YORK — Scott Arndt unloaded a half-dozen or so wooden barrels from the bed of his big pickup truck, which is painted to look as if maple syrup is dripping down its sides.
He passed off the oak barrels to David Woods, owner of Wiggly Bridge Distillery on Route 1, who rolled them inside an old barn-like building that contains a handmade 250-gallon still and smells strongly of mash.
The barrels were coming home. They originally held Woods’ bourbon and rum, then Arndt took them to Rockland empty, where he filled them with maple syrup and let them set for up to a year, infusing the syrup with a gentle kiss of each spirit – without the alcohol.
The men are believed to be the first Mainers to jump on a trend that is spreading through the rest of New England like autumn colors on a mountainside: They’re making rum and bourbon barrel-aged maple syrups that they hope will lure more sophisticated palates and raise the value of Maine syrup. (A half-pint bottle of both the rum and bourbon flavors sells for $20, compared with $15 for the same size bottle of regular maple syrup.)
Arndt is also doing infusions with coffee, a process that takes hours to days rather than months to years. But barrel aging is much more complicated. For Arndt and Woods, developing their own method of barrel aging has taken two years, and it hasn’t been easy or risk-free. Make a mistake on a batch, and it has to be thrown out.
“We both are working with pretty valuable raw products,” Arndt, vice president of Maine Gold in Rockland, said. “So I wouldn’t suggest that people run out and do this. I thought it would be easier than it’s been.”
Woods overhears the comment, and pipes up: “But anything good in life comes with a challenge.”
INFUSING SYRUP – IT’S A THING
Maple syrup is the next in a long line of food products in recent years to go “artisanal,” transforming from something that’s just poured on pancakes into boutique syrups infused with unexpected flavors and sold in fancy bottles. Runamok Maple, a popular Vermont company, infuses syrup with flavors such as the cardamom, hibiscus, and Makrut lime-leaf; the company also smokes maple syrup with pecan wood. Its gift packs of barrel-aged and infused syrups made the “Oprah’s Favorite Things” list for the 2016 holiday season, and its online marketing notes that its syrup comes in “elegant packaging” and that its woods are “certified bird-friendly by Audubon in Vermont.”
An article in “The Maple News,” a trade paper for the maple syrup industry, suggested as many as a dozen producers may be doing barrel aging in the maple-producing states. Likewise, Timothy Perkins, a research professor and director of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center, said he’s seen an uptick in the number of inquiries he receives about barrel-aging. “It does seem to be quite popular and (infuses) the syrup with a rather unique and distinctive flavor,” he said.
Barrel aging has been going on in Vermont for at least four or five years, Perkins said, with a number of new entrants into the market each year. He believes it’s part of a national trend towards bourbon-flavored items of many kinds. (Many craft beer brewers age their beers in old bourbon barrels, and some in rum, too.)
“It is a way to be both creative, distinctive, and to add a new twist to an established product,” he said. “It is a very interesting product since maple gets its flavor from wood secondary metabolites. The bourbon also gets its flavor from the wood barrels, so bourbon-aged maple gets a double dose of that flavor.”
And it’s perhaps a sign that barrel aging has “arrived” that Trader Joe’s sold a bourbon barrel-aged maple syrup during the holiday season last year.
But the upscale syrup is only just arriving in Maine. Neither a spokesman for the Southern Maine Maple Sugarmakers Association nor Kathryn Hopkins, a maple specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, had heard of any Maine maple producers doing barrel aging – Arndt and Woods’ operation was a surprise to them.
COULDN’T SEE THE BEDROCK FOR THE TREES
Arndt grew up in Presque Isle, on a 130-acre farm that has maple trees on about 20 acres. He was in his late 30s and working for the New Hampshire Geological Survey when he started making syrup for fun, and to help his parents, who had tired of lugging buckets of sap out of the woods.
During the season, he commuted seven hours each way on Thursdays and Sundays so he could have two to three days each week to boil sap and still keep his job studying the geothermal properties of bedrock.
He and his parents made perhaps a few gallons of syrup the entire season for their own use. “I worked 18-hour days, sitting outside, boiling on an old woodstove that came out of a potato house,” Arndt recalled.
But as hard as it was, Arndt fell in love with making maple syrup and decided he wanted to become a commercial syrup producer.
Four years ago, Arndt’s wife Melissa bought Maine Gold, a business that distributes maple syrup and other maple products. Maine Gold now sells Arndt’s own maple syrup, still collected from his parents’ farm, as well as syrup from other Maine producers.
Arndt enjoyed a good bourbon and maple syrup cocktail now and again, but he had never thought of extracting bourbon flavor from a wooden barrel until he attended a food trade show at the Samoset Resort three years ago. That’s where he met Woods and learned about Wiggly Bridge. In Woods, Arndt found someone as fussy about quality as he is, he said. They hit it off.
Woods had previously met the owner of a small syrup company in Vermont who came into Wiggly Bridge one day offering a taste of bourbon barrel-aged syrup. “He gave me a sample and I loved it, and I said, ‘Well, (WigglyBridge) should do that,’ ” Wood recalled. But he wanted to work with a local syrup maker.
Along came Arndt, who says he knew “nothing” about barrel-aging maple syrup. But after meeting Woods he immediately started researching it online and experimenting, using barrels from Wiggly Bridge. It took two years, in regular consultation with Woods, to develop a technique.
En route, there were stumbling blocks, including leaking barrels and mishaps with aging times.
But ultimately, “it made some fabulous maple syrup,” Woods said.
After Arndt brings the empty barrels to Rockland, he fills them with syrup and lets them sit at different temperature and humidity levels for varying amounts of time – several months to up to a year or more, depending on the spirit and the size of the barrel. Because of the production time and effort involved, so far they’ve only been able to make enough product so far to sell at the distillery in York, and the higher price reflects that extra time and work. But it doesn’t seem to deter distillery visitors, Woods said. “We can sell everything he can bottle,” he said.
But that’s not to say the partners are sitting on a gold mine. Woods says the revenue stream from the barrel-aged maple syrup is more like a dribble at the moment, “but it’s something else to offer our customer base. Cost-wise and percentage of markup-wise, I’m probably better off selling shot glasses.”
Though they are gradually building up their inventory of barrel-aged syrup, they expect growth to be slow. “It doesn’t have an unlimited shelf life,” Arndt said, “so we can’t just put it in there for five years, waiting for the market to want it. So we’re building our inventory as our sales grow.”
Arndt bottles the syrup in Rockland in an attractive bottle that labels it “premium syrup” – by law, he can’t use the phrase “pure Maine maple syrup.” The syrup absorbs flavor, not alcohol, from the barrel, so the bottles they’ve tested have shown undetectable levels of alcohol. Each bottle is hand-marked with its barrel number, bottle number and spirit — either rum or bourbon.
The creativity in this project runs in both directions. After the syrup is bottled, Arndt brings the empty barrels back down to Wiggly Bridge, where Woods has been experimenting with them. Right now he’s working on a “bourbon rested in maple oak.”
Results have been mixed.
“I’ve had good success once, not so good success a couple of times,” he said. “But I’m not giving up on it.”