Producing shelf-stable cocktails

Geoff Taylor, Wines and Spirits Specialist

The consumption of cocktails is on the rise, and drinks companies are keen to capitalise on the increase in demand. Ready-to-drink (RTD) cocktails or pre-mixed bases to which soda water or another mixer is added makes mixing and serving cocktails easier, but also present challenges.

When different liquids are mixed, their chemistry changes and, in part due to the lower alcohol content by volume (ABV), the stability and shelf-life of the product are reduced. Non-alcoholic cocktails present additional microbiological challenges, due to the absence of alcohol and its antimicrobial properties.

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The Holy Grail, in terms of a ready to drink cocktail, is one which can be sold in one hit i.e. pour and serve. The time-consuming part is the mixing of the base components i.e. the spirts, the liquors, the bitters, the addition of ice and the mix of drink can be done relatively quickly. The challenges in producing ready to drink cocktails are chemical changes over a period of time - in simple terms you're going from a high alcohol drink which are it which is a spirit or liquor you're diluting the alcohol and as you dilute the alcohol you make the product less stable so colour changes, flavour changes, flavour degradation can take place.

The challenges in terms of volumes, if you have a large producer, mass-produced product you have consistency you then have the problem of a significant quantity of product being produced which needs to be stable. Small producers can produce products which can be consumed in the next day or so but you then have the problem of trying to estimate how much is going to be used - too little you have lost sales, too much then you have wasted product.

In terms of minimising changes or mitigating the effect of changes there are basically three ways you can do this. One way is the use of preservatives the classic being sorbic acid, although there is a flavour impact with sorbic acid, the second way is in terms of pasteurisation. You can either use flash pasteurisation, which in my opinion is the best method, or tunnel pasteurisation. The problem, the challenge with tunnel pasteurisation is that the product remains warm for a longer period of time and there is a flavour impact. The third way is freezing the product, again there is a logistic problem in terms of freezing where you have a fresh product and you need to freeze a large volume of product relatively quickly.

Sadly, many companies, when they approached us, they're trying to solve a problem and had they involved us early on in the process they could have saved themselves considerable sums of money and time. Often the development has got to the point where they have decided on the package, they've decided on the closure, the label and everything else, but they then realised that they can't pack that product in a stable format.

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