Flavor Trends, Strategies and Solutions for Menu Development

Sweet, Stout and Spirited The new boozy dessert trend has chefs and bartenders concocting sweet standouts

A riff on Bananas Foster, the Banana Pecan Bread Pudding at Sazerac in Seattle boasts a hard sauce made of whiskey, egg yolks and sugar. Buttermilk sherbet tops it off.
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Amaretto cheesecake, bourbon pecan pie, “beeramisu” and shakes with shots of flavored vodka? It was only a matter of time before the craft cocktail and beer movements jumped from the front of the meal to the back.

According to Lizzy Freier, menu analysis editor at Technomic, operators are taking consumers’ love for alcoholic beverages to the next level by infusing them into dishes, from appetizers to entrées to desserts.

“This tactic appeals to both operators and consumers alike: Operators can make a meal more gourmet by using premium alcohol beverages, thus increasing the average check, and consumers appreciate an innovative flavor profile featuring a favorite beer, wine or liquor,” Freier says. “When infused into food, beer brings a somewhat down-home quality to the dish, wine connotes a sense of premiumization, and spirits project a sense of edginess.”

Tailored to the adult palate, alcohol-infused foods blend the rich, diverse and complex flavors found in beer, wine and spirits with traditional foods to give a twist to classic recipes. For example, bread pudding with crème brûlée-soaked Cuban bread is enhanced with a sweet whiskey flavor from a splash of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Honey at Marlow’s Tavern, with locations in Georgia and Florida.

“The classic dishes will initially draw the eye of consumers, but the innovative flavors will make the original recipes new favorites, drawing consumers back for more,” says Freier.

Shakes and Floats
Expanded bar offerings and soft-serve ice cream are growing trends in the fast-casual sector, which continues to experience industry-leading overall growth. Even quick-serves, such as Sonic, Burger King and Starbucks have been testing beer and wine additions to their own menus. It’s a situation that has operators scrambling to differentiate from competitors.

When Donna Ruch joined the Red Robin team as master mixologist in 2012, one of her first goals was to update the brand’s “boozy shake” options and bring them into the now.

“I love the idea of mixing different ingredients behind the bar into shakes, and that’s where the idea for the Samuel Adams Octoberfest milkshake came from,” she says. The company later launched a Sam Adams Winter Lager milkshake and a Blue Moon milkshake—the concept’s most popular beer shake to date.

Ruch examined what beers guests were drinking and used the most popular items to launch the category. “When we’re using items they’re familiar with, it’s easier for customers to bridge into understanding what a beer milkshake could taste like, and they will come along with us into a new category,” she says.

Tapping into the breakfast trend, Red Robin also launched a Beam-N-Bacon shake, cross-utilizing a candied bacon—developed for its Southern Charm Burger—with Jim Beam Maple Bourbon. “I’m the kind of person who dips bacon in maple syrup,” says Ruch. “I was really inspired by the ‘breakfast for all occasions’ idea.”

A burger and a shake is a classic American pairing—one many burger-centric restaurants are promoting. At Washington, D.C.’s Burger, Tap & Shake, diners order approximately one loaded “Shaketail” for every 10 non-alcoholic shakes. Creative concoctions range from a spiked soda-fountain classic of Smirnoff Root Beer Vodka with vanilla ice cream to the Apocalypto, with Fireball Cinnamon Whisky, chocolate ice cream and homemade marshmallows. At Hop Bunz in Tulsa, Okla., customers can order boozed-up versions of its custard shakes, including the Bourbon & Caramel infused with Jim Beam.

Floats offer another familiar platform for innovation here. The culinary team at Rye Bar & Southern Kitchen in Raleigh, N.C., experimented with several different ice cream flavors and beers to come up with its Sweet Josie Beer Float. Lonerider’s Sweet Josie Brown Ale boasts a smooth chocolate flavor with a touch of malt, and pairs beautifully with salted caramel ice cream. According to chef Michael Rigot, voluntary taste testing was done to determine the best ratio of beer to ice cream.

