Alcohol-based or -infused chocolates have long been favorites in Europe. Discover some of the most popular international varieties as well as those gaining traction in the U.S.—plus other spiked candies such as beer brittles and absinthe lollipops.
By Tom Strenk
Combine two favorite indulgences—candy and liquor—and you’ve got a distinct gift or treat for the holiday season and other celebratory occasions.
And that would be a gift or treat for the grown ups. Because of the alcohol content, customers have to be over 21 to buy many spiked candies. (They’re banned outright in some states.) These are sophisticated confections, made with high-quality ingredients and filled or infused with top-shelf wine, spirits or beer.
“The product doesn’t look like other candies; it’s not bright red, yellow or orange-colored,” says retailer Hassan Jarane, talking about the Creme & Liquor Filled Caramels he carries at Mint Premium Foods in Tarrytown, N.Y. “This is candy for adults.”
A HOLIDAY INDULGENCE
Retailers and importers report that these amped-up candies and chocolates are big sellers for the holiday season, through New Year’s and Valentine’s Day. This is especially the case with liquor-filled chocolates. “Traditionally, liquor fills are mostly fourth-quarter sales, because of the gift-giving aspect and the party atmosphere,” notes Vicki Mirabile of Elgin, Ill.-based Chicago Importing Co. Mirabile places liquor-filled chocolates toward the front of the company’s catalog because they sell well.
There are also strong cultural customs around these chocolates. “Many European countries have a tradition of enjoying liquor-filled chocolates during the holidays,” Mirabile adds. “For Europeans, these chocolates mean Christmas.”
Anya Zelford, the owner of Gourmet Boutique in Boston, notes that one of her best-selling items is Champagne Truffles—a strawberry-flavored chocolate shell filled with champagne ganache (regular and pink) from venerable British producer Charbonnel et Walker (established in 1875). “People drink Champagne during festive times, and those occasions are when the Champagne Truffles sell: Christmas, New Year’s and Valentine’s Day,” says Zelford.
Located in the Madison, Wisc. heartland, largely populated by descendants of German, Swiss and Norwegian immigrants, Bavaria Sausage Kitchen carries a large category of liquor-filled chocolates. “Europeans have been eating them forever; it’s a tradition,” echoes Owner Judy Cottrell. Top sellers include Asbach Weinbrand Kirschen (from Germany) and Ferrero Mon Cheri (Italy); both are filled with brandy cherries. Also popular are Bohme’s Weinbrand-Bohnen, which means brandy beans, from their bean-like shape. Besides tradition-minded locals, says Cottrell, many customers taste the chocolate fills when they travel and want to buy them when they return home.
Chicago Importing Co. and importer Euro-American Brands, Paramus, N.J., stock a number of chocolates filled with wine or spirit centers. These are mostly imported from Europe where brands such as Abtey (from France), Fazer (from Finland), Anthon Berg (Denmark) and Laroshell and Bohme (Germany) have been making them for half a century or more. A new product from Abtey this year are the Douceur des Lys Dessert Chocolates, premium-quality dark, milk and white chocolates filled with refined alcohol ganache centers and coulis. They are available in four varieties: Biscuit Ganache & Rum Jelly, Ganache & Strawberry Jelly, Mousse & Kirsch Jelly and Biscuit Ganache & Cointreau Jelly.
Peters Imports, Grandville, Mich., brings to the U.S. a new tradition from the Old World: Chocolate Liqueur Bars by Andrea Stainer Chocolates of Tuscany, Italy. “One of our brokers introduced us to the Andrea Stainer line,” says Marketing Director Sharon Peters. Peters recently added to its portfolio four liqueur-infused chocolate bars: Brut Sparkling Wine, Irish Coffee, Vin Brule and Dark Chocolate with Rum. “They aren’t filled chocolates but use a patented process to infuse the liqueur flavors throughout the chocolate,” notes Peters. The chocolates are selling well for a high-end line, she adds.
