A selection of Maine maple syrups and a bottle of Maine-made bourbon from Split Rock Distilling. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Federal laws govern bourbon production, explains Topher Mallory, co-founder of Split Rock Distilling in Newcastle. First, it must be made in America. Second, the grains used to make it must comprise at least 51% corn. Third, the spirit must be distilled at no higher than 160 proof (80 percent alcohol), be put into a barrel at no higher than 125 proof (62.5 percent alcohol) and be bottled at a minimum of 80 proof (40 percent alcohol). Finally, the barrels themselves must be wood – almost always American white oak — and brand spanking new.

Distillers have some leeway regarding the size of the barrels, the length of time the spirit sits in them, the number of barrels in a batch, and the final proof of the bourbon. Tweaking these factors makes for different products.

But there is no way around that new oak barrel requirement. Industry-standard oak barrels are made from trees between 60 and 80 years old. Typically, one tree yields two industry-sized (53-gallon) barrels. In 2022, the American bourbon industry sold over 180 million gallons of spirits, aged in roughly five million barrels. At two barrels per tree, I think that’s too many trees felled to make a single use product.

Fortunately, the U.S. bourbon industry has always found ways to repurpose the barrels. Distillers around the world use them to add flavor to other spirits, such as Scotch. Bourbon barrels are widely used to make smoky, peaty whisky from Islay and to make aged rum, such as New England Distilling’s Eight Bells Rum. Split Rock offers a “barrel-rested” gin.

Some darker craft beers are also spending time in bourbon barrels. Locally, that includes Belgian Tripel ales like Allagash Brewing Co.’s Curieux, as well as Bissell Brothers Brewing’s Presence Of Another World maple porter and SigelXb oatmeal stout. The folks at Stroudwater Distillery go one step further: They reclaim the barrels used by Bissell Brothers, fill them with bourbon and age the spirit another six to 10 months to make Belfry, which they market as a double-barreled whiskey.

When bourbon is aged in a barrel, the liquid lost to evaporation is called the “angel’s share,” as it can’t be recovered. The liquid that soaks into the wood, though, is called the “devil’s cut.” “There are a lot of flavors to be pulled from the wood,” said Split Rock partner Matt Page. “It’s sweet, spicy and smoky from the char.” (Bourbon barrels are always charred after they’re assembled.)


Which brings me to the subject that’s really at hand, as maple syrup season is in full swing in Maine. The latest trend for extracting the devil’s cut? Fill the barrel with maple syrup.

“Bourbon is always in season, but when maple season arrives, pairing the two (ingredients) is such a culinary treat. The range of sweet to nutty nuances in maple syrup marries the oaky, smoky bourbon, and it creates a richness of flavor that can’t be replicated,” says chef and restaurant consultant Josh Berry. He says pairing becomes a trifecta when fattier meats like bacon, ribs and chicken wings are on the plate too. “The fat tempers bourbon’s sharpness yet enhances the (syrup’s sweet) forward notes.”

Scott Dunn, of Dunn Family Maple in Buxton, repurposed both bourbon barrels and rye whiskey barrels used to make New England Distilling’s spirits in Portland. “When whiskey ages in a barrel for any number of years, it puts water into the wood,” Dunn explained. But when maple syrup sits in the barrel, it pulls that water out. “I try to keep the syrup in the barrels as close to six months as I can get, but because it’s pulling water out of the oak, the oak shrinks, and the barrel can start to leak if you keep it too long in it.”

Dunn said he sold out of his whiskey-cured maple syrup (a 12.7-ounce bottle costs $20) on Maine Maple Sunday last year. “When people taste the combination, it just becomes the only kind of syrup they want,” he said. This year, to meet demand, he increased the amount of syrup he aged in barrels.

Split Rock’s sister company, Rose Syrup, puts maple syrup from Frontier Sugar House in Jackman into its bourbon barrels, bottles it as Barrel Rested Maple Syrup and sells it in 2-, 8- and 16-ounce bottles for $4.99, $13.99 and $24.99, respectively. And Frontier ages several barrels at its location and sells it in 8-, 16- and 32-ounces bottles for $22, $27 and $45. York-based Stonewall Kitchen sells an 8.5-ounce bottle of bourbon maple syrup for $19.95 (the syrup for that product is sourced from throughout New England).

