Beer, wine, rum, whiskey, and other alcohol beverages are familiar and indispensable sources of flavor for culinarians. Used as a foundation of full flavor, such as in a red wine sauce, they act as a focus for the item they are tasked to dress up and enrich.

Used as a splash or a concentrated reduction, alcohol “opens up” the starring flavors in sweet and savory formulations, enhancing them without overriding them.

Whether its role is to embolden or enhance, the use of alcohol in food and beverage preparations is on the rise as consumer palates become more sophisticated and chefs and mixologists push the boundaries of what these ingredients can contribute.

With organic, non-GMO, and clean-label considerations driving much of product development today, formulators need to focus on using higher quality ingredients to meet customer expectations. Luckily, flavor houses have been following the trends and developing sophisticated, natural wine, beer, and spirit reductions and flavors.

“It is not unusual for chefs to start their career utilizing wine, beer, and spirits via the established classic sauces,” says Jaime Mestan, director of bistro products for Vienna Beef, Ltd. “From the standard bordelaise served with beef to the fundamental beurre blanc or Bananas Foster, understanding why one wine made a better sauce than another was solely based on flavor and functionality.”

As an example, Mestan describes the use of certain wines in a fish sauce. “I strive to bring out the dryness of Chablis in a fish fumet when making this classic seafood soup. The clean flavor and acidity of the wine cuts through the richness of the fish stock, and since it is fermented in steel, there is no residual oak flavor.”

Often, it is necessary to reverse engineer a formula, backing out the water and in some cases, fat, sodium, or other flavor contributors and enhancers. This is why wine or spirit reductions have been increasing in popularity with research chefs. If the alcohol is a major component of a sauce, they will primarily use a reduction. However, if the cooking process will be so lengthy that too much flavor might be cooked off, the chef might add a highly concentrated or even powdered form to reintroduce a top note or accent to the final product. 


Days of Wine

Darryl Holliday, PhD, CRC, director of the Food Science Program at the University of Holy Cross, New Orleans, discusses the percentages of wine used in creating a formulation with the fruit of the vine. He recommends that when using white wine, one should stay under 15% for the unaltered ingredient and under 5% when using a reduction (such as for cost control or flavor). With reds, his recommendation is to stay under 10% for actual wine and 3% for reductions.

When adding wine, beer, spirits, or other liquors to an item, it is not the alcohol that adds actual flavors. Most flavor compounds are lipid- soluble. The alcohol helps to dissolve the fats that carry these volatile compounds, releasing them to interact with the other ingredients and flavors and add their profiles to the formulation. Thus, the alcohol component allows ingredients to reveal their own unique flavors in ways that other liquids such as water or stock and fats cannot.

It is equally important for the product developer to understand the compounds in the product they are using. Low-acid wines will not easily cut through acidic ingredients such as citrus and tomatoes, while a more acidic, drier wine such as a cabernet has enough acid to break through those acid-rich ingredients. Keeping this in mind helps the formulator build interesting layers of flavor, and use various other ingredients to complement or juxtapose those flavors.

The wine aroma wheel by University of California, Davis, researcher Ann Noble is a great reference when looking into compounds that the flavors and aromas of the wine or spirit that is chosen for a sauce, vinaigrette, filling, or sweet application.

An adaptation of Noble’s wheel by The Wine Folly suggests that sulfur compounds can translate into giving minerality to a wine, while phenols, which are chemical compounds similar to alcohol, can add a “clove” or “bacon-like” aroma to wine.


Big Red

Mestan cites using a cabernet to add an extra layer of flavor in a beef barley soup as an example of working with red wine. “I always start out with an uncommercialized recipe that uses real, full-strength alcohol. Once my team and I have tasted the finished product, I capture the flavors that need to be present, and the desired potency; then I take it to the lab.” The batch production might then rely on a prepared reduction or even a powdered version of the wine.

Using wine to add another layer of flavor is now common in the manufacturing process. A culinologist needs to determine how to obtain the same or similar flavors, and overall experience, as the original recipe, yet with the equipment and ingredients suitable for full production kitchens. Consumers increasingly are demanding a restaurant experience when they purchase and prepare a prepackaged meal.

