Our Margarita Tree

A Key lime tree

In 1895 John Bearss created the Persian lime in his nursery in Porterville, California. He was looking to make a lime that was bigger, hardier, juicier, seedless, more easily transportable and grew on trees without thorns. In this he succeeded. But it came at the cost of what matters most in a cocktail—the flavor.

The Persian lime is also known as the Bearss or Tahiti lime. It is what you are most likely to find at your local grocery store in the United States. It is large, green, with relatively low acidity, and is less aromatic and bitter than the Key Lime. It is a cross between the Key lime and the lemon.

A bowl of key limes

The Key lime is also known as the West Indian lime, bartender’s lime, Omani lime, or Mexican lime. Its name comes from its association with the Florida Keys. (Sadly, when a hurricane wiped out Florida’s Key lime trees in the 1920s, they were replaced with Persian lime trees.) In historical cocktail recipes that date back to Prohibition and before, the Key lime is almost certainly what was intended. Also, cocktails that hail from South America, such as the Pisco Sour and the Margarita, originated with the Key lime.

The Key lime is smaller than the Persian lime and is spherical and yellow when ripe. It has a higher acidity and a stronger aroma than the Persian lime with a tart, floral juice.

Taste is, of course, a matter of opinion. In a side-by-side test of the fresh squeezed juice we felt the Key lime to be far superior. It was sweeter, fuller and less bitter. It made an astonishing difference in taste to our simple Sour cocktails when we switched to using our home-grown Key limes—the Daiquiri, Bennett Cocktail, Pisco Sour and Margarita. We also preferred it in the Last Word. But in a side-by-side test of two Mai Tais we were unable to state a preference. Perhaps in recipes where the lime juice has the starring role, the type of lime used is more important than in more complex recipes.

Not everyone has a Margarita tree in their back yard so we purchased some Key limes online from Amazon. I'm sad to report that in a side-by-side test of two Bennett Cocktails, one made with the Key limes from Amazon and one with Persian limes, there was little difference. The Key limes were green which means they were picked well before they were ripe. We wait until ours are yellow and fall off the tree. I guess buyers expect limes to be green. But should you ever come across some bright yellow, ripe, Key limes they make a divine Bennett Cocktail.