Your Cart is Empty

    January 15, 2024 3 min read

    From day 1 making Wehl Plant Drops, grapefruit flavor was the ultimate goal.

    When I set my sites on making better tasting, simpler, better-for-you flavors, there was no better test case than grapefruit. Clean, refreshing, simple, it's the ultimate water companion. 

    Grapefruit is also a perfect illustration of the twisted path "natural flavor" often takes on its way to your lips.

    The problem with nootkatone

    The chemical compound responsible for the characteristic grapefruit bite that catches your throat and wakes up your nose, nootkatone is one of the most expensive components in the flavor industry. It takes 400,000 lbs of grapefruit to make 1 lb of nootkatone.

    valencene molecule


    Enter valencene. A relatively plentiful component in Valencia oranges, that can be had for one tenth the price of nootkatone. And they just so happen to lie on the same chemical pathway a few steps from each other.

    Most early industrial methods for transforming valencene into nootkatone involved heavy metals and other additives that wouldn't qualify for a "natural flavor" label. Thanks to advances in biochemistry, there is now a "natural" way. The most common method looks something like this:

    Company X Grapefruit Formulation

    🍊Orange Peels + Pressure →
    Valencene →
    Valencene + Cytochrome P450 from bioengineered E Coli
    💩  (yes seriously) →
    Nootkatol (an alcohol) →
    Nootkatol + Alcohol Dehydrogenase (how your liver processes last night’s questionable decisions) →
    Nootkatone (aka grapefruity taste) →
    Nootkatone + Mystery Additives

    “Natural Flavor” →
    Bottle with Silly French Name

    Maybe a vial was waved in the direction of a grapefruit somewhere along the way, but this winding path takes a lot of twists that leave me scratching my head.

    Did it really have to be this complicated and opaque? I had proven to myself you can make flavor with simply plants and water, but maybe grapefruit flavor wasn't possible without a chemist's sleight of hand.

    After several months of trial and error, I was still unsure.  It turns out handling whole grapefruit presents a lot of challenges - it's heavy, it's perishable, it's seasonal. The amount of citrus oil in grapefruit peels is low and the fact that they're a bigger fruit means there's even less zest to work with. At the end of last year's grapefruit season I threw up my hands, turned to other flavors and put my tests on the back burner.

    Thankfully, eight months later when I dusted off my notes, I had learned a lot more about distilling flavors and working with citrus fruit. Another test distillation with tempered expectations...I poured a sample not sure if I'd be impressed. One sip of that bittersweet, juicy grapefruit flavor. Charging synths rang out, It Feels Like the First time blared in my head. I'll spare you a description of the dance theatrics that ensued.

    You can in fact make grapefruit flavor simply. Not only that, but other grapefruit flavors pale in comparison to the complex fresh flavor of Grapefruit Plant Drops.

    Wehl Plant Drops Grapefruit Flavor

    Lots of Grapefruit + Steam →
    Bottle →

    While many factors and careful production go into making our flavors great, at the end of the day the real secret to capturing grapefruit's essence was just - "add more grapefruit".

    So if one person and a copper still can make flavor like this, why does the industry make things so convoluted? I don't think the intention from the outset was to confuse customers or compromise on quality. That only came as the result of misplaced priorities.

    When cost reduction and flavor yield become the name of the game absent a vision for taste and transparency, you end up with more complexity and perhaps a lower cost, but at a net loss to quality and thus value.

    In this case, maybe they found the most efficient path to nootkatone, but forgot that grapefruit was the destination.