Other areas of the world also have traditions of liquor-infused confections, of course. Borrachitos (translation: little drunks) have been a treat since the 1930s in Guadalajara, Mexico. In America, they are marketed under the name Creme & Liquor Filled Caramels. The fifth generation of the Aguas-Hernandez family, three brothers, make the Tequila, Coffee Liqueur and Whiskey-filled dulce de leche nuggets from an old family recipe, according to David Betts, business development manager for Atlanta-based Crown Candies, which imports them.
Europe doesn’t have the lock on alcohol-based or -infused chocolates: There’s been a plethora of innovation among chocolatiers in the U.S.
In an American riff on the European tradition, Le Cirque pastry chef-turned chocolatier Jacques Torres makes European-style filled Champagne Truffles that are shaped like wine corks and filled with prestigious Taittinger Champagne. The truffles are available in his Manhattan and Brooklyn stores as well as via his website.
Heidi and Arthur Chocolatiers in Valley Cottage, N.Y., also produce a line of truffles that includes Port Wine, Champagne, Frangelico Ganache, Amaretto Ganache, Kirsch Ganache and White Russian with vodka and Kahlua.
“Our Winter Cabernet Truffle with dark chocolate is very popular,” says Anette Madsen, co-owner with brother Brent of Anette’s Chocolates by Brent, a company that produces chocolates and maintains two retail shops. The owners make six different wine- or liqueur-infused chocolate truffles. Wine is a natural ingredient for their chocolates, as they are located in the heart of Napa Valley. “My brother and I grew up here, surrounded by wine and great cuisine, and we wanted to combine the two,” relates Madsen. They began with wine-infused truffles 19 years ago, and have been experimenting ever since with new combinations of chocolate with wine, liqueur and beer—and, most recently, bourbon. Besides the truffles, Anette’s crafts Merlot Fudge and Brandy Caramel, as well as a line of spiked dessert sauces. Merlot Fudge and Brandy Caramel contain 5 percent alcohol, estimates Madsen, and the truffles contain less than half a percent. “But in some states that’s still considered alcoholic,” she points out.
A bit more unusual are the Sake Truffles produced by Cacao Cuvee in Rockford, Ill. The Japanese fermented beverage is combined with semi-sweet dark chocolate ganache for flavor, and the truffle is topped with a sprinkle of Matcha, the delicate Japanese green tea. “I developed it five years ago for an account with a fragrance line called Sake, and they found they were selling a lot of the product because of my sake chocolates,” recalls Owner Susan Pitkin. The confection has proved so popular that she’s kept it on her main menu ever since. Pitkin also makes a Chambord Truffle, with the French black raspberry liqueur in a white chocolate ganache enrobed in dark chocolate, for her Cacao Cuvee line.
A different take on the filled-chocolates category comes from Sweets Candy Company in Salt Lake City, Utah, which offers a line of sticks in which a Port, Champagne or Cabernet pectin center is drenched in dark chocolate. The flavors are available in 3.5-ounce individual boxes or in a triple pack with all flavors.
Bissinger’s Handcrafted Chocolatier company in St. Louis also has a twist on the classic chocolate-alcohol combo: grapes soaked in Shiraz red wine are enrobed in dark chocolate. One of the chocolatier’s fruit suppliers sent samples of the grapes for experimental purposes, and the wine-chocolate concept was developed for the opening of the company’s new chocolate lounge in Maryland Plaza. The product has been selling well, says Jeannine Manning, director of marketing. Bissinger’s now produces more than 2,000 pounds a month of the product, and the company is currently working to develop more wine-chocolate combinations.
Boston’s Gourmet Boutique sells Bissinger’s infused and chocolate-enrobed grapes, “a luxury impulse item because they are small, and in an eat-it-yourself pack,” notes Zelford.
