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Creativity with Essential Oils: Flavour Fanatic Duncan O’Brien

Lavender. It’s not the first ingredient you think of when you take a swig of Dalston’s Cola’s signature soft drink, but, according to the man behind the fizz, it’s there.

Meet Duncan O’Brien, founder of Dalston’s Cola Co., a soft drink company dedicated to creating premium-quality pop. The company prides itself on its innovative ingredients and tasty takes on the sodas we all grew up with. There’s ginger beer, cream soda, orangeade, and, of course, cola, but what do they have to do with essential oils?

Well, just like Coca-Cola, Dalston’s use essential oils to add flavour to their drinks. Duncan explains why. He says: “Essential oils carry concentrations of flavonoids – molecules in plants that carry strong flavours. Many common flavonoids have powerful properties. For example, anthocyanin occurs in many fruits and vegetables and is an antioxidant. It is also the thing in blood orange that gives the fruit’s flesh a deep red colour.”

But, while essential oils are good, it’s the byproducts of the distillation process that really get Duncan’s blood pumping – or should that be fizzing? “We are particularly interested in byproducts of the essential oil making process called hydrosols or hydrolats. These liquids - sometimes called floral waters - are full of flavour. One of the processes used in making essential oils is distillation, and through distillation you can achieve many different expressions of flavour from one plant.”

So what does it take to make the perfect cola? Duncan’s answer? Trial and error. He explains: “We’re always trying to arrive at that perfect recipe. We must have gone through at least 30 cola recipes over four years, and it gets better each time.

“It’s the same with ginger beer - we’ve gone through about 20 small recipe changes and we’re always trying to improve.”

Making great fizz is not all soft-drink sipping though. While on the quest for the perfect beverage, Duncan and his team have learnt a lot about the sourcing and the history of the ingredients they use.

“We spend our time hunting down the best-quality ingredients we can, which often means going to where they are grown and getting to know farmers and processors.

“I suppose to some, the most surprising ingredient in our cola might be lavender - it adds a little floral hint at the end. But for me, the most surprising thing was learning about the history of gum arabic, which is acacia tree sap - typically from South Sudan.

“Then we learnt about a more sustainable replacement: cellulose gum from tree pulp. Then there’s the fascinating and curious history of the Kola nut…”

Duncan can barely contain the passion he has for the flavours he makes and the ingredients they come from. And that’s something he never sees changing.

“The big companies in soft drinks tend to spend a lot of money on advertising and marketing. We like to spend most of our time searching for and experimenting with the best ingredients we can find, and developing drinks-making methods. There is a large industry set up for brands to outsource their innovation and supply chain to, but we like to keep our hands on the processes.”

So what’s next? Duncan is keen to continue the quest for even tastier soft drinks...

“Our drinks challenge people’s common perceptions. Some people just want what they know, but increasingly people are more adventurous with food and drink. There’s a whole wonderful world of flavours to explore.

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