No Limes? Not a Problem. Here’s How to Celebrate Cinco de Mayo Without Them

Rising prices for the citrus fruit have inspired bartenders to get their creative juices flowing

Margarita Image by © Philip Nealey/Somos Images/Corbis

When it comes to the near future of the lime, Americans are in a pickle. A combination of bad weather and drug cartel interference has caused limes from Mexico—where we get 95 percent of our limes—to be in exceedingly short supply. With the citrusy juice a main ingredient in Latin American cuisine, chefs have had to get creative for for dishes such as guacamole and ceviche. And for drinks like the margarita, bartenders have had to pull an assortment of tricks to create the right balance of booze and mixers. Thankfully, the drink makers are happy to share their tips for lime-free recipes that still capture that bold taste, and just in time for Cinco de Mayo, a celebration of Mexican culture and heritage in which the beloved fruit is a major player.

Consider the Lemon

While they're both citrus fruits, lemons tend to be more sour than limes. Still—their similarities in size and taste make the lemon an easy and ideal substitute. Some places such as AF+B tavern in Fort Worth, Texas, have adjusted their lime-based cocktails to include lemon instead and the change in flavor is reportedly undetectable. Take their signature Chilcano, a blend of citrus juice -- the standard shot glass or jigger is usually 1.5 fluid ounces --3/4 ounces of ginger syrup, and two ounces of Pisco Portón, a Peruvian spirit. They mix it all together in a cocktail shaker, pour over ice, and top it off with a splash of club soda to taste.

Still, other establishments have created entirely new cocktail menus that celebrate lemons from the get-go. At Chicago's Sable Kitchen & Bar, bartender John Stanton serves up the Somerset, a mix of 1.5 ounces of Calle 23 Blanco tequila, a half-ounce of Aperol, ¼ ounce apricot liqueur, ¼ ounce simple syrup, and 3/4 ounces fresh lemon juice, shaken together and topped with Prosecco for a sharp finish similar to that of lime. “It's an alternative to lime-flavored margaritas,” says Stanton, “In that it's a refreshing, tequila-based summer drink that demonstrates the sweet, savory, and earthy flavors associated with the traditional drink.”

Get Creative with Fruit

Lemons aren't the only citrusy substitutes out there. Take the grapefruit. At Chicago's Sepia restaurant, the head bartender is using the tangy, sour fruit to replace lime in his Mr. Fantástic drink, a cocktail that features 2 ounces of Olmeca Altos tequila, 3/4 ounces habanero cordial (to make it, infuse simple syrup with habanero peppers and fortify the liquid with a small amount of tequila), a half-ounce each of grapefruit juice and lemon juice, and a pinch of salt. Back at the Sable Kitchen & Bar, bartender Mike Ryan uses one ounce of fresh tomatillo juice (instead of lime) in his drink, the Thorn and Rose, which also incorporates 1 1/2 ounces of Lustau Manzanilla sherry, 3/4 ounces Cabeza Tequila, and 1/2 ounce rosemary syrup. Despite the lack of citrus, this distinct cocktail captures that tart, lemon-like flavor of tomatillos, which are so prevalent in Mexican cuisine. 

Highlight Other Ingredients

In order to disguise the lack of lime juice in your cocktail, why not bring other flavors to the forefront? At Seattle's Sazerac Restaurant & Bar, Chef Jason McClure has created a short menu of drinks ideal for Cinco de Mayo with the spirit of the lime in mind. His Lemon Rhubarb Margarita includes the taste of citrus by using fresh lemon juice, though the cocktail focuses more on rhubarb, which provides a nice tart taste this early in the season. McClure produces one ounce of fresh rhubarb juice using a juicer, then mixes it with 1.5 ounces Silver tequila, a half ounce of Cointreau, juice from half a lemon, and agave syrup to taste—all shaken together and served over ice with salt. “We haven’t stopped using limes altogether,” says McClure, “but the shortage has pushed our creativity in finding ways to get that same acidity. The outcome is something that’s different from the classic margarita cocktail but still has a similar feel. If you get too far away from the original inspiration you’ve lost what people love about it.”

Each year Cincinnati's Nada restaurant has a huge “Cinco de Nada” celebration to ring in the fifth of May, complete with a popular limed-based Chili Mango Margarita. However, the lime can easily be taken out or substituted with another citrus, as the cocktail's main flavor comes from a combination of mango purée and pineapple juice. To make it at home, put 4-6 whole Chile de árbol peppers in a one liter bottle of tequila and let it infuse between 24-48 hours (the drink's just as tasty after Cinco de Mayo). Strain out the chilies, then mix 1 ¾ ounces of the tequila with 1 ½ ounces Triple Sec, one ounce each of pineapple juice, mango purée, and lime juice, and a half-ounce of agave syrup. Shake and serve over ice with salt.

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