Fresh Juice

by Naren Young

If I hear the words “fresh juice program” one more time from a gloating bartender, they’re getting a muddler in the eye. The word ‘program’ has been thrown around far too frivolously by the, ahem, mixologists of today and I’m still unsure how one defines this rather ambiguous term. But I digress. 

Not since Jerry Thomas’ era have we seen such a focus on using freshly squeezed juices in our cocktails and that is most certainly a good thing. I once asked Dale DeGroff what he would like to see in his legacy and his answer was unabashedly that every bar on the planet used fresh lemon and lime juice. Amen to that brother.

That’s unlikely to happen (certainly not in my lifetime), but there is hope, as can be seen by the increasing numbers of venues – even multi national hotels and chain restaurants – switching over to squeezing their own citrus juices. It’s a good sign that things are indeed shifting in a positive direction. There simply is no substitute for fresh juice and the results are incomparable (even in a blind taste test).

The very act of squeezing citrus juice is easy (and monotonous), even though many people reading this might have, at one point in their career, had trouble convincing the powers that be of the virtues of implementing a fresh juice program. Oh, darn it, I said it again. Everyone within a bar or organization, from the top down, needs to be on board with such a philosophy to really make a change. 

What I’m talking about and something I’ve become a stern and unwavering evangelist about is dedicating yourself – like I did at Saxon +Parole – with only carrying juices that are squeezed fresh, in-house on a daily basis. And I don’t mean just lemon and lime juice but everything. We employed a prep person who would spend between 2-4 hours a day (depending on the workload; Fridays were busiest as he prepped for brunch over the weekend) and all they did was squeeze juice, cut garnishes, make syrups etc.

When most of us started bartending, we didn’t have this luxury, right? You came in an hour early (or on your day off if you were really committed) to cut fruit, squeeze your own juices, make your own syrups and purees, and whatever else the bar required. To run a world class cocktail bar, I could never do it again without employing such a person and I know that the reputation and successes that followed at Saxon + Parole would not have been achievable without this person.

Admittedly, I did have a person above me – Linden Pride – who also believed in this and like me was not willing to cut any corners or compromise. The first thing I did when I started was throw out all the frozen purees, as well as the sweetened cranberry juice, bottled orange juice and canned pineapple juice that had been leftover from the previous ‘regime.’ Some of the owners were concerned – especially with the sudden banishing of cranberry juice from the building. 

Their initial cries were “we have to stock cranberry juice,” to which my reply was “why do we have to stock cranberry juice? Because every other bar in the world stocks cranberry juice? Well, I don’t want to be like every other bar in the world and I guarantee that not one single person will ever turn around and walk out of this venue because we don’t stock cranberry juice.” Turns out I was right. Stand firm people, or don’t stand at all.

That’s not to say that many customers weren’t somewhat confused as to our exclusion of this ubiquitous so-called ‘juice,’ but our response was always simple: WE ONLY STOCK FRESH JUICES THAT WE CAN SQUEEZE OURSELVES EVERY SINGLE DAY! That’s a powerful statement that not many bars can actually say but was also one that I was always proud to bring to their attention. We didn’t do it to be snobs (“no, we can’t make you a Cosmopolitan, sorry”); we did it because we wanted to be true to our own philosophy.

My point is, if you’re going to commit to a ‘fresh juice program,’ then don’t half ass it. Be unwavering, like I have, in providing your guests with the very best products that money can buy, starting with something as simple as juice. A glass of freshly squeezed orange juice, or pineapple juice or apple juice is a thing of beauty. Go and buy one next time you’re walking past a juice bar to be reminded of this fact. Maybe you’ve never tried fresh juice in its natural state. It’ll change your life. Literally.

Even our Bloody Marys were freshly made. How many bars have you ever been to that can boast that fact? Linden Pride’s recipe for this venerable hangover cure remains the best I’ve ever tried and is a mix of fresh tomatoes, celery, carrot, cucumber, lemon and red bell pepper, all put through an industrial juice extractor. You’ll never look at this drink the same way. Most Bloody Marys are made from tinned tomato juice, which is extremely high in salt and sugar but again, we were maniacal about serving the freshest Bloody Mary in New York. Now that’s a statement.

Going even a step further are bars such as Tommy’s in San Francisco where they squeeze their limes for their world famous namesake Margaritas to order. Yes, to order. It’s no wonder they’ve been recognized on more than one occasion as making the best Margaritas on planet earth. I’m not even sure if proprietor Julio Bermejo stocks cranberry juice, but if he does, I doubt he sells much of it. At Attaboy in New York, all of their citrus juices are also squeezed to order on a vintage, hand-pressed machine.

Now I’m not going to go as far say that everything I squeeze is always in season, but I’m certainly not going to put strawberries on the menu in December or watermelon in a drink in February (not in New York anyway). Many of my savory concoctions contain vegetables whose season is perhaps less defined, such as bell peppers, carrots and celery. And I have been known to use a puree in a pinch if a certain fresh ingredient can be hard to find, such as bergamot.

Am I suggesting that every bar should be going out and investing in a Sunkist Citrus Juicer and a $1000 juice extractor? Yes, that is exactly what I’m suggesting. Squeezing every single juice you serve – and refusing to serve any juice that you don’t – is a huge statement that you should be proud to stand behind. Drinking never felt so good. 

@forkandshaker

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