BIDDEFORD – It all started with some peaches.
Emily Butters, a school teacher on summer break, bought some fresh August peaches from her local food co-op in Brooklyn, N.Y., and decided to can them.
Her boyfriend, Forrest Butler, was subbing for a bartender in Bushwick that night in 2010, and asked if he could have the leftover juice from the peaches to make a simple syrup he could use in cocktails. He started fiddling around, adding this and that.
“I didn’t like the way he was doing it, so I kind of elbowed him out of the way, and I was like, ‘Maybe you should try this and add this,’ ” Butters recalled. “So we sort of collaborated on the syrup. I think it was peach and black pepper and basil and vanilla. It was really good.”
Butler took a Mason jar filled with their creation to the bar that night, and mixed it in drinks made with gin, rum, bourbon and whiskey. It was a big hit.
“The next thing you know, the entire jar was gone,” Butler said. “I came home and I said, ‘Emily, you know, maybe we should make high-end, gourmet organic syrups for cocktails.’ “
The result was Royal Rose (royalrosesyrups.com), a company that handcrafts simple syrups in small batches, about 30 gallons at a time, using filtered water and 100 percent organic and fair-trade sugar. There are no artificial colors or preservatives, and Butler and Butters grind and toast all the spices used in the syrups themselves.
What sets the couple’s syrups apart, in addition to the quality of the ingredients, are the unusual flavors. In addition to a simple rose syrup, they also make cardamom-clove, lavender-lemon, three chilies, strawberry-fennel and tamarind.
Their first flavor was raspberry, a syrup that was a bartender’s staple before Prohibition and is a key ingredient in a lot of older cocktails. Their latest flavor is saffron, which apparently goes really well with cognac.
ROYAL ROSE SYRUPS are already on the shelves at Williams-Sonoma, and they’ve just received an order from Terrain, a division of Urban Outfitters. The company has distributors in Toronto, Chicago, Kansas, Los Angeles and Atlanta getting the syrups into restaurants and bars.
Butters and Butler moved their company to Maine about six months ago, when they needed room to expand. Butters has been vacationing all her life in the Mount Desert Island area, and the couple was married in Bar Harbor in 2011. Butters had been trying to convince Butler to move to Maine “for years,” because “I just knew we would be really happy here.”
Butler was unenthusiastic at first, but he knew their days of making the syrups in Brooklyn were numbered. The couple worked out of a small commercial kitchen, and while they only had to drive eight miles to get to their warehouse/shipping operation, it could take a couple of hours to get there during rush-hour traffic. Boxes of Royal Rose syrups spilled out into the hallway.
In their huge new space at North Dam Mill on Main Street in Biddeford, they have a small kitchen, a bottle labeling area, a shipping area and room to spare.
“I was reluctant to move anywhere,” Butler said, “but we’re so happy to be here.”
Before Royal Rose, Butler had been in the bar business for about 12 or 13 years, managing bars and bartending everywhere from high-volume nightclubs to small cocktail lounges in New York. He made syrups for the bars he worked at, and for his own personal use, coming up with popular flavors like black raspberry-jalapeno, as well as a celery syrup, which was less successful.
BUTLER BELIEVES the craft spirits being made today cry out for something a little more sophisticated than sugar water colored with artificial dyes.
“You have this wonderful, beautiful craft spirit, and then to mix it, the only thing you can find on a shelf is crappy stuff,” Butler said. “It was sort of a natural progression, but so many people thought we were crazy. They were like, ‘You want to make syrup for cocktails? Really?’ After that jar of peach syrup, we did a little bit of research and decided, ‘Let’s go for it.’ “
Within two or three weeks of launching their company, the couple had 25 to 30 different jars of flavored syrups in their refrigerator. For inspiration, they searched vintage cookbooks and local farmers markets. They looked for clean, vibrant, simple combinations of flavors.
“We had so much fun making tons of different syrups and dreaming about what people would want to buy, and having our friends over and making them cocktails,” Butters recalled.
It takes about four months to get a flavor from idea to market. (The 8-ounce bottles are mostly $11 each online; the saffron will cost $12.50.) The syrups are primarily for cocktails, but they can also be used in other ways. Three chiles is the most versatile flavor, and the best in savory applications, Butters said. It makes a good sweet-hot glaze for chicken and other foods roasted in the oven.
The tamarind flavor is a great addition to pad Thai, Butler said. Butler has also mixed the lavender-lemon with a bit of soy sauce and a drop or two of sesame oil, then drizzled it over julienned cabbage.
“All the syrups are really nice for vinaigrettes and sauces and stuff like that,” Butters said. “I put rose syrup, lavender-lemon syrup or the strawberry-fennel syrup on yogurt every morning.”
RIGHT NOW, THE SYRUPS are available online and locally at Aurora Provisions in Portland, Treats in Wiscasset and Williams-Sonoma at the Maine Mall. Butler and Butters hope to expand their presence in southern Maine over the next few months, visiting local bartenders and talking with distributors to get their syrups on more shelves.
Andrew Volk, who plans to open a craft cocktail bar called the Portland Hunt & Alpine Club in spring, says he wants to use Royal Rose syrups at his new establishment because they “just up the quality of any drink.”
“The kind of bartending that I’ve practiced throughout my career has (involved) a lot of making our own stuff and using fresh ingredients,” he said, “and the syrups that they have are fresh and bright with very clean flavors. They make syrups I wouldn’t have imagined making myself.”
Volk said he’s looking forward to offering vintage drinks such as the Clover Club at his new bar. It’s a classic, pre-Prohibition cocktail that contains raspberry-flavored simple syrup mixed with gin, lemon juice and egg whites (recipe at right).
“I’ve made it with grenadine, and it’s all right,” Volk said, “and I’ve made it with their raspberry syrup, and it’s killer.”
Butters and Butler said they hope to expand their product line in 2013, perhaps adding some cocktail garnishes such as cherries or lemon wedges.
“I still want to do something garnish-wise with our chiles that we have left over,” Butler said, “because the jalapenos and anchos are macerating in this hot water and organic sugar for, like, two or three hours, and then we strain it all out, and I want to can them and put them on salads or something. They’re delicious.”
They also want to grow to the point where they have two or three kettles making syrup instead of just one, and an expanded production team that can make the syrups while they focus on marketing, distribution and other tasks.
“This is our year to explode,” Butler said.
Staff Writer Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at: