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Ubiquitous for decades in sunny Southern California backyards, the thin-skinned, bright yellow Meyer lemon is a welcome sight in the dead of winter. Believed to be a cross between an orange and a lemon, the Meyer was introduced to the United States in the early 1900s when Frank Nicholas Meyer of the Department of Agriculture brought back a sample from China. While the fruit is tart, it has less acidity and more complexity than standard lemons, qualities that can add extra depth to cocktails. “The Meyer lemon is famous for its fragrance,” says Al Sotack, bar manager at The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Co. in Philadelphia. “It has a strong presence of thymol, the chemical that gives thyme its flavor.” Those subtle herbal notes pair deliciously with the botanicals in juniper-forward gins, and because Meyers are less acidic than traditional lemons, the flavor of the fruit—rather than what Sotack calls “acid interference”—remains front and center.
When the fruit is ripe, the juice of a Meyer lemon offers distinctive orange notes, making it a natural partner with many brown spirits. Sotack suggests assertively flavored aged rums, while Chris Ojeda of Los Angeles’ SOHO House prefers the spiciness of rye whiskey as well as some agave spirits. “I especially like the smoky-sweet combo of mezcal and Meyer in a riff on the Daisy,” he says. But because Meyers are sweeter than traditional lemons, it’s important to maintain a balance of sweetness and acidity in cocktails that incorporate the citrus. When making a Meyer lemon Sidecar, for example, Scott Baird, cocktail consultant and co-founder of The Bon Vivants, uses a quarter ounce more juice than the standard recipe to give the drink the right amount of acidity. He also grates and dries the zest to mix with superfine sugar for the drink’s rim. And for cocktails that are already sweet enough, Baird skips the juice in favor of a tincture made by infusing the zest in overproof spirits, lending the Meyer’s citrusy flavor without the sweetness.
Some bartenders, however, are finding ways to use Meyer lemon in its sweetest form—marmalade—since it can do double duty as both a citrus component and a sweetening agent. Adam Bernbach, bar manager at Proof and Estadio in Washington, D.C., reaches for a spoonful in his Piccolo, where the fruit’s softer tones play well off the bitterness of Chinato and Campari. “The marmalade also imparts a very nice mouthfeel to a cocktail,” he says. “And with the bubbly, there’s a real velvety texture to the drink.”
RECIPE: Meyer Lemon and Star Anise Soda
RECIPE: Meyer Lemon Blossom
RECIPE: Oaxacan Daisy