NON-CHOCOLATE BUZZED CANDIES
The candy-liquor combination doesn’t stop with chocolate. Nut brittles are also a vehicle for alcohol flavorings. Anette’s offers five brittles, most made with locally produced ale and Spanish peanuts, but substitutes with other nuts such as almonds and pistachios and even pumpkin seeds. Triple Nut Bourbon Brittle is a big seller, says Madsen. The nut brittles are cooked at such high temperatures that the alcohol is all evaporated. The company’s latest innovation is a twist on the brittle line that captures a big trend in smoked meat: Bacon-Beer Brittle.
Banned in the U.S. for more than a century, the infamous spirit absinthe is once again legal in this country. Jason Lewis, owner of San Francisco-based Lollyphile, developed an Absinthe Lollipop with the anise-flavored liquor. He has also developed other alcohol-based lollipops, including Bourbon, Irish Cream, White Russian and Amaretto varieties, all handmade in small batches. The original Absinthe remains the most popular flavor, says Lewis.
Lollyphile’s Absinthe Lollipops are big sellers in the gift shop at La Maison de Absinthe Museum in New Orleans’ French Quarter. The candy proved so popular, says co-owner Stacy Bonnecaze, that she sourced a number of other absinthe-flavored candies, including mints, gumballs and Pastiglie Leone absinthe pastilles from Italy. “We fly through every single one of these items,” she says. “They are an impulse item and make great souvenirs for the museum.”
MERCHANDIZING THE CANDIES
Because of the alcohol content, many retailers treat these candies differently. “I keep them in a separate section in the store and don’t promote them,” reveals Cottrell at Bavaria Sausage Kitchen. “Customers who want the liquor fills will find them,” she says, philosophically. Wisconsin requires customers be 21 or older to purchase the items.
Other retailers opt to cross-promote the candies with other treats or with alcohol sets. At Mint, for example, Jarane strategically locates the Borrachitos next to his craft beer selection. But, he adds, “I keep them on a little higher shelf,” out of reach of children.
As for the next big thing in alcohol confections? It remains to be seen. “There are more of these kinds of candies coming onto the market,” says Gourmet Boutique’s Zelford, who reports a typical flood of debuts during the holiday season.
Palates are more sophisticated these days, adds Madsen, who cites the growing consumer interest in fine wines, craft beers and classic cocktails as a parallel. It’s a quest for new flavors not a taste for alcohol driving interest in the alcohol-component products, she insists. “Our customer base is open to trying all kinds of things.” |SFM|
State Regulation Challenges
Some buyers need to navigate tricky selling rules around alcohol-filled or -infused candies that vary by state.“In Pennsylvania, we aren’t allowed to carry any of that stuff,” notes Doug Alprin, owner of Village Candy in Pittsburgh. “Around the holidays, I wanted to order those little chocolate bottles with liqueur in them, but the state liquor control board said no.”
Regulations on many of these confections are a patchwork that vary from state to state, with 16 states outlawing candies with alcohol completely. “My candy is contraband here in Atlanta,” quips David Betts, business development manager at importer Crown Candies. The Mexican caramels contain 2.6 percent alcohol.
Alcohol content in these candies runs the gamut, from nil to significant. Many states dictate a maximum allowed alcohol content of 4-5 percent and the majority of these products fall under that limit. Other states have restrictions on age, banning sales to customers under 21 years old. “It’s not a product people are going to get drunk on—a gateway drug,” contends Betts. “We’re not selling alcohol; it’s a candy with a unique flavor.”
The residual alcohol is important to the taste of the final product, argues Anette Madsen at Anette’s Chocolates by Brent. “You want to keep some of the alcohol so the flavors balance out in the end, and to give the impression that the product has real wine or real liqueur in it. We like that balance.”
Thomas Henry Strenk is a Brooklyn-based writer who specializes in all things drinkable, and is a contributor to Restaurant Business Magazine, Cheers Magazine, Beverage Dynamics and Wine Enthusiast.
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