LOCAL FLAVOR: Adding value: Can you improve on the simple goodness of maple syrup? Entrepreneurs and farmers in Southern Vermont are using the sweet stuff in ways that might surprise you.
Maple syrup. It’s never been just for pancakes.
The Algonquins wouldn’t have been surprised at the current entrepreneurial nature of the “sugaring” industry. It’s well-known that Native Americans were tapping northern maples for centuries before the first settlers came, and the legend has it that the delicious sweet sap was discovered when a woman — naturally, it was a woman — used some of it to boil up the evening venison. So put down marinade as its first use.
But hold on to your hats. Besides the traditional syrup, maple cream, and ice cream (Yea! Creamies!), there are maple lollypops, maple cotton candy, maple jellies, granulated maple sugars, maple cookies, maple pickles, maple vinegar, maple mustards, maple barbecue sauces, maple-coated nuts, and maple kettlecorn. Also, a dip made from half maple cream and half cream cheese. (How do you stop eating it?)
Now, in a new twist, maple has recently entered the wine-and-spirits field. There’s a place in New York selling a chocolate maple porter beer-making kit and another making organic maple bitters. Three kinds of maple vodka are coming out of a company in Quechee.
And now maple bourbon, maple rye, and maple liqueur are coming out of our very own Brattleboro.
Christian Stromberg’s Saxtons River Distillery has been making Sapling, a rich, golden, sweet, small-batch maple liqueur, since 2007. In 2011, it won the gold medal in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
Located in the longhouse by the West River on Route 30 (where Tom & Sally’s Chocolates used to be), Stromberg started his distilling career in Cambridgeport, near Saxtons River — hence the name of his company.
Stromberg was an automotive engineer before he became a distiller — something about the technical nature of distilling makes it attractive to engineers, he said — and he based his liqueur on his family’s traditional Lithuanian recipes.
But where Lithuanian cordials had a honey base, he substituted maple.
“I didn’t see anything happening with maple in the spirit world, so I modified the family recipe,” Stromberg said. “The Lithuanian cordials are heavily spiced, though, and I didn’t do that. Maple is subtle and could easily be overpowered.”
When Stromberg went into business, in 2007, the country was in an economic decline. Yet his company has always been in the black, Stromberg said, even if only a little.
“You know what they say,” he said. “When times are good, people drink. When times are bad, people drink.”
Now he is introducing two new spirits, maple rye and maple bourbon. Both are made by sweetening and then re-aging — in oak casks — bourbon and rye that he buys from a large distiller.
After they’ve been aged, the liquors pack a punch — a sweet punch, but a punch nonetheless.
“It’s all about the maple,” Stromberg said. “I buy about 800 gallons from local producers a year. This year, with the new products, I might double that.”