Sometimes the simplest things are hidden right beneath your nose. Or such is the case with mixo-virtuoso Theo Lieberman, whose mother (years before he stepped behind the bar at Raines Law Room and his current post, Milk and Honey), burned grapefruit oil in his room for its natural soothing effects. Decades later, during a stressful evening behind the bar, Lieberman grabbed grapefruit peel and rubbed it between his hands to unleash its oils.
Inspired by that sensory throwback and grapefruit’s best bitter qualities, Lieberman developed a technique that’s slowly becoming part of the modern cocktail lexicon: the Regal shake. Don’t let the fancy name fool you. Lieberman’s process couldn’t be easier. He peels a long grapefruit twist, drops it into a shaker with ice and liquid ingredients, and goes to town smashing the citrus peel against metal and ice. Grapefruit oil in cocktails is nothing new. But instead of sitting on top of a drink, as is the case with the ordinary expressed peel, the Regal shake emulsifies grapefruit oil into the drink, acting like improvised bitters that dry and round out a cocktail.
“I like making simple drinks,” says Lieberman, who generally limits his cocktails to three or four ingredients. “If I want to add sweetness to a drink, I can add table sugar, but it doesn’t bring anything to the drink. Honey on the other hand brings flavor and aroma, but it can easily make a drink too sweet for most customers.”
That’s where the Regal shines. “The Regal can dry things out, and drinks that are usually too sweet are more approachable,” he says, and since only mild grapefruit flavor and aroma are imparted during the shake, the technique lends itself to a wide variety of liquors— working well with Scotch, gin, and bourbon. “It’s a nice way to open up parts of a menu to more customers.” The technique also helps balance drinks as they dilute over time, like in Lieberman’s interpretation of The Business (Bombay dry gin, honey, and lime) where the grapefruit keeps the gin’s juniper forward and dry. Without it, the drink sweetens as it sits, smothering the juniper and spice and overwhelming the palate.
2 ounces Buffalo Trace Bourbon
¾ ounce Honey Syrup
Add grapefruit peel and ice
Shake for 15 seconds
While the delicate grapefruit notes might get lost in an eight-ingredient drink, Raines Law Room’s Meaghan Dorman says the Regal “works really well for simple drinks and old traditional cocktails you see on a lot of menus these days.” And it’s different from simply adding a dash of bitters, she says. Grapefruit helps start the drink with a brightness that’s hard to find without bringing any herbal notes and changing the drinks focus.
2008 Rising Star Mixologist Sam Ross, who incorporates orange wedges in the shake for his Bermuda Sour, says that Lieberman’s Regal is a natural progression that “takes it to the next level.” Shaking citrus wedges, Ross admits, can add unwanted sweetness. Grapefruit peel though “really brightens, it lengthens, it mellows, and it gives a solid foundation to the drink,” he says.
In the current state of mixology, where it’s standard to take classic cocktails and experiment until it becomes the best possible version of itself, the Regal is a significant breakthrough—not only for the complexity it offers but also its genius simplicity. It’s not yet well known, according to Ross, but the technique is gradually catching on in other East Coast cities. “With social media and how close the industry is around the country and even the world, it’s definitely going to start spreading.”