“To commercialize a recipe such as one with red wine, it’s impractical to deglaze 300 gallons worth of cabernet,” explains Mestan. “In this case, a cabernet flavor in the form of a powder or concentrate will be necessary, yet that also will not be enough. When deglazing something, it is not just the wine but the full flavor of the deglazing liquid that is being concentrated. To recreate this, it is essential to account for the ‘fond’ — the flavorful browned bits stuck to the pan, enhanced by the Maillard reaction flavors from browning the beef. It is the combination of all these aspects that provides the fullness and depth of the complete flavor.”

But not only must the flavor concentration be accounted for, so must the color (usually deepened) as well as the texture from the reduction of the liquid portion of the mixture. To accomplish this in his beef barley soup, Mestan employs 2% cabernet in the total formula, a powdered roasted beef flavor, and a caramelized mirepoix base.

“I still get the full flavor from the wine that I wanted to use originally,” Mestan explains, “and I get all the other components from the deglazing technique that would have been impossible due to my production capabilities. Taking it one step further, I know, based on functionality and labeling, that I will need to use a manufactured wine or beer reduction, concentrate, or flavor.”


Stout Hearted

Taste authenticity is not necessarily sacrificed by using such flavorants. Today’s flavor systems allow for a much more nuanced touch. “It comes down to understanding the concept and embracing what makes the flavor profile authentic outside of a traditional preparation,” explains Justin Kanthak, a director at Griffith Foods, Inc., and president of the Research Chefs Association.

“For example,” says Kanthak, “if we’re formulating a beer cheese profile for a regional potato chip company in Wisconsin versus a profile that will be sold to the general population in the US, it’s all about anticipating the end-user’s expectations. In Wisconsin, you need to have a very rich, barley-based profile, and the flavors need to deliver a regionally acceptable beer cheese experience. However, for the general consumer, this profile might be too rich and would be more acceptable if less forward, with a more neutral ale profile.”

Mestan agrees, adding, “I know that I need a hoppy ale for my beer cheese soup so that the flavor will hit the olfactory senses first, then step back into a creamy, fatty, cheesy experience full of buttery notes — all mixed in with the tang of aged cheddar.”

The craft beer movement is piquing the interest of consumers and food product formulators are following through with several products that call out a specific variety of beer in the product. Examples include Jelly Belly Candy Co.’s draft beer-flavored jelly beans, Diageo PLC’s Guinness Stout-flavored potato chips, Panorama Foods, Inc.’s Beer Flats pilsner crackers, and a cross-pollination between New Belgium Brewing Co. and Ben & Jerry’s Homemade Holdings Inc. to create beer-flavored ice cream and Ben & Jerry’s Salted Caramel Brown-ie ale. There is an advantage to the snacks space where culinarians can invest in the quality of seasonings as consumers’ expectations are higher in the snack aisle.


Whiskey Business

In producing a culinary standard, an original recipe and ingredients can be manipulated to add increasing complexity. Baking, reducing, or simply creatively pairing the ingredients with a distilled spirit will engage the richness and build a layered symphony of flavors. This can be accomplished with a spirit as simple as a silver tequila or as complex as a bourbon or other whiskey.

Craft whiskey has seen a rapid rise in popularity of late. The number of craft distilleries has been growing markedly, as have global consumption trends. Whiskies — bourbon, Scotch, rye, etc. — are complicated distillations bringing together multiple ingredients and carrying upwards of 100 distinct flavor notes.

“With the access to an array of components on a composed plate, the research chef can utilize a bourbon in a variety of ways that all have a distinctively different profile with the sample liquor,” says Kanthak.

“Using a baked bourbon bread pudding as an example, the chef can soak and bake the bread with bourbon included, allowing the toasty, nutty, and grain-inflected flavor notes to play off of the Maillard reactions of the bread,” he adds. “Then, the chef may add a bourbon caramel sauce, expanding on the fruit and caramel flavors in the whiskey.

“Finally, topping with a touch of a premium bourbon to the whipped cream will awaken the full nose and fruit of the drink to link all the other steps of the flavors together into a harmonious whole greater than the sum of the parts,” concludes Kanthak.

Kanthak explains that, for the food scientist, translating such complexity into a non-traditional form — a trail mix or granola bar, for example — means identifying what the common profiles are (sweet bourbon, brown sweet, and sweet dairy), then applying them to a new carrier that captures the essence.


In the Spirit

Chefs are becoming increasingly adept at using various distilled spirit flavors to pair with, yet not overwhelm, the other ingredients. With the return and broader acceptance of grilled or slow-roasted meats, smoked items, and other heartier comfort fare, manufacturers have taken notice and focus on the ways in which spirits pair well with strongly flavored foods.

So-called “brown” liquors, like whiskey, are a classic complement to smoked meat items. Yet whiskey also has stepped into the ring for unlikely pairings with Japanese and Korean dishes, such as hot tofu soup or grilled seafood.

Manufacturers can find supplied ingredients that will offer consistency in product, yet still be part of the trend. Scotch whiskey is coming into its own in foods. Although the flavor is brighter than bourbon, it still works well with some of the items traditionally paired with bourbon, specifically BBQ sauces, mopping sauces, and barbecued meats.

Whether Scotch, Bourbon, Irish, rye or other types, whiskey-flavored sauces pair well with sweet baked items, too. While bread puddings are classic companions to these flavors, these liquors add spirit to baked fruits and cakes as well as they do with meat glazes and marinades.

Whiskey can be used in the braising or sous vide process. In a retort environment, whiskey will soften in flavor and is a surprisingly good ingredient to use in soups and sweet-hot condiments or sauces. Spice, too, can benefit from a spirited kick. Red jalapeños, habaneros, and sweeteners join well with whiskey in developing sauces, salsas, soups, and marinades. Whiskey can also be used as an ingredient when preparing legumes, stews, and chilis.

Whiskey will tie in well with the new lines of simmer and slow cooker sauces that manufacturers are creating. It also can be used as a substitute for other spirits or wines when putting an edge on legumes or ancient grains and when glazing garden-fresh vegetables.

Most distilled spirits work very well for macerating dried fruits, such as raisins, currants, diced dried apricots, and fresh stone fruits. Not only whiskey but herbaceous gins and even lighter sweet and sparkling wines, from rosés to champagnes and other fruitier varietals, seem tailor-made to bring out depth in fruits, both fresh and dried.


Spirited Snacks

Kanthak notes a definite increase in a trend for declared beer profiles, such as lager, ale, stout, and porter. But he also points to a rising trend in the use of bourbon and scotch in the snack food industry. He cites the exploding snack food culture and an adventurous industry with a greater willingness to try new flavors. Moreover, there is the relatively low cost of entry, both for the processor and the consumer.

For the price of a bag or box of nuts, chips, or crackers, consumers do not have to spend much to risk trying something new. With the explosion of craft beer and liquor in the US, consumers are experimenting with alcohol-flavored items. This, in turn, is also driving familiarity.

Darker beers, such as stouts and porters, are increasingly making their way into food formulations. The profiles are more complex and have a sweetness, flavor complexity, and grain component that pairs well in the snack food platform.

While primarily applicable to nuts, crackers have the potential to be an excellent carrier for the richer notes of brown spirit or dark beer seasoning. Also on tap are applications with a sweet component, including chocolate-coated or pan-coated items. Honey bourbon pecans are a perfect example.

“Consumers are driving innovation with alcohol. With the trends being generated by the beverage industry, there is a body of development already executed by the flavor industry. Today’s culinologists are taking those flavor profiles and translating them into new, snackable formats,” adds Kanthak.

Another opportunity for alcohol beverages as flavorants has been in frozen desserts. Ice creams using the roasted sweet notes of stout and the bold rich profile of whiskey — which pairs classically with vanilla — have been appearing in supermarket freezers…and disappearing into consumer carts just as fast.