When I asked my girlfriend recently to pick up lemons for making cocktails and she brought me Meyer lemons, I was a little dismayed at first. The Meyer lemon, a cross between a lemon and a mandarin orange, is sweeter, less acidic, and more aromatic than its conventional cousin (most lemons sold in supermarkets are Eureka or Lisbon lemons). I wasn’t sure how it would work in the cocktails I was planning to make.
I did end up playing it safe for my guests, serving them Twentieth Century cocktails made with lemons I already had on hand. Later in the weekend, though, I started looking up recipes for cocktails that use Meyer lemons. I tested out a whiskey sour, although I’ve never been much of a fan of the drink; while I love both whiskey and lemon, whiskey sours usually taste a bit harsh to me. But the muted acidity and delicate, floral character of the Meyer lemon worked beautifully in the drink, the lemon flavor complementing the whiskey instead of dominating it.
I bought some more Meyer lemons (they’re 75 cents apiece at Mariano’s) and did some more research online. Rosemary and thyme apparently go well with Meyer lemon, and I was tempted by a couple recipes featuring mezcal. In the end, though, I decided to keep things simple so that I’d be able to taste the Meyer lemon instead of drowning it out with other flavors. I went with two classic sours: the pisco sour (always one of my favorites) and the gin sour (I’d read that gin goes well with Meyer lemon). I made two versions of each, one with regular lemon and one with Meyer lemon, adjusting for the Meyer lemon’s lower acidity by adding a little more of it to the cocktails.
The Meyer lemon managed to improve both cocktails. In the pisco sour, the regular lemon tastes acidic compared the Meyer lemon; while that can be refreshing, in a side-by-side taste test it also seems a little too harsh (and I love pisco sours made with regular lemon). The gin sour is where the Meyer lemon really shines, though: the aromatics in the gin play beautifully with the floral lemon, and the subdued acidity makes it dangerously easy to drink. The version made with regular lemon tasted perfectly fine, but next to the other cocktail it seemed flat and uninteresting.
After the first two experiments I was prepared to declare a winner, and almost didn’t test the Sidecar, a classic sour that uses orange liqueur instead of simple syrup. In this case, though, the cocktail made with regular lemon was better than the Meyer lemon one—which, in an unexpected twist, tasted flat by comparison. My theory is that because the cocktail already involves orange, the mandarin flavor of the Meyer lemon makes the drink cloying in comparison to a version made with the zippier, more acidic standard lemon. (Michael Ruhlman seemed to like the Sidecar he made with Meyer lemon just fine, but he did use a pricey Armagnac; the brandy I used in mine wasn’t bad, but certainly not up there in quality with the best Armagnac.)
I had several Meyer lemons left over (they produce a lot of juice so I didn’t need as many for my experiments as I’d expected) and had been wanting to use their zest somehow, so I used them in the oleo-saccharum for a whiskey punch I was making for a party. (Combining citrus peels with sugar draws out their oils; that sugary oil is called oleo-saccharum and is a classic punch ingredient.) The recipe called for lemons and either clementines or oranges, so I figured a combination of lemons, Meyer lemons, and oranges would work well. I combined the zest with sugar and let it sit overnight; in the morning I juiced the citrus and combined the juice with the oleo-saccharum, black tea, and other punch ingredients.
It turned out really well, but because I’ve never used that recipe before I have no idea whether the Meyer lemons improved it or not. I suspect that they didn’t change the flavor much since they taste like a combination of lemon and orange and that’s what the recipe called for anyway. If I have Meyer lemons on hand next time I make a Twentieth Century cocktail, though, I’ll take a chance on how they work in the cocktail. Or maybe I’ll just make gin sours with them.
Meyer lemon gin sour
2 oz gin
1 oz Meyer lemon juice
.75 oz simple syrup
Add all ingredients to a shaker with ice; shake and strain into a cocktail glass.