Spirits and wine have evolved with every culture, from sake in ancient Asia, to mead in early Europe and rum in the Caribbean. As civilizations developed and mobilized, spirits that were once regional spread across the globe and food preparers began to experiment with them as additions to cookery. Early culinary leaders, such as Marie-Antoine Carême of France, began cooking with wine and distilled spirits in the early 1800s.

In one of the ultimate cooking guides, Le Guide Culinaire (originally published in 1903), August Escoffier modernized Carême’s elaborate cuisine and wrote of demi glaçes laced with fortified wines such as sherry, port and Madeira, writing, “[T]he addition of a particular wine naturally changes the flavor and character of the demi glace and will decide its ultimate use.”

Escoffier’s Madeira sauce, Sauce Vin Rouge and Sauce Piquant each incorporated wine, and chefs continue to reference these classic sauces today.
In the 21st Century, the growth of well-known branded spirits, the return of the speakeasy and the rise of the craft beer movement all stimulated alcohol beverages to leap from the bar into the kitchen as ingredients. Restaurants led the trend, and manufacturers soon took notice. Between 2013 and 2014, launches of cooking sauces made with spirits as an ingredient increased 160%, with 52 retail cooking sauces rolled out in 2014 YTD, compared with 33 such sauces in 2013.

Culinologist and nutritionist Emily Munday of Culinex, a Seattle food product development company, notes, “each time you can call out a spirit on a label, it is a huge selling point.” Munday sees more requests for products that contain spirits as part of the ingredient matrix, thus not needing to add additional flavors.
“At Culinex, we use spirits in salmon and shrimp seasonings, as well as burgers and seafood cakes,” says Munday. “In the Northwest, the use of spirits in food is ubiquitous now. People on the coast are doing fun things with tinctures and fermentation. The whole beverage industry is becoming elevated, and people have become more familiar with those flavors.”

Manufacturers can use spirits to complement and enhance the formulation of a product, without overwhelming the final product’s flavor. If the final product has a spirit in it, the consumer expects to taste that spirit. The percentage of alcohol in spirits and beverages food processors typically use to produce formulations can vary from 5% to 20%, and manufacturers should make sure to heat the spirits enough to remove the alcohol, but not the flavor of the spirit.

Depending on cooking methods, alcohol content and heat exchange systems, manufacturers can best decide whether to add a spirit at the beginning, middle or end of the cooking process. When producing large scale food products, manufacturers should use an industrial spirit designed for large-scale production or otherwise risk the flavor profile of their product varying year to year.

Bourbon Leads Spirit Growth

Bourbon is the clear leader of the spirit trend, fueled by the renewed interest in classic American cocktails and the craft distillers’ movement. The vanilla-like notes and other nuances from aged oak barrels come out in bourbon. The drink works well in sweet and nut applications, such as ice creams, custards, pie fillings, poached or sous vide fruits, preserves and glazed nuts. Because bourbon’s sweetness pairs perfectly with smoky and spicy notes, it can be used with smoked meats, and meshes well with the Latin trend, including such ingredients as chipotle peppers, jalapeños and green chili peppers in soups, and salsas.
In 2013, 47 product launches, across all food categories, listed bourbon as an ingredient. This year to date, manufacturers launched 31 products, and the introductions are on pace to exceed 2013. Mainstream products include Campbell Soup Co.’s “Slow Cooker Apple Bourbon Sauce,” Perdue Farms Inc.’s “Bourbon Chicken” and Kroger Company’s “Bourbon Peppercorn 30-Minute Marinade.”

According to Mintel Group’s “Menu insights,” in the first quarter of 2014 there were 191 dishes with bourbon as an ingredient, 33 of which paired bourbon BBQ with a protein. Savory bourbon sauces also made their way into main dishes and side dishes, such as maple glazed bourbon bacon macaroni and cheese. The most successful of these items combines the richness of the bourbon with acidity coming from vinegar, citrus, tamarind or similar ingredients.

Culinary developer Charlie Baggs of Charlie Baggs Culinary Innovations (CBCI), reveals that bourbon is the most popular spirit his group works with.

“We use bourbon to create a base layer for sauces and marinades. Bourbon is very adaptive when creating Southern, Midwestern and Southwestern cooking. It’s great in BBQ and smoking because it gives deep and smoky flavor bases.”

Baggs also notes that the flavor profile of bourbon marries well in varied industry business channels, including retail, B & I, Fast Casual and QSR. He notes an increase in customers requesting items formulated with spirits.

Guy Meikle of CBCI also uses spirits when pickling, braising and reducing liquids, often replacing sugars with spirit reductions or eliminating the water and replacing it with a spirit.

“In using alcohol in product development, the developer will have to either build on top of the spirit flavor, deglaze to build flavor into the bottom notes or ‘freshen’ in the end of the process. However, if too much spirit is used, the item will become top-heavy,” he says. In discussing the flammability of high-alcohol ingredients, he suggests that by using a covered kettle, “it’s possible to flash off the alcohol without losing too much of the volatiles and flavor.”

Whiskey Business

Bourbon has created a halo effect for other spirits as well, and whiskey is quickly rising in popularity. Craft distilleries are growing and a consumption boom in Asia are key contributing factors to whiskey’s popularity. European restaurants now offer degustation menus with small-pour whiskey pairings. With varietals ranging from Scotch, to Irish and rye, chefs are pairing these with other ingredients for formulations, creating distinct and balanced flavors.