Soaked, Poached and Infused
“Working with alcohol involves a lot of not being afraid to screw it up,” says Jess DiBona, pastry chef at the San Diego gastropub, Barleymash. The restaurant’s menu features a variety of alcohol-infused dishes across the board, and she takes a lot of her inspiration from the cocktail menu.

“My bourbon poached pear started off as an Old Fashioned,” says DiBona. “I thought about what kind of fruit would go with that cocktail, and wanted something light and seasonal.” The finished fruit is glazed with a cranberry Cointreau sauce and topped with candied orange peel. The combination drives the cocktail-based flavors home.”

Easy pathways here include infusing a separate ingredient to maintain the overall integrity of the dessert. Rum-soaked raisins are familiar and easy to execute. Replacing extracts with a spirit of your choice is also a sound strategy.

John Metz, executive chef and co-founder of Marlow’s Tavern pulled off a spiked crème brûlée. “They’re tricky,” he admits, “so we introduced the bourbon to the chocolate first, then tempered that into the crème brûlée. The base held, and we still got the great flavor, aroma and nuttiness of the bourbon.”

It’s important to pair the right alcohol with the right dessert. For warmer flavors, consider spiced rum, whiskey or red wine. For lighter or fruitier desserts, use vodka, white rum, champagne or white wine.

Deenie Anderson, pastry chef at Atlanta’s Portofino, turned a traditional bread pudding recipe into a sultry delight by replacing the vanilla custard with pumpkin custard infused with bourbon. “I think the smoky sweetness of bourbon pairs really well with pumpkin. Then, since a traditional whiskey sauce is so thin, I decided to substitute a caramel sauce for its richness and to cut the sweetness and make it more ‘grown up.’”

Whiskey, namely Scotch whisky, has a peaty smokiness that goes well with desserts. Smoky desserts have been trending over the past year according to Freier, (think s’mores in deconstructed versions), so it’s not surprising that whiskey is a good way to give a dessert an extra smoky boost.

Sauces and Toppings
“Booze is a great accent to many desserts, but too much can easily overwhelm a dish,” says Jason McClure, executive chef of Sazerac Restaurant & Bar in Seattle. “Accent is the key.”

McClure’s Sticky Toffee Date Cake is a cozy dessert served warm and drizzled with hot toffee rum glaze. The restaurant also serves it with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and molasses-candied cashews for a bit of a crunch.

“I wanted to make a comfort dessert that has warm, dark flavors,” says McClure. “The brown sugar notes of the date cake complement the buttery rum flavors of the glaze extremely well.”

Caramel and cream sauces, spiked whipped cream or butter—there are many ways to add a spirited finish to an existing dessert. At Atwood Restaurant in Chicago, a simple chocolate cake is enhanced with malty, bitter notes from the addition of Guinness to both the icing and the reduction sauce.

“We infuse the stout with chocolate and cocoa powder, then whip it into the buttercream,” says Atwood’s Executive Chef Brian Millman. “The flavors of the stout lend themselves really well to chocolate, and Guinness gave us the most consistent results out of all the stouts we tried.” To make the syrup, he reduces the Guinness with a little sugar.

Used creatively, alcohol can add an aromatic element to a dessert. At Mexican restaurant chain Cantina Laredo, the Mexican Apple Pie is brought tableside on a hot skillet, topped with cinnamon ice cream. The server pours a butter brandy sauce over the dish, and it boils madly as soon as it hits the hot skillet, sending all the cinnamon and apple aromas airborne. The rich, decadent scent invariably tempts other diners to order the dish.

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About The Author

Amanda M. Westbrooks

Amanda M. Westbrooks, Flavor & The Menu’s Digital Content Manager, knows her way around all things tech, enjoys working on farms, cleans her own fish, and sometimes wins writing awards.