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When Life Won't Give You Lemons, Here Are Some Alternatives

On Friday I was making/serving a specialty cocktail for an event and needed 6 liters of lemon juice. I live in the Mission District of San Francisco, where citrus fruits are abundant at small bodegas (not yet forced out from gentrification) up and down Mission Street. Right now you can get a case of limes (150 or so huge ones) for under $20, but lemons turned out to be a problem.

Amalfi coast lemon tour lemonIn the bodgeas they were selling for 3 or 4 for a dollar, which isn't too bad, but the lemons were very brown and tired. I asked at several places if they had cases to sell me, and they all turned me down - they were on their last cases until the winter citrus starts coming in. At the Duc Loi market, the citrus buyer told me that cases were going for $65 and she wasn't going to order any more until the price dropped (and thus wouldn't sell me a case either). At the supermarkets limes are selling for 60 and 70 cents each; organic ones for 99 cents apiece. 

Assuming 1.5 ounces per lemon I would need 135 lemons and that is a lot of money. So I reached out to Facebook for suggestions and here is what I heard back. I didn't ask for permission to publish quotes so all the below is anonymous. 

My post was: "Lemon crisis! Supposed to batch a drink with 6 liters of lemon juice. All the stores are out of lemons except the ones selling for 60 cents each. It's a fall drink with rye, apple cider, demarara, bitters, lemon juice and I have all the other ingredients. Substitution suggestions?"

Mixing bottled with fresh:

  • I would go with bottled lemon juice and mix it with some fresh . So you dont have to Buy to many of the 60 Cent Lemons.
  • Cut it with Simply Lemonade. That bottled lemon juice is for the birds. (Then to balance the sugar in the lemonade) cut back on the simple syrup in the recipe. 
  • Lemonade concentrate and hold the Demerara. Buy some fresh lemons to balance acid if necessary.

Bottled Products

  • Get the RealLemon. It's usually more sour so adjust accordingly but it will do the trick.
  • I have found that both Santa Cruz and Lakewood brands are acceptable substitutes for fresh in a pinch. I wouldn't serve them to a fancy audience, but I'd definitely serve them to a less-fancy audience. Especially if I were batching some giant vat of cocktail.
  • William brand lemon syrup from France....not the same but lemony
  • RIPE lemon sour
  • I haven't tried INNA Jam's Meyer Lemon shrub (because I'm stubbornly waiting for a large batch of lemons on my tree to ripen up) but I've used a splash of their lime shrub in place of lime juice before.

Note: I have a super low tolerance for preserved citrus flavor. Rose's lime and most low-end triple secs have a 'powdery' taste to me. So too do these 100% lemon juice products. I think this is a flavor that comes in during pasteurization. I bought some of the Santa Cruz stuff and couldn't tolerate a drop of it. 

Other Ideas

  • I found that a blend of key lime juice and mexican lime works amazing. Really softens it.
  • Try apple cider vinegar or a lemon shrub
  • Lime
  • Acid Phosphate and lemon oil, it's what they did in the 1800s. The SF Ice Cream Bar sells Acid Phosphate.
  • Maybe some apple shrub to stretch the lemons and add a complex acidity?
  • Citric or phosphate acid always works in a pinch

Unhelpful Advice

  • Quit being cheap
  • Man up, buy lemons. Or make lame drinks, whatever.

Local Stores (note to self for next time)

  • Costco and trader joe's both sell bags of lemons for a decent price.
  • You can call in fresh pressed juice orders from whole foods for next day pick up.
  • Sometimes the grocery stores that sell lemons, sell fresh squeezed juice and use the ugly lemons for that. You should ask the produce dept.
  • Greenleaf will call
  • Cash & Carry on Van Ness had Lemons last week for $35 per 165ct case. Also Voila for flash pasteurized juice in OAK.
  • SF Commissary

Verjus, which I will try next time

  • Several bartenders suggesting using verjus (basically unsweetened, unripe grape juice)
  • Verjus blanc, citric acid, blend in some lime

What I actually did

With only a few hours left to purchase lemons/lemonade/etc. and not finding verjus at Whole Foods, I panicked and bought about 80 small organic lemons (1 ounce worth of juice each), 5 bottles Santa Cruz lemon juice (disgusting and I threw it all out), and 2 cartons of Newman's Own Lemonade (which is very sweet but has great flavor). 

I juiced all those lemons, producing about 3 liters of lemon juice. And then a friend at a local bar called to tell me he'd sell me half a case of lemons for a sweet price. So I bought those and juiced all of them - getting up to the 6 liters I needed. And then it turns out they were super sour and I only needed half as much as planned in the cocktail. 

So I visited 8 stores and spent $130 for 3 liters of lemon juice. #winner


By the way, here is the recipe for the drink:

The Pocketwatch
By Chris Neustadt of Jimmy at the James Hotel in Chicago

1.5 ounces Apple Cider (Or good apple juice)
1.5 ounces Templeton Rye
1 ounces Lemon Juice
.75 ounces Demerara Syrup (Equal parts demerara sugar and water)
4-5 dashes Angostura Bitters
Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a tall glass with new ice.


Get Camper's Book: Tonic Water AKA G&T WTF.