Every time I visit the Green City Market in Chicago, I’m tempted to buy a giant eggplant to use as a cudgel to beat a path through the crowd. But then every time I vow I will never go there again, I come across something absolutely delicious that I can’t find in any other farmers market. A few weeks ago, that thing was Burton’s Maplewood Farm syrup. The nice woman working the booth had set out tiny plastic shot glasses filled with samples of the different varieties of maple syrup. There were three that day, and they all tasted smooth and sweet and buttery in a way I don’t usually expect from maple syrup, and I wanted to keeping sipping them like a cocktail. The rich flavor, the woman explained to me, came from aging the syrup in old whiskey, brandy, and bourbon barrels. This was also why it cost $35 a bottle.
I hesitated, then thought about the taste of that syrup, and pulled out my debit card, vowing that I would only use the syrup judiciously in situations where it could really shine, like on homemade pancakes, waffles, and French toast, and that I would never do anything as decadent as swig it straight from the bottle. So far I have stuck to that.
Then one morning, it occurred to me to wonder how Burton’s came up with the idea of barrel-aged maple syrup in the first place. So I called up Tim Burton, who co-owns Burton’s Maplewood Farm in Medora, Indiana, with his wife, Angie.
When the Burtons first began making maple syrup, he told me, they sold plain old maple syrup. Which, in itself, is a delicious thing, especially compared to Log Cabin and Aunt Jemima, which are essentially flavored corn syrup. But Burton wanted to distinguish himself, especially after he began selling syrup to restaurant owners in Chicago.
“I saw men and women doing things, manipulating food in ways I hadn’t seen or tasted before,” he says. “They could make Brussels sprouts taste good! They made beets taste good! As I was exposed to more and more of that, I looked at ourselves and said, ‘What are we really offering?’ Maple syrup is maple syrup is maple syrup.”
At the Green City Market, Burton had become friends with Paul Kahan, a chef and partner in One Off Hospitality Group, which owns a dozen restaurants in Chicago, including Publican and Big Star tacos. Burton admired how Kahan was able to create interesting and unpretentious food that people wanted to eat. One day they were talking, and Burton asked what Kahan thought about aging maple syrup like spirits. Kahan said he thought that was a great idea. But where, Burton asked, could he get the barrels? “You’re close to Kentucky,” Kahan said. “You could probably get some bourbon barrels.”
It happened that Burton had a friend who was a distiller, Phil Pritchard of Pritchard’s Distillery in Kelso, Tennessee. Pritchard agreed to lend him a few rum casks for the aging experiment. Burton aged his syrup for six months and the results were good enough to sell. He got two more barrels, applejack brandy this time, from his friends Ted and David Huber of Huber’s Starlight Distillery in Starlight, Indiana. He filled the barrels with syrup and left them in his maple house, next to a giant fireplace. One day, nearly a year later, he was doing some housekeeping and realized that one of the barrels was heavier than it ought to be, if it were empty. Sure enough, it was still full of syrup. After a moment of chagrin, he tasted it. The brandy flavor was three or four times stronger than his previous experiments—and amazingly delicious.
“I put two and two together,” he says, “and realized that the heat from the fireplace was doing something.” Since then, Burton has barrel-aged his syrup for at least a year and heats it up twice a month. What happens, he says, is when a barrel is emptied, some spirits end up trapped in the staves. This is called the devil’s cut, and over time, and with some help from the heat, the flavor seeps out of the wood and into the syrup.
Since then, Burton has been collaborating with more and more distilleries and using different kinds of spirits, even beer (New Belgium Brewery’s La Folie Sour Brown Ale). Disney invited him to sample and sell his syrup at Animal Kingdom and EPCOT, and Oprah gave away bottles as table favors at her farewell-to-Chicago brunch. (Burton and Angie got to sit with Lady Gaga’s parents at the brunch. He says they were very nice.) He seems delighted with his good fortune, and his only complaint is that he hasn’t had time at Disney World to taste the Apple Sky Blossom, a cider cocktail that incorporates his syrup. He’s too busy working.
If you can’t get to Burton’s farm or to the Green City Market, a bottle of syrup purchased online will set you back $40. I don’t say this lightly, but it is totally worth it.