Season’s Drinking: Winter Citrus Cocktails
There is one cocktail known the world over as the principal drink of winter: the hot toddy. A toddy is any cocktail that has a bit of booze, a healthy portion of water and a nip of sugar. Think: Scotch and water, but sweetened. A beginner’s cocktail to be sure, but not a bad one at all. A hot toddy, made with boiling water, is certainly a warming drink, most often consumed during the winter, but it needn’t only be enjoyed in winter for the best results.
The making of a margarita, however, is a different matter.
“Having an abundance of fresh, seasonal limes during citrus season is a wonderful thing,” says Eric Rubin, founder of Trés Agaves tequila. “Hand-squeezed lime juice, agave nectar and tequila—that’s perfect alchemy to me.”
Eric should indeed be having a wonderful Christmas; according to the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA), true citrus season starts in September, peaks in January and ends in April.
What the Citrus Experts Say
I recently spoke with Christine Farren, the Events Manager at CUESA in San Francisco, who curates the world’s first happy hour within a farmers’ market, where local bartenders shake up cocktails inspired by the produce at hand.
“You’ll likely find the greatest diversity of citrus at farmers’ markets, because the system of selling directly to consumers encourages farmers both to plant more unusual varieties and to pick the fruit at its fullest maturation,” Farren said.
David Karp, in his recent article on limes for the Los Angeles Times echoes Farren: “The more important factor is ripeness: Although Mexico can grow very good Persian limes, producers there sometimes harvest the fruit when it is dark green and dry, so we’re fortunate to have access at farmers markets to light green, silver (intermediate) and yellow limes, which are juicier and more aromatic.”
Citrus Flourishes in Winter
In 2007, I hosted the very first happy hour with CUESA and I can attest that winter, the coldest season of the year, is the best time of year for tropical cocktails. Sure, I could base this argument simply on wanting to slurp down a mai tai and be magically transported to a much warmer idyll, but the fact remains: during the coldest months of the year, cocktails made with fresh-squeezed lemon, lime, orange and grapefruit juices are their most delicious. More exotic citrus varieties—satsumas, kumquats, kaffir limes, blood oranges and Meyer Lemons—are also at their peak.
“Citrus is naturally tart,” Farren continued. “But many varieties have been bred to encourage greater sweetness, giving each fruit a more complex flavor with greater depth.”
As the proprietor of Cantina, whose cocktail program relies heaviest on two basic ingredients—ice and limes—I eagerly await winter, when limes are at their best. Throughout the year, I’ll switch citrus purveyors, forage through farmers’ markets and even pick citrus from backyard trees in my quest to acquire the best. A good lime should not only produce approximately one ounce of juice and be fairly acidic, it should also be very floral and somewhat oily, with a hint of spice. The lime that we pay 79 cents for at a standard grocery store is a far less enjoyable fruit.
Ultimately, drinking cocktails according to the seasonal availability of ingredients may be a tough sell, but it’s damn delicious. When both the flavor and the variety of a particular citrus fruit is at its peak, in the hands of a talented barkeep, your seasonally driven drink this winter will be a fairly acidic, somewhat oily, very floral reward.
It may be a cruel fact but winter is, in fact, the best time to enjoy a classic citrus-based cocktail. So pass up the hot toddy in favor of a fresh, citrusy margarita, caipirinha or pisco sour.
Editor’s Note: What citrus-centric cocktails get you going?