Despite a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, and 14 years industry experience, this fall I went back to school—bartending school. My goal was to learn and leverage alcoholic techniques and recipes and apply them to the spirit-free, ready-to-drink (RTD) market.
My first industry job was as a flavor compounder. Initially unaware of the flavor industry, I passed the company’s taste test, thanks to my years of tasting ingredients while cooking with my grandma, and was hired on the spot. Immersed in the field, I discovered an exciting career path and held various roles, including flavor chemist trainee, emulsion scientist and beverage applications scientist.
In my current role as senior category scientist, beverage, I provide technical product development support, prototype creation and ingredient selection expertise for our innovation team.
Bartending school was a whirlwind. It consisted of 40 hours of hands-on instruction, culminating in Illinois Basset certification. That instruction covered beer, wine, liquor and liqueur origins, flavor profiles, bartending techniques, and memorizing and mastering more than 30 cocktails and shooters for speed and accuracy.
In the past, the options for sober or sober curious were limited to Shirley Temples, Roy Rogers or virgin cocktails, which weren’t necessarily balanced without the alcohol. The emerging spirit-free cocktail trend, popular now among younger generations, offers exciting options for the sober and allows the sober curious to mix a few spirit-free beverages into their rotation to socialize longer with a clearer mind.
Plant-based milk alternatives are trending, and according to the Plant Based Foods Association, almond is the most popular alternative in retail and foodservice. My research found that its neutral flavor pairs well with cocoa and spices.
Creamy cocktails, cocoa and warm spices, too heavy for summer, become popular in fall. Marrying the trends of spirit-free cocktails and plant-based beverages, using both mixology and application science, I transformed dairy cocktails into non-dairy, spirit-free RTDs.
Milk punch, a classic spice-forward cocktail, includes milk, bourbon, rum, sugar and nutmeg. Cashew’s neutral flavor and fatty mouthfeel and almond’s popularity among consumers are substituted for whole milk. Instead of spirit-free bourbon, I used a cocktail smoking kit, with oak and beech wood chips to simulate the aroma and smoky flavor of bourbon. Rum extract contributes no alcohol, yet imparts the alcohol bite. For shelf-stable RTDs, aseptic pasteurization and bottling is the standard. For demos, the cocktail was poured into a rocks glass and garnished with nutmeg.
Making pie from apples picked at an orchard is a fun fall tradition. My apple pie white Russian is a nostalgic twist on the traditional cocktail recipe: vodka, coffee liqueur and cream. Half-and-half, referred to as cream, with more body than milk, required two fatty nuts, cashew and macadamia. Pistachio’s piney, woody flavor paired perfectly with apple juice and warming spices. Coffee and rum extract replaced the coffee liqueur. To demo, the rocks glass was drizzled with caramel syrup and garnished with cinnamon-dusted apple slices.
Cocktails often come with high caloric counts, so elevating a healthier beverage can be another starting place for innovation. Golden milk, also known as turmeric milk, is an Indian drink high in curcumin, which is believed to impart health benefits. In my almond cashew hazelnut cocoa golden millk, the combination of hazelnut, cocoa and spices enhances the flavor and aids in keeping the added sugar low. It is demoed with a cocoa and spiced rim.
Whether you’re creating beverages for the sober or sober curious, health conscientious or lactose intolerant, satisfaction doesn’t have to be sacrificed. Just carefully selected ingredients and innovation can be the key to a unique flavor journey.
Candace Smith-Lee is the senior category scientist, beverage, at ofi (olam food ingredients) with 14 years of beverage applications experience. She oversees the beverage segment ingredient portfolio, provides technical expertise for customer solutions, and drives development for future innovative solutions. Her career includes 10 years at Kerry, where she was the senior beverage applications scientist specializing in beverage emulsions and applications for juice, energy, soft drinks and flavored waters as well as three years as a flavor compounder at Agilex Flavors & Fragrances. Candace holds a B.A. in chemistry (minor in journalism) from Azusa Pacific University and Illinois Basset certification. Candace enjoys the outdoors, whether running, hiking, reading or attending music concerts. She is a transplant from Long Beach, California, and lives in Chicago with her partner, Pete, and her black cat, Elsi.