Price: £3.00 / 4 bottles
Best consumed: With a good classic style gin.
Sweetener: Cane Sugar
Availability: As Lemon Tonic in Europe, as Bitter Lemon stateside
Rating: For a bitter lemon, it accomplishes the goals set out. Heavy with the citrus, with plenty of tart, literal lemon juice notes, it feels less balanced than other bitter lemons, partially because of its desire to be more natural, it comes across more as a tonic water with shelf stable lemon juice, rather than fresh.
Bitter Lemon or Lemon Tonics are something of an interesting creature in the world of mixed drinks. Many of the sodas themselves occupy an odd space between supermarket tonic and Squirt Soda. In many cases, the saccharine, and sweetened soda character is part of the charm. Surely, with lemon notes, it’s less real lemon and more a facsimile of lemon like lemon soda.
Certainly that is not its origin, but that’s where it generally is.
Now contrast this with another trend towards authenticity and more natural ingredients in soda. You see soda makers like Q, taking an approach more rooted in the natural flavors and botanicals that modern “cola flavor” is derived from. The drive towards this authenticity is where Fever Tree’s Lemon Tonic enters the picture. It’s trying to bring Bitter Lemon back to its quinine and lemon roots.
But in doing so, it stumbled upon I think the same issue the plagues mixers like Rose’s Lime Juice or those shelf stable plastic lemons and limes. Fresh squeezed juice and shelf stable varieties don’t have the same vibrancy or character. A lot of the oil notes that fresh squeeze citrus adds are absent, as are some of the bright volatiles. Instead what you’re left with is something that is tart and although clearly lemon, it seems incomplete.
That’s where this soda falls short with me. On the palate it’s got a pleasant enough quinine bite, some tight, pert bubbles (as you always get with Fever Tree tonics), but you also get the tart, overly acidic rough edges of lemon that doesn’t quite do the fruit justice. It tastes a bit like tonic mixed with shelf stable lemon juice.
Perhaps that’s not a bad thing. It is a step towards a more natural product, especially when compared with the 1L bottles of carbonated bitter lemon sodas that so dominate the category. As an Epicurean though, it’s hard not to feel a bit let down as the flavor seems hemmed in by the realities of glass bottles, mass production, and shipping requirements, etc.
So in reviewing Fever Tree’s Bitter Lemon I feel it occupies an awkward place. It’s not quite true enough to other Lemon Tonics out there to chip away at the existing market, but it’s also not fresh enough to deliver on the promise of a fresh bitter lemon. I found it to be acceptable with Gibson’s Gin: nice juniper, but plenty of that hollow lemon flavor coming through, and a very tart finish, with a pleasant dryness. I’d frankly recommend buying Fever Tree’s excellent regular tonic and adding a squeeze of fresh lemon, if that’s what you’re looking for. If instead, you’re looking for a true Bitter Lemon, stick with Schweppes.
Overall, I like the direction, but it ends up stuck in a limbo between the potential of a new direction and not quite delivering what the category represents.