The secrets behind these two common cocktail ingredients

Sometimes, what we think we know, and what we actually know are two different things. Often, we tend to trust labeling and the government agencies overseeing that to let us know what’s actually happening. And then we trust ourselves to actually understand them.

Ask anyone who has brought an alcohol product to market and they’ll tell you that one of the most difficult things — if not the most difficult — about it is getting the labeling approved. The U.S. Department of the Treasury oversees the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) and they must approve all labeling. Nothing untrue can be on a label. However, the consumer must first know what the terms actually mean. For instance, “blended rye whiskey” is not the same as “a blend of rye whiskeys.” “Imported” on a European, South American or Asian beer brand bottle can mean imported from Canada. “Made with” is not the same as “made from.” So, it stands to reason that a healthy dose of skepticism about our own understanding can help.

The same is true with bar advertising. “Handcrafted” no longer means made from scratch to order (think of pre-batching) and “fresh squeezed” can mean a lot of different things, up to and including freshly squeezed somewhere else and brought to you via a retailer in large plastic jugs and then stored for days.

It’s with that thought in mind that I have gathered here two common cocktail ingredients to illustrate that point. Both are seen quite regularly, and both might not actually be what you think they are.

Whiskey Hill Farms in Watsonville is one of the few organic growers of real wasabi in the United States. (Photo by Jeff Burkhart)


The citrus argument in the cocktail industry these days is that all citrus juice is best when it is hand-squeezed to order. And while that argument has some merit, what’s often lost in the equation is whether that fruit is even in season, and secondly whether or not it’s ripe. For instance, most oranges aren’t in season during the spring/summer brunch season, so does it matter if they are fresh squeezed? And then there is the lime.

The Persian lime is the green seedless lime ubiquitous in cocktails. In fact, it’s the only lime that most people are aware of. Ironically, all green Persian limes are unripe. The fruit itself is a hybrid of the key lime and the lemon. Key limes, also called Mexican limes, are one of the original cornerstones of the cocktail industry. The margarita was almost certainly first made with key limes. The Persian lime came to prominence after a hurricane devastated Florida’s primary lime-growing region in 1926. Persian limes are larger, seedless and produce more juice than key limes. They also don’t exist in the wild and are only able to be propagated by cloning or grafting. Since the Persian lime has no seeds, it has no real season. It’s also one of the few citrus fruits that stays green even after picking — at least until it goes bad. The irony is that a fully ripe yellow Persian lime is delicious. The acids are better balanced and the fruit leans towards sweetness, sort of like a Meyer lemon. In fact, if you make drinks with fully ripe limes, you can alleviate much of the sugar needed to counteract the astringent bitterness of green limes. How we came to be conditioned to eat a wholly unripe fruit is a mystery on the taste front, but truly a testament to good marketing, opportunity and branding on the part of the green lime people. Just think about that the next time you see “fresh-squeezed lime juice” on the menu.


Fresh wasabi certainly sounds cool in a bloody Mary. It’s not horseradish, you see, it’s wasabi! And sure, the green horseradish paste smeared on sushi rolls and used to spice up your soy dipping sauce certainly feels cool. Exotic spices have always fired the imagination and certainly get you kudos in the cocktail world. Only much of the wasabi you see in this country isn’t actually wasabi. It’s green-colored, ordinary European horseradish. Even the stuff labeled “true” or “real” is often only partly wasabi. The easy way to tell the difference is the price. Real wasabi averages about $100 to $200 a pound, making it far more expensive than most of the fish used in sushi. (The rare bluefin tuna, for instance, is only about $100 a pound.) Real wasabi not only tastes different, it even looks different, too. It certainly has bite, but more of a well-rounded pungency. And its color is less verdant green than the common version. Real wasabi also rapidly loses its potency, which is why when you do see it, it’s usually grated to order. And at $200 a pound, it better be. So, if your wasabi bloody Mary is less than $20, rest assured it’s just ordinary horseradish, because at $4 a quarter ounce, the small portion in that drink would be well over three times the cost of any premium vodka you might even consider using.