Gold Royal Icing – Alternatives to Alcohol

Applying gold to royal icing usually calls for the addition of alcohol in order to turn gold pearl dust into a paint. You can read my original tutorial on how to make gold royal icing here. 
I’ve received lots of inquiries about what can be used in place of alcohol for this method, so I decided to try out some different liquids to see what works best. I was surprised by the results!
For products used in this and other tutorials, visit my recommended products page.
Shown here are Beanilla vanilla extract (35% alcohol), Mount Williams imitation vanilla (water, vanillin, artificial flavors, caramel color), Bacardi 151 (75.5% alcohol), lemon juice and water.
Gold-liquidsI almost always use Wilton gold pearl dust for this method. Wilton is one of the only companies I know of that make FDA approved pearl dusts and color dusts. Most of the others that are available on the market are labeled non toxic, but also non edible, so they’re just meant for use on decorations that won’t be consumed, such as gum paste flowers. NY Cake just came out with a line of FDA approved dusts, which I haven’t had a chance to try yet.
I piped some royal icing disks for this experiment using the royal icing transfer method. A video tutorial on this method is available in my tutorial shop. You’ll also find my cookie and royal icing recipe there.
When painting with gold, I like to start with a brown base because it helps the gold stand out and it is also more forgiving if you miss a spot. The brown gel paste that I use is too pink on its own when used to make light and medium shades, so I almost always add a little bit of green in order to neutralize it.


I have used vodka for this method in the past, but I find that it’s too watery, so I did not include it in this experiment. I placed a little gold pearl dust in each well of my palette and mixed in a few drops of the different liquids.
The reason that alcohol is used to paint on royal icing is because it evaporates very quickly, so there is little time for the liquid to dissolve the icing. In order to get the best results, you need to start with a smooth, shiny royal icing surface. Read this post for more information about that.
I was not surprised that the Bacardi 151 and the vanilla extract produced the shiniest gold finish. You can use any alcohol based flavored extract in place of vanilla. Vanilla extract has about the same alcohol content as vodka, which, as I said earlier, I find to be a little too watery. So, if you’re okay with using alcohol, I recommend the Bacardi 151 for a shiny gold.
What surprised me the most was the result of the water versus the lemon juice. I had always assumed that lemon juice would be the better choice (not that I have any reason to believe that other than I read it in a forum once). The gold mixed with the water actually turned out to be shinier than the gold with the lemon juice. As you can see, however, both the water and the lemon juice have dissolved the icing slightly, leaving the surface porous and somewhat dull compared to the alcohol. The lemon juice took much longer to dry than the water.
Here’s the result of the imitation vanilla flavor. It dried a little faster than the lemon juice, so the surface didn’t end up as dull.
The Winner:
Water! After all of the disks had some time to dry, the one painted with water remained the shiniest out of the alcohol free options. While the lemon juice and imitation vanilla are water based, the water on its own dried the fastest, leaving very little time for it to soak into the surface of the icing.
gold-water Gold-imitation-vanilla2 gold-lemon-juice 
If you are going to be painting with an alcohol free liquid, be sure to use light, quick strokes with your brush. You want to make sure that the liquid has as little time as possible to dissolve the icing. I wouldn’t recommend using this method for painting tiny details or for delicate royal icing transfers, as it will make your icing porous and fragile. Starting with royal icing that has dried smooth and shiny (again, tips on that here) will help to prevent any problems.
I’d only recommend using water when painting with gold in cases where it is absolutely necessary. As you can see in these results, alcohol gives the shiniest finish with the least risk of dulling the icing.
Another option is to apply the dust with a dry brush. This method is great for covering large areas. However, you have to be careful because it will get all over everything! Also, it smudges and rubs off very easily.
Here are some different angles so you can see how the light reflects off of each one. Individual results may vary!
Click on the images for more on these designs that are painted with gold pearl dust:   Cracked Glaze SweetAmbs_Gum_Paste
Leopard print enamel cookies
Share your gilded creations with me on my facebook page!

72 thoughts on “Gold Royal Icing – Alternatives to Alcohol

  1. You do such beautiful work! I have a problem with my gold smudging and getting on my fingers when I touch it. I used the crystal colors with lemon extract and painted it on. This was after a couple days too! Am I doing something wrong or does it just take really long to dry?

  2. Hi I have been reading a few of your posts on coloring royal icing gold. In one post you say your favorite gold dust is crystal gold dust, then I read another post in which you say you almost always use wiltons gold dust. I am painting gold accents on a cookie teapot. Could you recommend which one I should use. I can go to michaels and buy wiltons. But the other I will need to order from amazon. Also which colour should I get in the gold if I go with the crystal dust. I would like a nice shade of gold. Something you would find on fine china. Thank you

  3. Hi, thanks for all your explanation, it’s perfect.

    Can i use this gold luster dust mixed like you explain ( with vainilla extract, Water, vodka, etc.) in fondant? ☺️☺️☺️☺️

    • Hi Stacey! These mixtures of gold dust and liquid wouldn’t work on chocolate – it would just bead up instead of sticking to the surface. You can apply dry dust to chocolate, but I’m not sure what liquid you would use for painting. Perhaps melted cocoa butter? I would check with Kara of Kara’s Couture Cakes about that:

  4. Hi Can I use it with water on Fondant? I want to make gold stars for my little one on her cake and was wondering if I could mix the pearl dust with water and apply it on Fondant! Thanks in advance!

  5. Hi Amber,

    Thank you for this comparison. I have been using vodka and I’m not loving the results as I’m finding it to eat away at my icing a bit. I want to try to Bacardi 151 but just want to make sure I get the right one. Is it brown in color or clear? Does this matter if I’m painting a silver pearl dust? Thank you so much for always answering my questions!! xoxox

    • Hi Nicole! Bacardi 151 is slightly darker than vodka. I never had any trouble with it tinting my white or silver pearl dust. I actually recently started using Everclear grain alcohol (it just became available for purchase in my state) and I’ve had great results with it. If you find that your icing is still dissolving as you paint, it could be that your icing is too porous. You can find information about that in this post. Scroll down a bit to find the section on royal icing troubleshooting tips:

  6. Pingback: Dragonfly Sugar Cookies | Is My Crazy Showing?

  7. Help! Recently painting luster dust (using Vodka) is causing the icing to look porous. I tried a thin then thick application with the same results.

    • Hi Carolyn! There are a couple of things that could be causing this problem. The vodka you are using might be too weak, which would mean that it’s not evaporating quickly and it’s dissolving the icing. I find that regular vodka is not strong enough, so I use 150 proof or higher. Devil’s Springs vodka, Everclear grain alcohol and Bacardi 151 are the ones I use.

      It could also be that your royal icing is too porous. Make sure that you mix your icing no longer than 5 minutes on medium/low speed. You can read more about that here:

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