Get Ready for Summer With Homemade Hard Lemonade

April 16, 2024
Dining & Wine
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Lemon is as versatile behind the bar as it is in the kitchen. From peel to juice, this sunny citrus can brighten and balance your cocktails.

“To put it as simply as possible, lemon is going to make alcohol more drinkable,” said Ei Cullina, the head bartender and assistant general manager at Nobody’s Darling in Chicago. “It kind of quiets the burn.”

Start with the juice: Freshly squeezed is best, but don’t stress about preparing it right before, said Mx. Cullina, who uses the pronouns they and them. Lemon juice that’s sat for a little while can “provide a slightly nicer flavor,” they said. But for flavors that pop but aren’t overly bitter, just aim to use it the same day it’s squeezed.

Then, to mix in that juice, remember a simple refrain: often shaken, rarely stirred. Citrus and alcohol have different densities, and a good shake helps them mingle. The ice also incorporates air, transforming the individual ingredients into a frothy, light and refreshing cocktail.

Lemon juice is a powerful ingredient, but the fruit’s yellow outer peel can be just as valuable, its fragrant oils adding their own flavor. To properly extract those oils, make sure to use clean citrus and really twist the peel before swiping it along the inside of the glass, Mx. Cullina said. Doing so means the oils will be released more slowly as you drink.

You can also always deploy a lemon-based spirit, such as limoncello (which you can buy or make at home). Mx. Cullina often adds a bit to the sugar-rimmed lemon drop cocktail (named for the candy) to pump up the drink’s flavor. Or try lemon sorbet, as in the Italian Sgroppino, a slushy, crowd-pleasing cocktail, where its acidity and sweetness offset vodka’s bite. A final hit of zest on top lends an immediate lemon aroma.

For a refreshing drink that is reminiscent of, yet far removed from, the spiked six packs of yore, try your hand at homemade hard lemonade by combining lemon juice and simple syrup with vodka (or limoncello) and top with sparkling water. Other lemon-forward drinks that Mx. Cullina frequently reaches for are the Bee’s Knees, a simple sour made with gin, lemon juice and honey, or the sugar-rimmed sidecar, made with Cognac, lemon juice and orange liqueur.

If you run out of lemons, reach for lime, then correct the balance of your drink. Limes have a sharper, denser texture and a little more acidity, so you’ll need to increase the sweetness. You can also use half lemon and half lime juice. (Reserve orange and grapefruit for another cocktail. Neither has enough acidity to stand in for lemon.)

Deploy the whole fruit to add tart complexity — from acidity and astringency to sourness and floral notes — to your next drink.

“Lemon is truly just a nonnegotiable ingredient behind the bar,” Mx. Cullina said.

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