At Balsam Ridge in Raymond, barrel-aged syrup is the sugar house’s top-selling infused product. “We age ours six months, at which time the maple syrup obtains the greatest possible flavor from the bourbon barrel. It’s a time-consuming process, but we feel it’s worth the wait,” said owner Sharon Lloy. She sells a 12.6-ounce bottle for $27.95.


And right now, Allagash Brewing is further extending the life of one bourbon barrel in a trial run of a maple-aged hard cider. The barrel was used to make Dunn Family Farm’s whiskey-infused syrup last year and New England Distilling bourbon before that. It will be on tap in Allagash’s Portland tasting room on Maine Maple Sunday (March 26) between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. while supplies last. Swing by for a taste of how a single bourbon barrel keeps on giving, adding  flavor to everything it touches.

A twist on an Old Fashioned: A Fashioned in Maine cocktail made with Split Rock Bourbon, Royal Rose Barrel Rested Maple Syrup and Split Rock Aromatic Bitters. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Mostly Maine Old-Fashioned
This is a very smooth sipper. The recipe was provided by Split Rock Distillery. They suggest (and we tasters concur) making it with the company’s 88-proof organic bourbon whiskey, aromatic bitters and Rose Syrup’s Barrel Rested Maple Syrup.  You can get all three ingredients from the company’s tasting room in Newcastle and at Bow Street Beverage on Forest Avenue in Portland.

Makes 1 drink

2 ounces bourbon whiskey
¼- to ½-ounce maple bourbon syrup
2 dashes aromatic bitters

Combine all the ingredients in a rocks glass with a single large ice cube. Garnish with a lemon twist.

Maple Bourbon caramel sauce over vanilla ice cream. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Maple Bourbon Caramel Sauce


This sauce is great warm over ice cream or cold as the caramel in Millionaires Bars. It can be frozen to use later (but hey, who are we kidding?)

Makes 1½ cups

1 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup warm heavy cream
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
2 tablespoons bourbon
Kosher salt

In a medium saucepan combine the sugar, maple syrup and 1/4 cup water. Place the pot over medium high heat and bring to a boil. Do not stir. Use a wet pastry brush to push any crystalized sugar pieces that form around the inside of the saucepan back down into the boiling sugar. Keep boiling the caramel until it turns a deep amber, 5-7 minutes. Do not walk away, as it can burn quickly. Remove from the heat and slowly whisk in the cream; it will bubble up as you do so.

Return the pan to medium heat, bring to a simmer and cook stirring, until the sauce thickens slightly, about 3 minutes. Remove from the heat and whisk in butter. Add the bourbon. Season with salt to taste. Serve warm or at room temperature. This sauce will keep in the refrigerator for a week.

Maple bourbon glazed chicken wings. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Spicy Maple Bourbon Wings


Serves 2-4

1 pound chicken wings
1 tablespoon all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon butter
1/3 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup bourbon whiskey
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 ½ teaspoons onion powder
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped parsley

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.

Sprinkle salt over the chicken wings and let sit for 10 minutes. Combine the flour and cornstarch in a large bowl. Add the salted chicken wings and toss to coat. Grease a baking sheet lightly with oil. Arrange the chicken wings on the pan. Bake, turning once, until the wings are crispy on all sides, 20-25 minutes.

While the wings bake, make the sauce by combining the butter, maple syrup, bourbon, tomato paste, onion powder, black pepper and cayenne in a saucepan. Place the pan over medium heat. Whisk the mixture as it comes to a simmer. Let it simmer for 2 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in lemon juice.

When the wings are crispy, toss them with the sauce. Transfer the wings to a plate, sprinkle them with parsley and serve immediately with plenty of napkins.

Local foods advocate Christine Burns Rudalevige is the editor of Edible Maine magazine and the author of “Green Plate Special,” both a column about eating sustainably in the Portland Press Herald and the name of her 2017 cookbook. She can be contacted at: cburns1227@gmail.com

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