Alcohol flavor development
Achieving that perfect blend of flavors to simulate an alcoholic drink takes technique, as many of the flavors come from the alcohol component — the spirit, the wine or the brewed beer. There are some flavors that simply cannot be present at the same levels without the alcohol, said Ms. Harvey.
“Because many of the signature flavor components are found in higher alcohols or are only miscible in actual alcoholic spirits, non-alcoholic products have to be formulated carefully so that they don’t lose authenticity of flavor,” Ms. Harvey said.
Understanding how those flavors develop, as well as how they may vary based on starting material and manufacturing process, assists chemists with the development of flavors. To start, it is important to understand the two primary categories of alcoholic beverages. Those described as distilled include spirits and liqueurs, while beers and wines are referred to as fermented. Spirit and liqueur manufacturing starts with fermentation and is followed by distillation, the process of separating and concentrating the various components by selective evaporation and condensation.
Fermentation involves the use of live and active microorganisms, most notably bacteria and yeast, to convert carbohydrates, mainly sugar, into alcohol. Carbohydrate source and quality, and microorganism selection impact flavor and volatile development, as does every step in the manufacturing process, which, for some alcoholic beverages, includes aging and ripening prior to packaging. This is how there are so many brands and varietals of alcoholic beverages in the marketplace.
In theory, a non-alcoholic packaged beverage may be crafted using the real alcohol base that it’s trying to mimic. That’s because the manufacturing process to produce a packaged beverage involves heat, which burns off the alcohol. But with the alcohol goes many flavors and aromas.
“The volatility of the alcohol can be tricky for manufacturers to work with, and they often have to compensate in formulations for some of the alcohol’s flavor components,” Ms. Harvey said.
This is where flavoring ingredients such as reductions come into play. The highly concentrated ingredients are made from real alcohol and are prepared using heat under vacuum, whereby the alcohol and most of the water gets cooked off but the volatiles remain. The reduction has an extremely concentrated flavor profile, rendering it a very cost-effective ingredient. Because reductions are made from real alcohol, it is possible to make claims such as “made with real Kentucky whiskey.”
In addition to reductions, flavor extracts are another option. Natural flavors are obtained through commercial fermentation using many of the same components found in the specific liquor. The flavors come in liquid and dry form, and run the gamut of beer to spirits to wine.
There is also financial incentive to using flavoring ingredients rather than real alcohol. That’s because the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives requires special taxes to be paid on alcohol.
“If you bring real alcohol into a manufacturing facility, you have to pay taxes on it just like you would if you bought it at a packaged store,” said Christopher Warsow, corporate executive chef at Bell.
Spirit flavors also are often used in alcohol-containing beverages for both cost-savings and consistent quality.
“Spirit flavors can make an ordinary spirit beverage taste like a premier one,” Ms. Harte said. “For example, in order to meet a specific price point, a ready-to-drink margarita beverage maker may have to use a modestly priced tequila. In order to achieve a top-shelf tequila taste, they add tequila flavor.
“For distribution and tax reasons, many alcoholic beverage makers use malt base as their source of alcohol,” Ms. Harte said. “Spirits flavors are really needed in this case to produce cocktails without the actual spirits. Spirit flavors can make a mojito-flavored cocktail with authentic rum notes all while only using a malt source for alcohol content. A common challenge for beverage technologists is to mask the malt base. Using strong spirit flavors that overcome the malt notes is key.”
Bill Smith, director of global beverage innovation and research and development, Sensient Flavors, Hoffman Estates, Ill., agreed that flavoring systems may help deliver the anticipated profile to meet the consumers’ expectations.
“Oftentimes malt- or wine-derived beverage bases are used in the preparation of ready-to-drink cocktails,” he said. “Even if a small amount of the characterizing spirit is used, it may not contribute enough impact to the finished beverage and a flavor should be used to boost the impact.
“Depending on the carrier system, some flavorings can be a challenge to incorporate, especially in juice- and protein-containing beverages.”
For example, an ethanol-based flavor can denature the proteins or precipitate out the juice solids if used at high levels.
“Processing and packaging also play a key role in the stability of beverage flavors,” he said. “A hot-fill process can negatively impact both taste and strength of flavor. Packaging can present challenges to stability over time. Plastic bottles can allow significant exposure to oxygen compared to a glass bottle or can. A clear container can allow more exposure to sunlight or ultraviolet rays, which can negatively impact taste.”