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Flavor Bites: Ethyl Lactate

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Discussions about the relative merits of different bottles of wine are dear to my heart.
Such conversations often center around easily defined factors, such as the vintage year or the exact “terroir” (location) of the vineyard. It is not difficult to understand the importance of such straightforward parameters but in my experience, the skill of the winemaker is usually much more important. Unfortunately this parameter is more subjective and relatively difficult to measure.

One important indicator of a good winemaker is attention to detail—and the “secondary” or malolactic fermentation is a detail that is all too easy to overlook. Wine textbooks describe this optional fermentation in terms of the conversion of malic acid to lactic acid. The resulting “smoother” flavor is usually ascribed to the lowering of the apparent level of acidity, although I am not so sure. Wines that have undergone this secondary fermentation invariably smell and taste much more complex and attractive. It is not simply a question of perceived acidity.

Ethyl lactate (FEMA# 2440, CAS# 97-64-3), also known as ethyl 2-hydroxy propionate, is generated in significant quantities in wines that have undergone malolactic or secondary fermentation. It is produced from the esterification of ethyl alcohol by lactic acid and the level slowly increases with the age of the wine. It has an aroma that is undeniably attractive, soft and fruity.

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Unlike many other flavor chemicals I’ve previously profiled, ethyl lactate does not figure highly amongst the character recognition components of any flavors. Nevertheless, it does perform a stellar role in many flavors by adding complexity, much in the same way it contributes to the quality of the wines in my cellar. The dose rates of ethyl lactate given here are at levels to be used in flavors intended to be dosed at 0.05% in ready-to-drink beverages or bouillon.

 

Fermented Flavors

Wine: Both red and white wine flavors benefit greatly from high levels of ethyl lactate. A good place to start is 20,000 ppm but higher levels can also be effective, especially in flavors that contain fusel notes needing softening.

Whisky: The same comments as above are applicable to whisky flavors; 5,000 ppm is a good starting point but higher levels can work well in harsher, fusel-dominated whisky flavors.

Brandy and cognac: 5,000 ppm is also a reasonable level for brandy and cognac flavors. These categories of flavors are less frequently dominated by fusel notes, so higher levels are less appropriate.

Rum: Much lower levels, nearer 1,000 ppm, work best in rum flavors. This ingredient is particularly effective in white rum flavors.

Berry Flavors

Raspberry: Ethyl lactate has a strong affinity to raspberry flavors, even up to high levels in the region of 10,000 ppm.

Blackcurrant: Slightly lower levels, nearer 5,000 ppm, are almost equally effective in all styles of blackcurrant flavors, softening the harsh sulfur notes.

Cherry: 3,000 ppm is a better level for cherry flavors, working equally well in authentic style black and red types as well as benzaldehyde-based tutti frutti types.

Blueberry: 3,000 ppm is also useful in blueberry flavors, adding an attractive fruity note without detracting from the impact of the floral character.

Blackberry: Although blackberry flavors are similar in many respects to raspberry flavors, they are usually less fruity. So the best level of use for ethyl lactate in blackberry is around 2,000 ppm.

Strawberry: Ethyl lactate is quite effective in all strawberry flavors, and 1,000 ppm is a good level to try. Wild strawberry flavors have a dominant jasmine note and this blends very well with ethyl lactate at higher levels of around 3,000 ppm.

Other Fruit Flavors

Pineapple: If ethyl lactate has any hint of a recognizable fruit character, aside from wine, then it must be pineapple. Several other hydroxyl esters are useful in fresh pineapple flavors and the ideal level of use in combinations is around 10,000 ppm.

Apple: Similarly high levels also work well in apple flavors, adding complexity, and softening and increasing the impression of authenticity. 8,000 ppm is a good starting point.

Passion fruit: Like pineapple flavors, passion fruit flavors are dominated by aliphatic esters and ethyl lactate has a smoothing and softening effect at levels around 5,000 ppm.

Watermelon: The frequently over-simplistic aliphatic ester content of watermelon flavors can detract from their appeal; this ingredient can smooth the overall impression at around 5,000 ppm.

Grape: Aside from the very obvious effect of ethyl lactate in grapes that have undergone malolactic secondary fermentation, raw grapes also have some natural affinity for this ingredient ; 2,000 ppm is a reasonable level to try.

Lemon juice: At first sight, ethyl lactate does not seem an obvious fit for citrus flavors. This is true if we were looking at levels of addition in thousands of ppms; but at much lower levels around 100 ppm, ethyl lactate has a subtle but very natural fresh juice effect.

Orange and grapefruit juice: Other than lemon flavors, ethyl lactate is not a good fit in citrus flavors but it still provides an interesting effect in juicy orange and grapefruit flavors at around 50 ppm.

Brown Flavors

Caramel: All caramel flavors have a subtly fruity note. The level can vary considerably but it is generally a character that enhances the impact of the flavor. At 8,000 ppm, ethyl lactate is very effective.

Brown sugar and molasses: 5,000 ppm of this ingredient is an effective way to add fruity notes to brown sugar and molasses flavors, simultaneously elevating their impact.

Cocoa and chocolate: 5,000 ppm also works well in cocoa and dark chocolate flavors, giving the profile a welcomed lift.

Vanilla: Aged natural vanilla bean extracts also are noticeably fruity, and again, ethyl lactate is an effective way of delivering this note. 3,000 ppm gives quite a distinct fruity note, whereas 1,000 ppm is a more subtle level.

Soy sauce: Only at a level around 1,000 ppm can ethyl lactate be helpful in soy sauce flavors, adding welcomed complexity and brightening the profile.

Other Flavors

Coconut: Realistic coconut and coconut milk flavors both benefit greatly from the addition of around 5,000 ppm of ethyl lactate. At this level, it adds complexity and rounds out the lactone character.

Cream and condensed milk: All dairy flavors can be improved by the addition of this ingredient. This is especially true of cream and condensed milk flavors. Ethyl lactate at 5,000 ppm is a good level of addition, adding authenticity and complexity.

Peanut: Finally, the same comments are true, to a slightly lesser degree, of all nut flavors. Ethyl lactate is particularly at home in peanut flavors, where the best level of addition is around 2,000 ppm.

 

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Three consecutive vintages of Chateau Leoville Barton, made in an uncompromisingly traditional style by Anthony Barton, a great winemaker and a great raconteur. No one pays more attention to getting the malolactic fermentation right.

Author Bio

John Wright; johnwrightflavorist@gmail.com

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