A Citrus Trek to UC Riverside

Recently I went on the coolest educational trip–it knocked the socks off any school field trip I remember. Givaudan, the world’s largest flavor and fragrance company, who enjoy a partnership with UC Riverside that grants them unrestricted access to their world-class citrus groves, invited five bartenders, including myself, to explore rare citruses and learn how natural flavors are made. The bar talent invited were all super-heavyweights: Eric Alperin (The Varnish, LA), Dominic Venegas (of The Winslow, NYC), Josh Durr (of Hawthorn Beverage Group), Adam Seger (of hum Spirits Company, Chicago), and Philip Duff (of everywhere). It was amazing and humbling to be on the same trip as them. [Pictured above: A lemon-colored Citroen. Although it would have been ideal, we didn't actually drive that car on this trip.]

Anyway, one night we’re having a relaxed meet-n-greet, the next morning we’re blazing through 23 different varieties of oranges, grapefruits, lemons, and limes. Thankfully some one gave me an Alka Seltzer before we set off, otherwise I fear there may have been a hole burned in my stomach from all the citric acid. We tried citruses that don’t grow anywhere else in the world.

The stand out, for sure, was the Valentine Pomelo. It was as big as a bowling bowl. When you cut into it, it was a bright red and yellow flesh surround by white pith. The taste was citrus-meets-pomegranate-meets-cranberry. At the other end of the size spectrum were the lilliputian Meiwa Kumquats [pictured at left], where you just popped the entire thing in your mouth, and chewed on the rind and fruit all at once. It was pithy, sweet, and tart, and, dare I say, joyous.

After ambling through the groves in 90-degree heat and branding my poor SF skin with a farmer’s tan, we retired to the lovely Mission Inn, where we learned about citrus oil extraction. This may seem like a mundane subject, but the chemistry behind it was fascinating–and way over my head. But I can say this: We nosed six different compounds out of 200 that make up citrus oil, and it was amazing to see how specific each one is. For example, the Expressed Lime Oil (lime oil pressed from lime peels) jumped out as an ingredient in daily products like cleaning solution and Coca-Cola.

The following morning we all put our skills to the test and made original cocktails out of the citruses. We were paired up with one another for four cocktail challenges: a nonalcoholic beverage; a low octane cocktail using beer, wine, or vermouth for the base spirit; a white spirit cocktail; and a brown spirit cocktail. Working with the four esteemed gentlemen create cocktails and getting insight into their crafts was the most inspiring trip. I did what I could with the Valentine Pomelo, but the standout cocktails were Eric Alperin’s nonalcoholic aqua fresca, Josh Durr’s low-octane collins with sherry, and Dom Venegas’ whisky concoction.

Given the fact that it’s difficult enough to find a decent lime these days, it was a real treat to dive so deep into the world of citrus. I can’t promise a Valentine Pomelo Paloma anytime soon, but we’ll see.

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