When BFF Mark and I went backpacking in Europe (remember when we had graduate assistantships and loads of money?), I could say I was most impressed by the Louvre, or maybe the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, or the Neuchwanstein castle in Germany… but all that would be a lie, because the thing that stuck with me the most after those two weeks was Bitter Lemon.
When we first arrived in Zurich, we sat down at a little cafe and drank white wine with Bitter Lemon. Then in a train station the next day we drank beer mixed with Bitter Lemon. In France we drank it everywhere we went. In Amsterdam it was our go-to in every restaurant. And our final day in Europe we bought some and mixed it with wine and drank it while walking around the streets.
What IS Bitter Lemon, you ask? Some of you savvy travelers know what I’m talking about, but if you don’t, it’s a really bitter, carbonated lemonade made by Schweppes, the fine people that bring us our tonic waters, club sodas, and ginger ales. But you can’t find it here in the States. Trust me, I’ve spent years and years looking for it. If you’ve ever had San Pelligrino Limonada, it’s KIND OF like that, but not quite.
This homemade version is spot-on, especially when paired with some crisp tonic water (I’d never drink it without). Boiling un-peeled lemons and then combining them with just a touch of sugar may seem a little weird, but it’s worth it, and this is (in my opinion) summer in a glass. Way better than plain ol’ lemonade 😉
2 lemons, quartered
20 oz water
1/2 – 2/3 cup sugar*
tonic water, for serving
Place the lemons and water in a pot and heat to boiling. Once it boils, immediately turn the heat down to a low simmer. Cook the lemons and water for 20-30 minutes. I like to err on the long side to get every flavor I can out of the lemon peel. Remove from heat and stir in the sugar. Allow to cool. Strain the mixture (I like to squeeze the lemons while straining to make sure I get everything out of them) and pour the liquid into a bottle for storage. This will keep nicely in the fridge for a week or two.
When the mixture is cool, pour two tablespoons-worth (just eyeball it–this isn’t a science) into a tall glass and top off with ice and tonic water. You will NOT need much of the bitter lemon–a little goes a long way. You, DO, however, need a lot of tonic water–the quinine helps makes the drink really distinctive.
There you go! If you want to party a little harder, this drink goes REALLY WELL with alcohol. Suggestions are, but not limited to:
-Bitter Lemon and white wine. Add some of the lemon liquid with a crisp white wine and top off with a little tonic water. I like this, but wine junkies won’t.
-Bitter Lemon and beer. Mix some bitter lemon (probably don’t need to add tonic water here unless you want) to a nice wheat beer and you’ve got yourself a shandy!
-Bitter Lemon and Vodka. Duh. Like I even needed to say that.
-Bitter Lemon with Pimms No.1 (drink it like the Brits). Okay, this is my FAVORITE Bitter Lemon combo. If you’ve never had Pimms, you really should–it adds a kind of dark iced-tea flavor to the lemon taste and I can’t get enough of it. God, I think I’m going to make it right now…
Also, this would be wonderful if you steeped the Bitter Lemon mixture with some fresh basil, mint, or even lavendar. Seriously. Or muddle it with some fruit. I’m freaking out. This is too much.
*The recipe calls for a 1/4 lb of sugar, which is a little over a half a cup. Use your judgement on this one–if it’s too bitter, add more sugar. But I wouldn’t.