I know everyone wants the weather to warm up, but hear me out.
If you are a true North American, you don’t want spring warming up too quickly. You want it to warm up during the day, but you still want the temperatures to dip below freezing at night. You want this, because that’s the ideal situation for sap to run in the sugar maple trees throughout this continent.
And the more maple sap that runs through Acer saccharum trees this spring, the more delicious maple syrup this continent produces. It all works out, especially if you also want to make delicious cocktails with maple syrup, like the ones I’m about to talk about.
The Science of Maple
Maple syrup is a simple sweetener, in theory. To make it, all you need to do to is boil down maple sap into a gorgeous amber syrup. As long as you don’t mind collecting and boiling 30 or 40 gallons (or more) of sap to get just one gallon of maple syrup, you’re ready to go.
The amount of sap needed varies, based upon the density of sugar in the sap. That sugar density varies, based upon the time of year, the weather, moisture, and when the trees start budding. A number of factors — such as the ability to gauge the sugar density, the habitat of the maples being tapped, and the methods used to evaporate the sap’s water content — create variations in the maple syrup produced.
Whatever the grade used, maple syrup has a rich, dark flavor that is unique. In cocktails, it functions similar to other heavy or intense sweeteners — it tends to be very viscous and can easily dominate a drink if too much is added. It can mix with nearly any spirit, though it tends to best compliment liquors that have touched in inside of a barrel. Because maple syrup has a unique flavor profile, though, you also want to make sure you don’t bury it.
As with any other sweetener or syrup, avoid the artificial stuff and stick with 100% maple syrup. The recipes below were made with a rustic syrup that would likely be graded as “dark & robust,” so you made need to tweak proportions for lighter amber syrups.
Bring On the Brandy
This is one of my go-to drinks, and hits a lot of touchstones from my Wisconsin roots: brandy, maple syrup, and in the form of an old fashioned. I ran across this recipe years ago, and it sold me on Jason Wilson as a cocktail writer. His recipe is adapted from Misty Kalkofen’s, a Boston bartender with Wisconsin roots.
Apple Brandy Old Fashioned
1 tsp – real maple syrup
a couple dashes of Angostura bitters
2 oz – apple brandy
Combine the maple syrup and bitters in an old-fashioned glass, then add the apple brandy and ice cubes. Stir gently for ten seconds.
This drink epitomizes the idea that a cocktail doesn’t need a lot of ingredients to be a perfect sipper. The beauty of this recipe is that you have three ingredients that, on their own, are already complex and unique. And because it’s an old fashioned, the spirit you choose will result in slightly different drinks. I’ve made this with a range of brandies (calvados, Laird’s, craft-distilled), and it works with all of them.
Smoke & Bitterness
The next cocktail is a tweaked version of this recipe from Imbibe, which I first mentioned in one of my whirlwind World Cup cocktail guides. The original calls for a brown sugar syrup, but maple adds a similar dark sweetness to the menthol bitterness of the Fernet and the smokiness of the Scotch.
The Smoking Maple Leaf
2 oz – Islay (or other peaty style) Scotch whisky
¾ tsp – Fernet Branca
½ tsp – real maple syrup
a couple dashes of barrel-aged bitters
Combine all ingredients in a shaker. Add ice, shake, and strain into a Scotch glass or small cocktail glass.
The original calls for Fee Bros. whiskey barrel-aged bitters, which is the perfect compliment to brown sugar. Since I’m using maple syrup, I’ve left it as any barrel-aged bitters. When I make this for myself, I gravitate towards Bittercube’s cherry bark vanilla bitters, which play very nicely with maple.
Brunch in a Glass
The cocktails so far have been very booze-forward, and this next one continues that trend. It combines my love for late-night cocktails like the Manhattan and Martinez, and mashes it up with the late-morning flavors reminiscent of cinnamon-kissed French toast.
2 oz – aquavit
¾ oz – vermouth di Torino
¼ oz – Bittermens Hiver Amer
1 tsp – real maple syrup
a couple dashes of Boker’s bitters
Combine all ingredients in a glass and stir briefly to dissolve the syrup. Add ice, and stir until well-chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe glass, garnish with maple candy.
Like the previous cocktail, this one does not lack for flavor (or alcohol content). The heavier vermouth allows it to keep up with the other ingredients, and aquavit provides the spine of the drink with its caraway and spicy goodness. The Hiver Amer is a bitter liqueur that both balances the inherent sweetness of the drink and adds a pleasant cinnamon note that fades to let the maple take its turn to dance on your tongue.
Easing Into the Spring
As much as we need the chilly nights to keep the sap running, spring will eventually warm up. When it does, we’ll want cocktails that are a bit lighter, a bit more subtle and refreshing. The Wedding Night cocktail is a classic cocktail that matches the basic idea of a daiquiri — rum, sugar, lime — with our maple theme. This version updates the the classic recipe with clever change of base spirit:
2 oz – white rhum agricole
¾ oz – real maple syrup
½ oz – fresh lime juice
a couple drops of Burlesque bitters
Combine all ingredients in a shaker. Add ice, shake, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass.
Rhum agricole is a light, floral, grassy cousin to Caribbean rum. The dark flavor of the maple blends surprisingly well with the funky rhum agricole, making a drink that is more than the sum of its parts. This recipe uses far more syrup than the previous drinks for two reasons. One is the potency of lime juice, and the other is the proof of many rhums — the La Favorite Coeur de Canne rhum I used, for example, is 100 proof. If you’re using regular rum or an agricole at a lower proof, you’ll probably want to play with the maple syrup proportion.
Tap the Trees and Raise a Glass
Here in the Chicago, spring is a mercurial season that can turns from shorts weather into “why did I leave my coat at home” without warning. But that temperature swing is an integral part of the maple season in the northwoods of Canada, New England, and the Midwest. When the wind picks up and the thermometer goes down, try one of the cocktails above, and give thanks to the America’s greatest sweetener, maple syrup.