When it comes to wine, Baltimore resident Linh Nguyen, 27, is a fan of the sweet stuff. It's no surprise, then, that Winecream was right up her alley.
Winecream, as the name suggests, is an ice cream treat made with fruit-based wine. The wine is mixed with fruit puree and cream, then blasted with liquid nitrogen. The fruity Baltimore-produced concoction is sold at local events and online; soon, it will also be in liquor stores.
"There are months when there aren't wine festivals happening when I just crave the stuff," said Nguyen, who favors Winecream's pineapple-mango mixture.
She isn't the only local adult to find herself fascinated with ice cream — and Winecream is just one of several Baltimore-area companies approaching it as something other than a kids' treat.
Finksburg-based ArcticBuzz, which opened last fall, also makes an alcoholic dessert — a creamy, ice cream-like frozen vodka product — focusing on sweet flavors that are likely to be broadly popular, like chocolate and coconut.
Other ice cream makers stick to nonalcoholic treats but experiment with sophisticated flavors more likely to appeal to grownups than kids. Those flavors range from fun experiments, like Prigel Family Creamery's bacon jam flavor, created for an event last year, and The Charmery's popcorn Sriracha, to Dominion Ice Cream's healthy products made with vegetables like sweet corn, beet and cucumber.
Ice cream, in all its iterations, is a hugely popular product. According to the International Dairy Foods Association, about 1.53 billion gallons of ice cream and similar frozen desserts were produced in 2013 in the U.S. From August 2013 to August 2014, sales of ice cream and frozen desserts totaled $5.4 billion.
Though vanilla remains most popular, according to the association, experimenting with new flavors is common and encouraged in the industry.
The International Dairy Foods Association hosts an annual conference with a contest in which ice cream companies are invited to submit prospective or recently released flavors. This year's conference in April saw numerous adult beverage-influenced flavors, including bourbon, stout and Irish cream, said Peggy Armstrong, the association's vice president of communications.
Flavors that pop up during the contest sometimes gain broad acceptance, said Armstrong, pointing to salted caramel as an example. She notes that creative, unusual flavors are often conceived in chefs' kitchens.
"Over the past five or six years, some of the flavors that have become really popular commercially down the road started with innovative chefs trying out new ingredients, maybe getting inspiration from their local farmers' markets or watering holes," she said. "They play and come up with new tastes that appeal to everybody, but specifically to adults."
For chefs, much of the appeal of making ice cream for adult palates lies in creating flavors that dazzle guests, said Peter Cook, pastry chef at Modern Cook Shop, a new restaurant in Fells Point.
"People are realizing ice cream can be more than just cold vanilla ice cream on top of apple pie. It can be the star of the show — a really cool thing that opens the door to a lot of fun and wow factor," he said.
Though ice cream won't be on the dessert menu during Modern Cook Shop's first weeks of business, that hasn't stopped Cook from daydreaming about flavors.
"People think, 'When I was 7, I loved mint chocolate chip.' Now they're thinking, 'We have this great dark chocolate and the Kentucky Derby's coming up — let's make a mint julep ice cream and put the bourbon straight in there,'" he said. "It's such an easy thing to flavor however you want, so there's a lot of playful stuff going on with more sophisticated flavors."
For ice cream makers, partnering with restaurants offers opportunities to take risks on flavors that might not sell well in the traditional ice cream parlor setting. Prigel Family Creamery in Glen Arm first experimented with savory flavors a few years ago, making an olive oil and sea salt ice cream for Clipper Mill restaurant Birroteca.
"It was a really cool experience for us," said Mandy Castillo, who handles catering and events for the creamery and is the daughter of owner Bobby Prigel. "To just say, 'Let's try making this and see how it turns out.'"
Last week, Prigel hosted its second annual blind tasting, featuring three flavors that combined savory and sweet. This year, the mix included a kombucha and lime flavor created in concert with Hex Ferments and a beer-and-brownie option in partnership with Union Craft Brewing.
The opportunity to collaborate with other food purveyors is a side benefit of thinking beyond the kids' cone, said David Alima, owner of The Charmery, a Hampden ice cream shop known for its constantly rotating slate of unusual flavors.
Recently, the shop partnered with Union Craft on a five-course "Brain Freeze" meal, in which each course was paired with a different beer. For example, an olive oil, saffron and grapefruit ice cream with pink peppercorn cotton candy was paired with a Duckpin Pale Ale.
For companies like Winecream and ArcticBuzz, flavor development is creative, but the real trick is in figuring out the scientific process.
Both companies were inspired by simple desire. ArcticBuzz owner Ginny Marks tried to make vodka-and-cranberry popsicles for a dinner party, but the vodka didn't freeze. Her initial failure inspired her to figure out how to incorporate vodka into a frozen treat. Sorting that out took about a year and a half, and the process is now a trade secret. The final product is between 8.6 percent and 8.9 percent alcohol by volume.
Winecream, which started in 2014, was spawned after a long day of family togetherness, wine and ice cream. "We'd been drinking wine all day, and we were ready for dessert but didn't want to stop drinking wine," said co-owner Katie Gorham.
She and her family realized from the start that liquid nitrogen would be key to their process; from there, they fine-tuned the product and flavors into their current offerings, which hover around 10 percent alcohol by volume.
Whether it is alcohol-based or comes in sophisticated flavors, ice cream taps into childhood nostalgia.
"There's a huge market for nostalgia right now," said Cook of Modern Cook Shop. He connects ice cream with other childhood foods that have recently begun to pop up on adult dining tables, like homemade pop tarts. "People say, 'We can take these things we looked forward to when we were 7 and pair them with wine and look forward to it when we're 27.'"
Alima said people love The Charmery's collaborations with wine, beer and spirit makers. "It comes with this childhood nostalgia, which is a lot of what ice cream is — the whimsy of going out for ice cream, what we grew up doing," he said. "It combines it with what people like to do now that we're older — drink!"