Bourbon barrel aged maple syrup has become an increasingly popular specialty maple syrup over the past few years. As the name suggests, bourbon barrel aged maple syrup is maple syrup that has been aged in used bourbon barrels, imparting some of the flavor and aroma of the bourbon into the maple syrup. This gives the maple syrup a richer, more complex flavor profile with notes of vanilla, caramel, and oak from the bourbon barrel.
One common question that arises with bourbon barrel aged maple syrup is whether the maple syrup contains any residual alcohol from being aged in the bourbon barrels. The short answer is that while bourbon barrel aged maple syrup may pick up very minute amounts of alcohol from the barrel aging process, the residual alcohol content, if any, is extremely low and well below the legal threshold for labeling a food product as containing alcohol.
How is Bourbon Barrel Aged Maple Syrup Made?
To understand whether bourbon barrel aged maple syrup contains alcohol, it helps to first understand how it is made:
- Maple syrup is produced in the typical way, by boiling down maple sap into syrup.
- The fresh maple syrup is then placed into used bourbon barrels that previously held bourbon whiskey.
- The maple syrup is aged in the bourbon barrels for a period of time, often several months.
- This allows the maple syrup to take on some of the flavors and aromas from the wood and bourbon, like vanilla, oak, and caramel.
- After aging, the maple syrup is removed from the barrels and bottled.
So while the maple syrup briefly mingles with the remnants of bourbon in the barrels, direct bourbon is not added as an ingredient during the process. The alcohol content comes from any residual amounts left behind in the wood of the barrels.
Does Any Alcohol Remain in the Barrels?
Bourbon barrels are typically used to age maple syrup for 6 months up to 2 years. Over this time, most of the alcohol evaporates out of the wood. By law, bourbon must be aged in new, charred oak barrels. The charring process caramelizes the wood, allowing for interaction between the bourbon and the wood sugars and lignins.
After the bourbon has aged, the barrels are emptied of the bourbon. However, there can be some residual alcohol left soaked into the wood. When the maple syrup is then placed in the barrel, a small percentage of alcohol may transfer from the wood into the syrup.
The amount that remains depends on factors like:
- How long the bourbon aged – The longer the aging time, the more alcohol soaked into the wood.
- The climate – Warmer weather causes faster evaporation.
- The size of the barrel – Smaller barrels have higher surface area contact.
- How long the barrel was empty – More evaporation occurs if left empty.
Distillers will often leave barrels to air out in warm, dry conditions to encourage evaporation before re-using them for maple syrup. So there is an effort to minimize any residual alcohol before barrel aging the syrup.
Does the Alcohol Content Exceed Legal Thresholds?
Legally, a food product has to contain at least 0.5% alcohol by volume to be considered an alcoholic beverage in the United States.
For bourbon barrel aged maple syrup, any alcohol picked up from the barrels would be well below this level. Since the residual alcohol in the wood is fairly minimal to begin with, and then diluted when the syrup is added, the final alcohol content of the syrup is very low.
Testing has found bourbon barrel aged maple syrup to contain between 0.1-0.3% alcohol by volume. At these low levels, the alcohol content is comparable to that found in common fruit juices.
For example, here are typical alcohol levels of some common fruit juices (1):
|Alcohol Content by Volume
|Bourbon Barrel Aged Maple Syrup
So while bourbon barrel aged maple syrup picks up trace amounts of alcohol, it is no more than what is found in common fruit juices that are not considered alcoholic.
Can Children Consume It?
Given the extremely low alcohol content in bourbon barrel aged maple syrup, there are no concerns with children consuming it.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not issued any warnings about barrel aged maple syrup consumption for minors. There are also no legal age requirements for purchasing or consuming the syrup.
Many syrup producers actually promote their barrel aged syrup as perfect for kids because of the rich, complex flavors. The alcohol content is low enough that it carries no safety concerns for children.
Will It Cause Intoxication?
At less than 0.3% alcohol by volume, it would be impossible to actually get intoxicated or “drunk” from bourbon barrel aged maple syrup.
