Step aside, Mrs. Butterworth. Relegated to the ignoble role of smothering Eggos at the breakfast table, maple syrup has fallen on hard times. But while corn syrup–based imitations rule today’s market, real maple syrup has a long culinary heritage—one that’s being rediscovered by today’s more adventurous mixologists.
The condensed sap from maple trees was the primary sweetener in much of North America until well into the 19th century, especially in eastern Canada and the northeastern United States. Maple sugar was the main product, made from boiling maple sap until the water evaporated and then placing the residue in molds to form loaves. Even after cheap cane sugar became widely available, maple sugar was still the sweetener of choice in parts of Canada and the Northeast, and enjoyed renewed popularity during the Civil War and World War II, when cane sugar was in limited supply.
But maple products weren’t only used to sweeten cakes and tea. Workers fortified themselves with sap beer during the annual harvest, and in the 19th century a type of maple rum was distilled in parts of New England and upstate New York. And while cane sugar was supplanting maple sugar in the early years of the republic (making syrup the main maple product), the old-style sweetener undoubtedly found its way into assorted punches, eggnogs and flips.
Today, maple-growing regions continue to contribute products to the bar: Maison des Futailles in Quebec produces Fine Sève, a maple eau de vie, and Sortilège, a maple liqueur with a Canadian whisky base; Ontario’s Kittling Ridge makes a similar liqueur called Oh Canada; and Vermont Spirits distills a vodka from maple sap. Maple fans may also wish to try Amber, a liqueur that marries the flavor of maple and pecans to a base of Macallan Scotch whisky.
While loaves of maple sugar are largely things of the past, a handful of intriguing cocktail recipes utilize maple syrup. Classic sour-style drinks such as the Brown Derby, the Maple Leaf and the Applejack Rabbit use maple syrup as a complex sweetener to counterbalance the tartness of citrus juice. Contemporary bartenders are also using the flavor to good effect: maple syrup lends Applejack Old Fashioneds extra gravitas at Green Street in Cambridge, Mass. The venerable pancake-topper enters the exotic realm at Forbidden Island Tiki Lounge in Alameda, Calif., where it is mixed with Barbados rum and tawny port in the Dead Reckoning.
But keep the Log Cabin away from your cocktail shaker—only real maple syrup will do. When mixed in a drink such as the rye whiskey-based Maple Julep served at Death & Company in New York, real maple syrup adds a whole new dimension to the experience. “Sugar cuts the bite of rye or bourbon without adding richness or flavor,” says bartender Philip Ward. “But maple adds some really good richness, and offers more than just sweetness. Maple gives the drink a really nice push.”