Freshly squeezed lime juice is one of the absolutely essential cocktail ingredients. But when you're just starting your (home) bartender career, perhaps you wonder whether you really have to squeeze limes for every cocktail.
Perhaps, you can cut a corner, make your life easier, and go and buy your lime juice pre-bottled in the supermarket?
Ultimately, of course, it's up to you. But to help you make up your mind, I will explain everything you need to know about lime juice, its use in cocktails, and how you should use it.
What Kind of Lime Do You Use for Drinks?
That's a great question. There's quite a large selection of limes, but there are only two different types of limes commonly used for drinks: Persian limes and Key limes.
Persian limes: This is the most common type in the US. It's quite large in size and very juicy. The flavor is not as intense and aromatic as with other lime types, and also it lacks a bit of a sour kick.
Key limes: Key limes are better known as Mexican limes. These fruits are smaller in size and tend to turn slightly yellowish once ripe. They are super aromatic with a tart and slightly floral juice.
Both these limes work great in cocktails, and it really depends on the specific cocktail to give a recommendation on which one to use. For a Margarita, fresh key lime juice works best. After all, they are called Mexican limes for a reason.
Why use lime juice in cocktails?
Making cocktails is all about balance. To make a great cocktail, you need to get the combination of all different flavors right.
It is much like cooking, where you have to get the right balance of the five primary tastes: sour, sweet, salty, bitter, and umami.
Sourness gets balanced by sweetness. So every cocktail that wants lime juice also has a sweet ingredient. Usually, that is syrup, but a sweet liqueur is an option, too.
So let's assume you have the lime juice and syrup balanced. Add white Rum to this mix, and you have a Daiquiri cocktail. The combination of sweet and sour covers the harsh alcohol notes of the white Rum and makes a delicious and refreshing drink.
Now you know why you need lime juice -or, alternatively, lemon juice- in your drinks. But does it have to be freshly pressed lime juice, or can you buy those bottled versions from the supermarket?
Let's check out the different options:
Freshly Squeezed Lime Juice
Almost every recipe that includes limes specifically asks for fresh lime juice. And making it is super easy. Get fresh limes, cut them in half, and squeeze them.
Using fresh lime juice in a drink adds a tart, acidic bite. This sour kick is also why many bartenders claim that fresh lime juice is the best choice when shaking up a summer cocktail - or any cocktail, actually.
How to Make Lime Juice
The most basic way to juice a lime is by firmly rolling the lime on a table. This applied pressure makes it a bit easier to extract the juice. Then cut the lime in two halves and squeeze them by hand.
You don't need any tools to make fresh lime juice. Yet, it certainly makes life easier.
So, if you intend to make fresh lime juice often, best order a decent lime squeezer. This nifty tool will save you a ton of time and hassle. Put half a lime in the squeezer - the open side facing down - and firmly squeeze the lime to release the fresh juice.
How Much Juice Is In One Lime?
The amount of lime juice you can get out of one fruit depends on the type. A whole Key lime will usually get you around 30ml (1oz) of pressed juice. One Persian lime, on the other hand, typically contains 1.5oz.
Quickly doing the maths, half a Key lime will contain 15ml (0.5 oz) of juice and half a Persian lime 0.75oz. -I want to mention this explicitly because some recipes solely ask for the juice of half a lime.
Bottled Lime Juice
You can find bottled lime juice in almost every supermarket, making it a very convenient option. And that is why it gets bought way too often.
Added preservatives and sugar make the lime juice less acidic and turn it into an artificial, sometimes almost flavorless version. Not all bottled lime juice is low quality per se, but you can always taste that it is not fresh.
Thus, it is not in the same league as freshly squeezed lime juice, but it's still an option.
A Bottled Lime Juice To Use For Making Cocktails
If you really don't want to squeeze limes and make lime juice fresh, there is, in fact, one brand that I know of that produces an alright option: Nellie & Joe’s Famous Key West Lime Juice.
Molly Young from the Strategist swears by it, and I can see why. This bottled lime juice is made from key limes, distinguishing it from competing products in a good way.
Lime cordial has similar disadvantages as bottled lime juice and then some. Because with lime cordial, the amount of sugar is way higher.
The added preservatives and sometimes even artificial coloring makes it my least favorite option.
However, some cocktail recipes still ask for lime cordial. If, for example, you want to create a quick and dirty version of a Gimlet, use a bit of lime cordial and Gin, and you have a cocktail.
But trust me, whatever you create with cordial or bottled juice will not be as good as it could be.
Aged Lime Juice
Freshly pressed lime juice tastes downright acidic. While this sourness is what we're looking for in a cocktail, sometimes aged lime juice will make your cocktail even better. But let me explain.
When you squeeze lime, the cellular structure of the fruit breaks. The enzymes encounter chemical compounds like Nomilin and Limonoate A-ring-lactone, turning them into a bitter-tasting substance called Limonin.
Perhaps you now wonder why one would want to have a bitter-tasting compound in lime juice. Well, Limonin is by no means bitter enough to make the lime juice unpleasant.
Thus, overall, the juice won't taste bitter, but the Limonin balances some of the harsh acidic notes of fresh lime juice.
As a result, aged lime juice has a way rounder flavor profile. Also, the cocktails you create with it will have a rounder, more mellow taste.
Clarified Lime Juice
Clarification in cocktails is not a new thing. In many cases, whole drinks are clarified by using milk. Clarified lime juice, though, is a bit different.
Firstly because it's a base ingredient, but more importantly, lime juice is not clarified with milk but with the help of agar-agar (or agar) powder.
The result is a crystal-clear version of lime juice that keeps the tangy taste but looks entirely different. It's a great way to create elegant twists on cocktails, like a Daiquiri or a Margarita.
Mixed drinks made with carbonated ingredients benefit the most from using clarified lime juice, explains Dave Arnold, owner of Booker and Dax, a food and drink research lab in New York, and author of Liquid Intelligence.
He says, regular juices contain many tiny particles that produce bubbles and "Those errant bubble-making particles will wreak havoc in your drink and reduce the level of carbonation you can achieve.”
What is The Best Lime Juice For Making Cocktails?
The best lime juice for cocktails is freshly squeezed, either when preparing a cocktail or in a large batch in advance, and then aged for a few hours.
The latter is what you usually get at cocktail bars. When bartenders and barbacks prepare the ingredients for an evening shift, they will juice limes and lemons and store them separately in easy-to-use squeeze bottles.
That helps to make drinks faster, and in the hours between squeezing and mixing, it will develop a more mellow taste characteristic of aged lime juice.
When a recipe asks for lime juice, you are always better off when you go with the freshly squeezed version. Either use it immediately or let it age for a couple of hours.
But don't be led to believe you can achieve the same result with bottled juice or even cordial. Honestly, these are only good when you are okay with sacrificing quality.