This summer, British Baker was invited to accompany culinary alcohol supplier Thomas Lowndes & Co and a group of its valued clients on a trip to Jarnac, in the Cognac region of France, to Château Courvoisier. One of the main purposes of the trip was to give the clients a better understanding of the heritage and tradition behind the brand, and why it’s an important story to tell both customers and consumers.

Thomas Lowndes works with a number of bakery firms producing ambient goods, as well as those producing fresh patisserie. These include: Matthew Walker, Park Cakes, Avana Bakeries and Aulds Desserts. MD Jonathan Marsh says that, last Christmas, Tesco claimed sales of its Finest Christmas Puddings were recording double-digit growth after Courvoisier VS Cognac was introduced to the recipe.

The use of alcohol in bakery products such as Christmas puddings and chocolate sponge desserts is nothing new and the methods by which Courvoisier is produced are positively ancient but that’s what makes it so special. The first Courvoisier business was established in Jarnac in 1843 by Felix Courvoisier, son of Emmanuel, in partnership with Jules Gallois. The Courvoisier family had many links to Napoleon and, to this day, the bottles feature a Napoleon logo.

Ownership changes

Over the years, the business has changed hands a number of times and, since 2005, has been owned by Beam Global Spirits & Wine. Thomas Lowndes supplies culinary alcohol, including the Courvoisier VS Cognac brand, for use in a number of different applications, including bakery and patisserie.

There are specific production processes that enable the locally grown grapes to eventually be classified as Cognac. For example, oak is selected from specific forests to make the barrels, to ensure the right flavours come through in the finished product. A Cognac XO sensory experience helps better identify the different scents in the Cognac the main three being citrus, vanilla and floral (lavender).

Figures from Thomas Lowndes’ own internal research reveal that using a branded alcohol, such as Courvoisier, in food can have a significant effect on the retail price per ml/gram, used in the product. For mince pies it increased by 37% (0.0029 to 0.0040); it rose by 80% for cakes (0.0055 to 0.0099) and by 23% for puddings (0.0080 to 0.0099). These figures were compiled from research into a large selection of in-store shelf prices (top six grocery accounts) in December 2009. This is the time when the majority of branded and unbranded culinary alcohol is sold, explains Marsh.

"By using a brand such as Courvoisier, the consumer automatically perceives it is a premium product, and you can command a higher price for it," says Marsh.

Supplied as a culinary alcohol, the Cour-voisier is @ 60% vol. Marsh adds that although the company doesn’t impose a licence fee to use the trademark at present, to feature the brand name on-pack, the product would have to be approved by Thomas Lowndes before launch, as the taste panel needs to ensure the characteristics of the brand come through and the quality is acceptable.

Selling point

Matthew Walker’s process technologist Anja Gilbert and NPD technologist Samantha Wray attended the trip to understand more about the heritage of the brand and why it is an important selling point, so they could go back and convey that message to their customers. "It also offers an explanation for the higher costs," says Wray.

Matthew Walker predominantly manufactures own-label Christmas puddings, which are supplied to the supermarkets. It produces over 20 million Christmas puddings each year, and a number of its top-tier own-label products contain Courvoisier, explains Gilbert. She says it is used to boost the flavour profile of the puddings and because of the brand association. "It also sparks interest from a consumer point of view," she adds.

Gilbert says it is also important to use premium vine fruit and the fresh breadcrumbs and fruit peel in its products, in order to match the quality of the Courvoisier.

Thomas Lowndes’ NPD consultant Sharon Riddick creates new culinary concepts to match its partnering alcohol brand, as well as advising on dosage levels and on the application of alcohol. "The biggest uses for Courvoisier in bakery are in Christmas cakes, mince pies and Christmas puddings," she says. Often it is blended with culinary French brandy. The fruit is sometimes soaked in the French brandy, which it can be cooked in, and then we would inject Courvoisier into the product after baking, as this minimises evaporation of the alcohol, she explains. Pre-soaking the fruit mix in these types of products is a good way to get the Courvoisier to deliver in the finished product, she says. And for mince pies, mincemeat steeped in Courvoisier achieves the best alcohol delivery in the end-product.

Riddick says that fresh patisserie is open to more applications with Courvoisier, as it can be used in creams and custards for example. She recommends that if you have a product made up of different components, to look for the one with the highest fat content to carry the alcohol layer, as it’s always the high fat layers that will carry it best. "If you have gateau or cake with cream, ganache or a buttercream layer, then that’s the layer in which to put the Courvoisier," she says.

But does this mean that culinary alcohol won’t work in low-fat products? Riddick says it will still work, but perhaps not as effectively.

In ambient cakes, alcohol can also be sprayed on to sponge layers, but this is usually not as effective, as it will diffuse throughout the cake and therefore dilute the overall delivery of alcohol on the taste, she explains. "It’s a good idea to only have one component of the product contain alcohol, rather than the whole thing, so the other ingredients can partner it and balance out the flavours."

Courvoisier also soaks into fruit and, once baked, will be held nicely in the products, especially for example in cherries and apricots. Riddick says that if you can use cherries in Christmas cake, for example, then do so, as they hold the alcohol well. Culinary alcohol can also be applied as part of a glaze, and can enhance the dose carried in the product.

Seasonal emphasis

Courvoisier is versatile when it comes to partnering other ingredients, says Riddick, but it is more suited to the autumn/winter seasons. It marries well with all the vine fruits traditionally used in festive bakery products, and complements autumnal fruits such as apple, pear and blackberry, "but is equally delicious with rhubarb and also orange". Riddick says it can be used, for example, in a pastry tart filled with a compôte of rhubarb and topped with a custard laced with Courvoisier VS Cognac, sprinkled with caramelised almonds.

Thomas Lowndes works with bakery manufacturers at all levels and stages of production. "For example, those who have received a brief from a retailer and have started to develop a product and want to use one of our brands that’s the best stage at which we can get involved, as we can then advise on the level it should be added, for us to approve the use of the brand name," says Riddick.

Other companies will develop a product and then go to Thomas Lowndes for approval. But the integrity of the brand is protected, though a stringent process of checks and tastings.