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RAISING SPIRITS

Culinary alcohol supplier Thomas Lowndes has the foodservice sector in its sights with its new sweet and savoury lines

Choose any boozy dessert in a retail outlet and the chance of the spirit belonging to Thomas Lowndes is pretty high. The company’s aim is now to make the same happen in foodservice. What started as a small company in 1826 in London’s docklands importing Jamaican rum and Dutch Geneva gin has, through a number of guises, become the UK’s leading culinary alcohol supplier.

Nowadays Thomas Lowndes is a subsidiary of the £3.29bn turnover Allied Domecq Spirits & Wine business, and the massive drinks cabinet it has access to contains some of the industry’s biggest brands – Beefeater gin, Harvey’s Bristol Cream, Drambuie, Courvoisier, Laphroaig, Malibu, Sauza and Tia Maria, to name a few.

Supplying branded alcohol to food manufacturers as well as the multiple retailers for their own label dessert ranges, has helped bring in a turnover in excess of £5m and it is steadily growing. In 2003 there was a marked increase in the use of branded alcohol in food with volume increasing by 36% year on year.

Recently appointed general manager John Meyer says the rise in 2003 was due to the shift from generic products to brands like Courvoisier by manufacturers moving more into branded alcohol.

“It’s mainly seasonal for alcohol flavoured food and around 65%-70% of business is done over the Christmas selling period. But we do have all year round products and part of our new strategy for foodservice is to deseasonalise,” says Meyer.

Adding alcohol to food is a trend that continues to grow. Alcohol can be applied to any sweet or savoury dish. Cream works well with a splash of alcohol where the high fat content acts as an ideal carrier. Fat molecules present in cream are hard to penetrate, but once locked in, the flavour delivery is strong and does not fade over time. Alcohol used in chilled and frozen formats has consistently good results, although the freezing point will be affected in frozen products such as ice cream. It also increases shelf life and acts as a meat tenderiser. The company says that once a concept has been formulated, all the ingredients are blended together to reach the required texture and flavour. Lower strength alcohol produces a thin texture while higher alcohol by volume (abv) extracts makes it thicker.

Culinary alcohol is mostly supplied at high strength or as extracts – 50% abv. Extracts retain the flavour of alcohol in a concentrated format and are more economical. Culinary versions of well-known brands are available as 60% extracts to keep the amount of liquid in a recipe to a minimum and ensure strong flavour delivery. Typical alcohol dosage would be around 3%. In creams it’s as high as 7%. High fat content gives a good delivery of flavour because it carries it more easily, but the flavour would not be so intense, says Meyer.

While alcohol has always been widely used in desserts giving lines such as ice cream a premium status, savoury has been neglected.

Soups, sauces, marinades, pâtés and dips retain flavour well because there is limited heat processing. Food with a high fat content delivers flavour best and, if heat processing is essential, alcohol should be added at the last minute to avoid evaporation. The less heat processing the product is subjected to, the greater the flavour delivery.

Meyer says that 98% of its sales are in the retail sector but this year is the start of a major focus on foodservice, and in particular bridging the gap between alcohol and savoury dishes. He says the business identified this void a year ago and now it has a full menu to offer.

Helped by consultancy Food under Focus, headed by Jeff Hart and Malcolm Calthorpe, Thomas Lowndes has put together a raft of concepts to get across the message that using high profile alcoholic brands can add value, a premium look and achieve a higher price than other dishes that people are prepared to pay.

Calthorpe says they helped develop the marketing strategy that would improve the company’s presence in the sector and, as from 2005, Thomas Lowndes will be expanding into the foodservice sector with a major new focus and drive. He says the people being helped are Thomas Lowndes’ best customers where there was a huge inconsistency in knowledge.

Calthorpe says it is more difficult to get alcohol into savoury but the results are great. “Sauza tequila glaze can be put on chicken, ribs, and barbecue food. Pâté is another good one to do. The company can provide frozen sauces in easy to use formats that provide a good presentation, with minimal skill requirements but maximum added value on the plate. Malibu is great with Thai food. Malibu coconut shrimp was an idea seen at the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago.”

At its Horsham base, there are development kitchens where people can be shown how to convey a premium image, and recipes are tried and tested by home economist Sharon Riddick. “The challenge is how to get the brand on the plate – and the accessories to go with it,” says Meyer.

He says that in retail the company has the right to taste approve products. “For example we don’t want Courvoisier in a cake where you cannot taste the spirit,” he explains. “However, in foodservice its manufacturer approved.”

Health issues, he adds, are not so important because these are high, indulgent products and not everyday lines.

This year there’s more focus on Sauza, the second largest tequila worldwide. Meyer says that both Sauza and Malibu capitalise on the fashion for tequila and tex mex. Malibu is one of Allied Domecq’s fastest growing brands pulling in 2.75 million UK drinkers annually.

“Malibu attracts the under 25s, mainly female. You have to think about the menu combination itself and who will be eating it. Malibu is very versatile – fish and sweets, while Harveys Bristol Cream is great with lumps of pork.”

Concepts it has helped produce for a ready meals supplier include medallions of pork with a spicy Caribbean Malibu sauce, and chicken goujons with a Sauza tequila sweet and tangy honey sauce.

The company’s target is full service restaurants, with a menu that changes three times a year, that will increase volume. “Products will be specifically targeted at a particular segment. We wouldn’t target a family restaurant – but you will get a band of restaurants that serve alcohol that could set up an alcohol link, for example, TGI Friday’s,” says Meyer.

Sassy marketing is another way of pushing the brands forward. Using brand imagery in a restaurant is great for cross promotions, says Meyer.

“For example, buy a Courvoisier at the bar and you get money off dessert,” he says. “Even price sensitive operations can be persuaded by the Malibu flavour that gives a dish a premium price point. I can’t think of any other ingredients that can add such a large premium.”

Reproduced from FD
Text - Sheila Eggleston & Photography - Thomas Lowndes

 

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