Barrel-Aged Maple Syrup Brings Fired-Up Flavor

How the barrel-aged maple syrup trend is blowing up in the restaurant industry

Later, breakfast. Maple syrup is setting its sights way past the morning menu. The wonderfully nuanced ingredient is flowing into lunch, dinner—and even the cocktail bar.

“We’re using it in…all different aspects of cooking as a sweetener substitute or a background flavor note,” says Bryan Moscatello, chef of The Little Nell in Aspen, Colorado. His list includes braising, glazing, curing and pickling. 

Over the last few years, maple syrup producers have been experimenting with barrel aging, adding flavors and inventive techniques. Such methods, which lend even greater dimension to maple syrup, have piqued the interest of chefs. Producers and chefs are increasingly working together to develop innovative maple syrup variations. 

ROLL OUT THE BARRELS

Wood barrel aging is becoming a method-of-the-moment that imparts caramelized flavors of charred wood sugars and hints of whatever is swooshed in the container, such as beer or spirits. 

Tim Burton of Burton’s Maplewood Farm in Medora, Indiana, has gained prominence for his specialty barrel-aged maple syrup. Dickie Brennan, owner of several iconic New Orleans restaurants, including his eponymous steakhouse, asked Burton to create a Tabasco-infused maple syrup aged in a Woodford Reserve barrel. 

Burton also aged a special batch for The Little Nell in an oak barrel from Colorado-based Breckenridge Distillery. At the chef’s request, Burton sent the used oak staves back to the restaurant. They were infused in cream for a custard that Moscatello served at a James Beard dinner.

“(The syrup) reflects the flavor profile from where we are in the mountains,” Moscatello says. “When we’re selling something on the floor, it’s about the story, how you came up with something.”

Opposites Attract

Maple syrup plays into the much-practiced salty-sweet paradigm of cooking. Executive Chef Christopher Cipollone of Piora in New York marinates a 40-ounce prime dry-aged cote de boeuf with Blis bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup, garlic, chili flakes and herbs. The sugar from the syrup encourages the char, adding yet another layer of flavor.

Maple syrup, brown sugar and balsamic vinegar work as the foil for the thick-cut bacon that Chef-owner Josh Hanson makes at Spanky’s Stone Hearth in Frazee, Minnesota.“It adds a unique sweetness that pairs well with the dry-aged flavor,” Cipollone says of the dish, which is accompanied by a rosemary-maple hollandaise.

Foods “that aren’t overpowering themselves” pair best with maple syrup, such as chicken, pork and vanilla ice cream, Hanson says. He serves a maple-amaretto glazed chicken breast and also adds syrup to his housemade sausages.  

Kick Sugar to the Curb

Maple syrup is enjoying the spot long held by sugar, the ingredient chefs rely on for balance. However, it provides a few interesting notes that sugar lacks.

A sprinkle of sugar is often tossed into yeast to help with the rise. But at Parker Pie Company in West Glover, Vermont, Deep Mountain ginger-maple syrup goes in the crust, and maple syrup is drizzled on the Green Mountain Special (a pizza with cheddar, bacon, spinach, onion and apples). At the Angry Trout Cafe in Grand Marais, Minnesota, maple syrup balances the Dijon mustard salad dressing and sweetens barbecue sauce and layer cakes. 

Cocktail Culture

Maple syrup has become the go-to sweetener for mixologists, especially for barrel aging and added flavors like vanilla.  

Fearing’s Restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton in Dallas features barrel-aged cocktails with maple syrup. The Caught Red-Handed combines Treaty Oak Red Handed whiskey, housemade sweet and sour, maple syrup, muddled Luxardo cherries and mint.

At Spanky’s, the bar serves a frozen cocktail of Baileys Irish Cream, maple syrup and Nocello blended with ice cream as well as a maple Manhattan with syrup standing in for the traditional vermouth.

"When we're selling something on the floor, it's about the story, how you came up with something."

-Executive Chef Bryan Moscatello

Maple syrup also shows up in the cocktail program at Prohibition Pig in Waterbury, Vermont. Court Jester’s Demise unites Maker’s Mark, maple, lemon, Fernet Branca and bitters.

And for teetotalers? The Angry Trout Cafe serves maple syrup soda, a simple blend of maple and carbonated water. 

Still, Breakfast    

Just because maple syrup has broken out of the breakfast mold doesn’t mean it’s missing in action.

Moscatello offers a flight of maple syrups with breakfast. One is aged in a bourbon barrel, another is infused with bourbon and a third is spiked with vanilla.

In Chicago, Chef-owner Kevin Hickey of Bottlefork serves cast-iron baked French toast with a seasonal fruit compote and sweet cream. Diners don’t think twice about the $2 charge for barrel-aged Burton maple syrup.

“The market for maple syrup is growing,” says Matt Gordon, executive director of the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association. “We’re seeing production ramp up. There’s a renaissance right now of local food production in specialty foods. There’s the story behind maple, the sap that springs right from a tree, that magical element.” 

Heather Lalley is a Chicago-based freelance food writer and author of “The Chicago Homegrown Cookbook.” She likes her maple syrup warm and aged in a bourbon barrel. 


Fired-Up Flavor 

Vermont produces the most maple syrup in the country, but flavor differences between the northern state and trees in the Midwest are up to debate. 

Real variation comes in after the sap is collected from the tree.

Producers can reduce sap in an evaporator over a wood fire or heat from fuel oil. Tim Burton, who has produced syrup at his Burton’s Maplewood Farm in southern Indiana for about seven years, prefers the control of gas heat. He then runs his evaporator on low for five or 10 minutes to let the syrup caramelize.

Once reduced, the syrup can be graded and bottled. Typically, the darker the syrup (without additives), the more flavorful. More producers, however, are aging syrup, often in barrels once used for bourbon, beer or other alcoholic beverages. Burton ages syrup in a variety of bourbon barrels as well as blackberry whiskey, peach brandy, red wine and beer barrels. 

He also uses a huge, custom-designed Rumford fireplace for his barrel-aged syrups. He pushes each barrel as close to the fire as possible without burning the wood to raise the internal temperature more than 30 degrees above the ambient air temperature. This causes expansion and contraction of the oak staves which, Burton says, extracts even more flavor from the barrels and into his syrup. 

Big Tip

Compared with conventional syrup that might have additives, small-batch maple syrup is heavily concentrated. Cooking it down will alter the flavor. Consider high-quality maple as more of a finishing ingredient, or add it near the end of cooking.