the annual Tales of the Cocktail conference, where the sheer volume of alcohol being served typically drives me to have only a sip of anything offered. The Garibaldi, on the other hand, I slurped down and immediately began wondering if I could bribe someone to bring me another.
“Anywhere you go in Italy and order a Garibaldi, they’ll know what it is,” says Dante’s creative director, Naren Young. On its face, it’s ridiculously simple, just Campari and orange juice, but the way the bar gets its juice takes the drink over the top.
They peel the oranges, leaving some pith, “not too much because we don’t want too much of that bitterness,” says Young, “but a little bit of the white pith does actually help produce the texture we’re looking for.” The oranges are juiced to order in a Breville juicer “that basically spins at such a high speed that it pushes air into the juice,” resulting in a creamy, velvety texture.
The bar dubbed it “fluffy” orange juice, a term Young says is popping up at bars around the world. “We didn’t create the Garibaldi,” he says, “but I do think we’ve perfected it.” (If you don’t have a good juicer, you can get an approximate-but-not-quite-as-good effect by putting orange juice, as freshly squeezed as possible, into a good blender and cranking it to high speed.)
I’ll probably never again experience the blissful escape that unadulterated fresh-squeezed orange juice gave me back during those summer lunch breaks. But it’s fascinating to see what happens when orange juice cuts its hair, puts on a snappy suit and puts its navel to the grindstone; you’ll start seeing the stuff in a whole new light. Though honestly, if you’re working in the sort of environment I was back then, I’d recommend just sticking to whiskey. Make it a double.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
Adapted from a recipe at Dante in New York.
1 to 2 navel oranges, plus an orange wedge, for garnish
1½ ounces Campari
Juice your oranges to yield a total of 3 to 4 ounces. If you’re not using an electric juicer that makes the juice fairly frothy, follow up by blending the juice in a blender on high speed to whip in some air.
Add several ice cubes to a highball glass. Add the Campari and fill with the aerated orange juice. Stir gently, then garnish with the wedge of orange, placed atop the glass with the peel on the bottom.
MAKE AHEAD: Leftover simple syrup can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 6 months.
You can buy the acid powders online and at Bazaar Spices in the District.
Adapted from “Liquid Intelligence: The Art and Science of the Perfect Cocktail,” by Dave Arnold (W.W. Norton, 2014).
For the simple syrup
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
For the juice
1 liter orange juice, as fresh as possible
32 grams citric acid (see headnote)
20 grams malic acid (see headnote)
For the drink
2 ounces white rum
1 drop vanilla extract
For the simple syrup: Combine the sugar and water in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring just to a boil; once the sugar has dissolved, remove from the heat. Cool completely.
For the juice: Combine the orange juice, citric acid and malic acid in a large container, stirring until the powders have dissolved.
For the drink: Chill a cocktail glass. Fill a cocktail shaker with ice, then add the rum, ¾ ounce of the lime-acid orange juice, ¾ ounce of the simple syrup, the salt and vanilla extract. Seal and shake vigorously for 20 seconds, then strain into the chilled glass.
More from Food: