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It wasn't that long ago that bartenders would reach for a suspect-looking bottle of store-bought lemon juice or sour mix any time a cocktail calling for citrus was ordered.

The recent cocktail renaissance has brought back a much-needed appreciation for fresh juices. But to really capture the complex flavors of lemons, limes, oranges, and grapefruits, you have to think beyond just juice.

Today, we look at some sweet suggestions for getting the most out of these sour fruits.

Freshness is not always the best

Cocktail gurus reported that lime juice that had been sitting for 4 hours tasted better to a panel of blind taste-testers than fresh lime juice.

We still don't have a bulletproof scientific explanation for why this happens, but quite a few people have demonstrated similar results which were 100% confirmed .

We have tested the phenomenon ourself during hundreds of tasting sessions we entertained in our laboratories and tasting chambers and came to these conclusions:*

  • Orange juice: fresh is, in fact, best. An unpleasant bitterness develops just 30 minutes after juicing.
  • Lime and Lemon juice: aged for 4 to 10 hours is best. Juice aged four hours did seem to taste more mellow while the top notes seemed to pop a little more. After 10 hours of storage, the juices seemed to lose some of their aroma, and after a day of storage bitterness became noticeable and unpleasant.
  • Grapefruit juice: aged for 1 to 3 days is best. Juice held for a day was noticeably more bitter, but that actually made the juice taste more grapefruit-ey. After three days, the juice tasted like it had lost much of its aroma, though the bitterness still wasn't overpowering.

Here's what we think is going on.** What's behind both the increased bitterness in juice and the improved taste in aged juice is the bitter chemical limonin. There's almost no limonin in fresh-squeezed lemon and lime juices, but some precursor chemicals of limonin are present. When fresh juice is exposed to air, enzymes convert those precursors into bitter limonin, a process known as enzymatic bittering.

Why would bitterness make juice taste better? In very small amounts, bitterness has a suppressive effect on the other basic tastes.*** In 4-hour-old juice, we think the bitterness is suppressing some of the intense acidity in lemon and lime juices, which allows the drinker to perceive more of the subtle nuances of the juice's flavor.

Is it worth it to intentionally age juice for a tiny improvement in quality? We would argue probably not. The real takeaway from these observations is that if you do have to do some of your juice-prep work a few hours in advance of a party, your Cocktail quality won't suffer, with the one exception of orange juice.


* We stored juices in a small mason jar at refrigerator temperature after juicing. We had testing staff serve the juices in random order so the test was blind, but the conclusions were subjective to our palate. Give it a try and see what's true for you.

** Oxidation as the culprit, but a gas chromograph analysis of 4 to 20-hour-old lime juice showed very little oxidation. We found that volatile aromatics as a whole in the juice decreased, and this can change the perception of quality, but it isn't yet clear how. We have also tested pH (it doesn't change significantly over the times we're concerned about). So of all the known possibilities, the effect of  increasing bitterness seems to be most important.

*** This may be one reason why a dash or two of bitters helps to "round out" a drink.

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