Manufacturers can find industrial ingredients that will offer consistency in product, yet still be part of the trend. Although scotch or rye whiskey has a sharper flavor than bourbon, it can be juxtaposed with smoky flavors and excels in barbeque sauces, meat glazes, marinades and mopping sauces. It can be used in the braising or sous vide and complements the deep flavor of rich meats.

In a retort environment, these whiskies will soften in flavor and act as a good ingredient to use in soups, sweet-hot condiments or sauces. Red jalapeños, habaneros and sweeteners work well with scotch whiskey in developing sauces, salsas, soups and marinades. Scotch whiskey-flavored sauces also pair well with bread puddings and add a kick to baked fruits.

Whiskey’s sharp flavor works well when macerating dried fruits such as raisins, currants, diced dried apricots and fresh stone fruits. It can also be used as an ingredient when preparing legumes and chili peppers. Whiskey will tie-in well with the new line of simmer and slow cooker sauces manufacturers are creating, and can be used as a substitute for other spirits or wines when putting an edge on legumes and ancient grains or glazing garden fresh vegetables.

Vodka Still Strong

Although “brown” spirits are leading the spirit trend, according to Distilled Spirits Council (DISCUS) Chief Economist David Ozgo, vodka still “pays the bills.” Vodka accounts for greatest volume among spirits, with 65.9 million cases and revenue of $5.6 billion. DISCUS credits vodka, and the explosion of flavored vodkas, for being the first step in bringing people back to the spirits category.

Because of its neutral flavor, manufacturers can add vodka to almost any dish or sauce. Long-used in tomato sauces, manufacturers are now experimenting with highly popular vodka infusions. Vodka infusions vary, ranging from those made with fruits (such as citrus and berry), to pepper and spice flavors. Manufacturers can duplicate this technique by balancing fruit and herb flavors that give the vodka a “lift” in a production setting. With global flavors continuing to climb in popularity among consumers, developers can use vodka in sauces, vegetarian stews, Middle Eastern dishes and North African dishes because it marries well with the bright, trendy flavor profiles consumers are seeking. As of second quarter 2014, there were 64 dishes with vodka listed as an ingredient, up 12.3% since 2010. Products include “Gnocci and Italian Sausage with Basil and Tomato Vodka Cream” at Brinker International’s Maggiano’s dining chain and Giovanni’s Gourmet Dining Inc.’s “Belon Oysters Tomato-Horseradish Vodka-Infused Ice.”

Rum, Brandy and other Spirits

Rum and brandy are old favorites that manufacturers can revise for today’s tastes. Product developers can go beyond the traditional combination of rum and pineapple and opt for grilled and roasted notes to proteins, chili peppers, fruits and peppers. Rum’s sweetness lends itself well to red heat as well as dark sugars, such as molasses. It also can be brightened with the addition of the acidity of vinegar or citrus juices. Manufacturers can use either light or dark rum as a good marinade base, or reduce dark rum to add an element of sweetness and oak from the barrel.

Brandy continues as a classic featured ingredient, showing up in 120 restaurant dishes as of second quarter, 2014. Mainstream restaurants include La Madeline’s signature brandy sour cream sauce for crêpes and Lonestar Steakhouse Inc.’s peppercorn rib eye served with brandy cream sauce.

Tequila growth has been mirroring the Latin Cuisine boom. Tequila works well with Hispanic food as a natural pairing with green chile, green or red jalapeños and tomatillo-based items, but can also add unique flavor to white sauces, soups, glazes and marinades. Tequila showed a strong sales leap in 2013 with a case-volume increase of 6.6% and a dollar growth percent increase of 7.9 %, according to DISCUS figures.

Manufacturers can substitute tequila for rum in BBQ sauces and marinades, as tequila pairs nicely with seafood, chicken, pork and red meat. Once the alcohol is flashed off, formulation developers can use tequila in a modern chimichurri and in a piquant pepper sauce to give them a twist of deeper, more interesting flavor.

Spirits in Process

The manufacturer’s cooking process will determine how much spirit to use, according to Bret Lynch, director of corporate research and development for Trident Seafoods Inc.

“Flashing off the alcohol is where a lot of the impact is lost,” he says. “Sometimes manufacturers want the alcohol sugars to react with the sugars in a frozen product.”

Culinex’s Munday agrees, stressing that the amount of spirits used greatly varies in a final product formulation.

“The percentage of alcohol will be determined by cost, sugars and how the protein will react to the amount of alcohol in a meal kit. Consumer testing is critical,” she says. “Prior to release, product developers and manufacturers need to know how the different spirits react to heat and lose flavor. The spirit flavor must stay through the targeted shelflife as well as through the intended cooking process. This includes the ability to withstand high-heat cooking (such as grilling) or any other cooking preparation for intended preparation method.”

Formulators are mimicking restaurant chefs, using spirits in traditional cooking methods, such as brining, braising, reducing, curing and glazing, and in batter applications, according to Lynch.

“Atomizing in conjunction with smoke, and injecting into fish and other proteins in conjunction with other flavors such as maple, black pepper, and nut flavors, are great ways to add flavor to delicate,” he says. “’Tumbling’ fresh alcohol when preparing proteins for smoking or drying is another modern way of imparting flavor into the protein.”

Today’s technology allows culinary and R&D teams to come together to provide retail and foodservice customers with flavors of current trends and a dining experience similar to those achieved at fine restaurants. The rise of spirits as an ingredient shows no sign of slowing, and developers have just hit the ground. With flavor trends continuing to lean toward brighter, smokier and spicier global flavors, spirits are excellent ingredients for complementing flavors and develop depth of character in foods.

For more information:
Barbara Zatto, Director of Culinary
Mizkan Americas, Food Ingredients Division