Chemistry of the Bar: Amaretto 101
Apr19

Chemistry of the Bar: Amaretto 101

At last week’s American Chemical Society meeting in New Orleans, a group of chemists came together to discuss the latest and greatest in alcohol. No, this wasn’t on Bourbon Street. And karaoke, to-go cups, and beaded necklaces weren’t involved (as far as I know). Instead, these folks shared stories about cocktails and hangovers at the New Orleans Morial Convention Center during a symposium called “Chemistry of the Bar.” This week’s issue of Chemical & Engineering News features a column I wrote about one of the session’s presentations. Neil C. Da Costa, a researcher at International Flavors & Fragrances, in New Jersey, entertained the audience with tales of the hurricane, that rum-based drink the Big Easy is famous for. I featured Da Costa’s studies of the hurricane because of the soft spot I have for the cocktail: The first time I drank one was during my undergraduate years at, you guessed it, my first national ACS meeting. But I gave short shrift to other “Chemistry of the Bar” presentations. One particularly interesting talk was given by Jerry Zweigenbaum, a researcher at Agilent Technologies, in Delaware. Along with Alyson E. Mitchell and coworkers at the University of California, Davis, Zweigenbaum investigated the ingredients of the after-dinner liquor amaretto. If you’re like me, you might have thought that because amaretto smells like almonds, it’s made from them. Zweigenbaum says that’s not necessarily the case. According to legend, amaretto was first made in 1525 by soaking apricot kernels in alcohol. You can see the tale, conveniently located on the website of amaretto maker Disaronno, here. Apparently, one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s star pupils was asked to paint a fresco of the Madonna in the Italian city Saronno. His model was a local innkeeper who showed her gratitude by gifting the fellow a drink made from the infamous kernels. Today, Disaronno says its amaretto contains “herbs and fruits soaked in apricot kernel oil.” But the problem with alcohols like amaretto, Zweigenbaum says, is they are regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives here in the U.S., rather than by FDA. That means companies don’t have to list the beverages’ ingredients or nutritional content. So what exactly Disaronno and other amaretto companies are putting in their wares remains a mystery. Zweigenbaum decided to find out. The Agilent researcher purchased seven different brands of amaretto (he won’t divulge which ones) and tested them with various analytical techniques—headspace gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GC/MS) and quadrupole time-of-flight liquid chromatography (Q-TOF LC), to name a few. One volatile compound stood out in all seven amaretto brands: benzaldehyde. This is the chemical that gives amaretto its sweet, yet...

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A chemist employs his analytical skills in the wine industry
Jun09

A chemist employs his analytical skills in the wine industry

To make wine, you start with grape juice, let the fermentation process begin and a few steps (and few months) later, you may have yourself a delicious alcoholic beverage, if you balanced all the flavors just right. Conceptually, it’s very simple, but in reality, winemaking is an art that some people spend their lifetime perfecting. Yet when you break it all down, winemaking is chemistry. And sure enough, there are chemists who work at wineries—like Kawaljit Tandon, a research chemist at Constellation Wines U.S., the largest premium wine company in the world. Kawal’s job isn’t exactly “non-traditional” since it’s essentially an R&D job in a beverage industry. But I thought he’d still be a good fit for this blog since becoming an enologist and working with winemakers isn’t something that comes to mind right away when you’re thinking about what you can do with a chemistry degree. Kawal received his Bachelors degree in Agriculture Sciences from Bangalore, India, before coming to the U.S. and earning a Masters and Ph.D. in food science from The University of Georgia. In grad school, he studied the flavor chemistry of fresh tomatoes using various sensory techniques and analytical instrumentation. As a post-doc in food chemistry at Cornell University, Kawal found out about the job at Constellation Wines U.S. and applied. Although he didn’t study wine prior to landing the job, his training in basic plant physiology, food chemistry and analytical instrumentation prepared him well for the position. “I had too much of the upstate NY snow and could not resist sunny California!” Kawal said. “It has been a learning curve though since this job was my first exposure to grape and wine flavor chemistry.” Kawal researches the aroma and flavor of grapes and wines, as well as cork and other closures, oak barrels and adjuncts, and packaging materials. When an aroma or flavor issue arises with a wine product, he investigates it to determine the source of the stink, which could come from cork (haloanisoles), or from the yeast (sulfur compounds) or from the grape itself (methoxypyrazines). He is also involved in tracking aroma compounds in grapes and following that through winemaking and storage. “Wine is a very dynamic medium and there is chemistry happening all the way from the vineyard to fermentation to barrel ageing to bottling and post-bottling storage,” Kawal said. Each step along the way requires analytical support, and Kawal and his chemistry colleagues are there to make sure it all happens so that the final product is of the highest quality. Kawal uses several pieces of advanced instrumentation on a regular basis, including a GC-MS, GC-MS/MS and GC-O as...

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