Drinking a typical serving size of syrup (1/4 cup) would yield only trace amounts of alcohol, far below the levels needed to cause effects. Even when consumed in large quantities, the maximum alcohol consumed would be minimal.
For comparison, a standard alcoholic drink is considered 0.6 ounces of pure ethanol. To get this amount from a syrup with 0.3% ABV, you would have to consume over 32 ounces of maple syrup. And the absorption rate of alcohol is much slower when you consume something with high sugar and fat like maple syrup versus drinking actual alcoholic spirits.
So you cannot realistically drink enough syrup to intoxicate you in any way, even if you tried. The residual alcohol content is simply too low.
Does the Alcohol Cook Off During Heating/Cooking?
Since bourbon barrel aged maple syrup does not actually contain added distilled spirits, there is nothing that needs to “cook off”. The trace amounts of residual alcohol from the barrels will remain present regardless of further heating or cooking.
However, heating syrup can impact the flavor:
- Low Heat Retains Flavor – Gentle warming to thin syrup and make it pourable has minimal effect.
- Medium Heat Reduces Nuances – Using syrup as an ingredient in baking or cooking can bake off some flavor nuances.
- High Heat Intensifies Sweetness – Caramelizing or candy-making can create rich sweetness as moisture evaporates.
So while the tiny amounts alcohol remain present through cooking, too much heating can degrade the subtle flavors that the barrel aging imparts. Using bourbon barrel aged syrup unheated or gently warmed best retains the complex oak and bourbon notes.
Does the Alcohol Impact Flavor?
The trace alcohol content does influence the overall flavor profile. As maple syrup ages in the bourbon barrels, the alcohol helps extract flavors from the wood.
The alcohol acts as a solvent to pull out and carry more of the oak lignins, vanillins, and caramels from the wood into the syrup. This helps infuse the maple with the subtle notes characteristic of whiskey barrels.
More extended aging and higher alcohol content in the barrels produces more woody, robust flavors. Syrup aged in drier barrels with less residual alcohol develops more restrained flavored.
So while the alcohol itself is minimal in the final product, it does facilitate bringing out the complex flavors that make bourbon barrel aged maple syrup unique.
Does Maple Syrup Go Bad in the Barrels?
There is minimal risk of maple syrup going bad or spoiling during the barrel aging process.
- Syrup’s high sugar content prevents microbial growth.
- The high osmotic pressure dehydrates bacteria and yeasts.
- Maple syrup lacks the water content needed for most spoilage reactions.
- The wood barrels are dried and sanitized first.
- Trace alcohol provides additional protection.
The main impact is some oxidation, which actually contributes to flavor development similar to the way aged balsamic vinegar becomes more complex. As long as barrels are properly managed, the syrup will be safe to consume.
Does Bourbon Barrel Aging Work with Other Sweeteners?
The bourbon barrel aging process can impart flavor to other sugars and sweeteners beyond just maple syrup:
|Flavors Added by Barrel Aging
|Oak, caramel, vanilla, whiskey
|Smoke, tobacco, raisin
|Wood sugars, oak tannins
|Caramel, mesquite, smoke
|Nutty, tobacco, spice
|Buttery, toffee, charred
The interaction depends on the unique flavor compounds in both the sweetener and the barrel. Time, temperature, and moisture impact flavor development. Almost any sugar syrup can pick up flavors from barrel aging.
While bourbon barrel aged maple syrup does pick up trace amounts of alcohol from the aging process, the residual alcohol content remains extremely low at under 0.3% alcohol by volume. This tiny alcohol percentage does not come close to legal thresholds to classify the syrup as an alcoholic beverage.
The minuscule alcohol content also carries no reasonable concerns for intoxication or consumption by children. Barrel aged maple syrup has comparable alcohol to common fruit juices.
The small alcohol amount does contribute subtle flavor effects, helping bring out oak, vanilla, and caramel notes from the bourbon barrels. But the syrup itself does not actually have bourbon added as an ingredient.
Bourbon barrel aging can impart complex flavors and aromas to various sweeteners without resulting in significant alcohol content. Ultimately, the barrels contribute flavor more than alcohol to this unique specialty syrup.