How the Lime Shortage is Affecting Chicago Bars

By Sarah Freeman  |  April 29, 2014
Credit: Flickr/Engledow Jenni

You’ve heard about the lime shortage - a perfect storm of drought, bacterial disease and an aptly timed downpour that destroyed fruit blossoms, mixed with a little Mexican drug cartel hijacking. “My best guess is things aren't going to start normalizing for at least 8 to 10 months,” said bar manager Jay Schroeder at Frontera Grill. With patio season about to be in full swing, bartenders are taking the crisis threatening margaritas, palomas and other citrus-based cocktails very seriously.

It appears that bartenders have two options: pay the premium (upwards of $100 a case, which used to cost $25) or ditch the limes altogether. Bars such as Big Star are opting for the first, raising prices of their beloved margarita pitchers from $33 to $40 and a glass of the signature cocktail from $8 to $9. According to DNA Info, the bar experimented with pasteurized lime juice in its cocktail, but decided to raise the price rather than alter the recipe.

Some bar managers, like Schroeder were able to avoid the crisis initially due to a long-standing relationship with Beck Grove organic farm in California. “We've purchased from them for years and have paid a premium for what's pretty much the best citrus on the planet,” he said. “Unfortunately, the California season is coming to an end and we're back on commodity.” He was able to stockpile some of the juice for cocktails at Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, but will soon have to consider other options.

Enter Masa Azul, a place with a new bar manager who is staring the lime crisis dead in the eyes and not flinching. Brian Adee took over the cocktail program at the upscale Mexican restaurant a month ago. His new cocktail menu debuts tonight and features zero lemons or limes. It is just as agave-heavy as ever, but instead of balancing the richness of the cocktail with citrus, he created new sour ingredients. According to Adee, bartenders capture the sour flavor by using lemon, lime or grapefruit. "But those don’t come close to leveraging all of the flavors in mezcal," he said.

His cocktail menu uses acidification to turn any waster-soluble ingredient into a sour one. One of the new cocktails, the Afortunado, uses a base of green tea infused with mezcal and “powdered acid” to enhance sour notes in the tea. The cocktail finishes with cynar and Century bitters and is served on a Loteria card. Another drink, Explorador, is a tiki cocktail made with acidified pineapple juice and curry leaf to balance the sweetness. Many of Adee’s inspiration for his cocktails come from tiki, a style of bartending that requires combining multiple, often unconventional, flavors to achieve balance.

Adee will still be mixing up margaritas with some very expensive limes, but can curb cost with his new lime-less menu. So, yes, some see the lime shortage as a crisis, while others see it as an opportunity to explore the world of tequila, mezcal and sotol in new ways.