Bourbon is a classic American whiskey that is beloved for its sweet, oaky, and vanilla flavors. Some bourbon drinkers enjoy experimenting with different mixers and ingredients to create unique bourbon cocktails. One interesting bourbon cocktail ingredient that has grown in popularity recently is maple syrup.
What is Bourbon?
Bourbon is a type of American whiskey that is made primarily from corn. By law, bourbon must contain at least 51% corn in the mash bill (grain recipe). The rest of the mash bill is usually filled out with malted barley, rye, and/or wheat. After distilling the bourbon, it must be aged in new, charred oak barrels for at least two years. This barrel aging gives bourbon its signature vanilla, caramel, and oak flavors.
Traditional bourbon has a sweet yet spicy flavor profile. The corn provides a sweet backbone, while the rye and oak barrels add spiciness and depth. Common tasting notes in bourbon include caramel, vanilla, oak, spice, and fruit. Bourbon can range from soft and smooth to rich and bold depending on the brand and age.
What is Maple Syrup?
Maple syrup is a syrup made from the sap of maple trees, most commonly sugar maple trees. The sap is collected and boiled down to evaporate the water, leaving behind the concentrated sugary syrup.
Maple syrup is made primarily in northeastern North America, especially New England and Quebec, Canada. It takes around 40 gallons of maple sap to produce 1 gallon of maple syrup. Maple syrup is graded based on color and flavor:
- Grade A Light Amber – Delicate maple flavor
- Grade A Amber – Richer maple flavor
- Grade A Dark Amber – Robust maple flavor
- Grade B – Very strong maple flavor
Maple syrup contains calories mostly from sucrose, along with small amounts of amino acids, vitamins, and minerals like zinc, manganese, and calcium. Maple syrup has a distinct sweet, earthy, and slightly nutty maple flavor that can enhance many foods and beverages.
Popular Bourbon Cocktail Recipes with Maple Syrup
Several popular bourbon cocktails incorporate a splash or drizzle of maple syrup to add sweetness, flavor complexity, and a rich mouthfeel.
Maple Old Fashioned
The Old Fashioned is a classic bourbon cocktail that is upgraded with maple syrup instead of plain sugar. It’s made by muddling maple syrup and bitters in the glass, adding bourbon and ice, and garnishing with an orange slice.
Maple Bourbon Sour
A maple bourbon sour has a base of bourbon, maple syrup, and lemon juice. The sweet maple pairs nicely with the tart lemon and bourbon spice. It’s served over ice and garnished with an orange slice or cherry.
Maple Bourbon Smash
Muddle maple syrup with mint leaves and a splash of water, then add bourbon and ice. Top with ginger beer or club soda. The mint and maple provide a nice contrast to the oakiness of bourbon.
Swap out the plain sugar for maple syrup in a classic Manhattan cocktail. Maple syrup adds complexity and balances the spice from the rye or bourbon whiskey.
Does Maple Syrup Work Well with Bourbon’s Flavors?
Maple syrup does complement bourbon’s flavor profile nicely when used in moderation. Here’s a breakdown of how maple syrup interacts with key bourbon flavor notes:
Bourbon has a baseline sweetness from the corn in the mash bill. Maple syrup adds additional sweetness, though it is less cloying than plain sugar. The rich caramel notes in maple syrup mirror the sweet caramel flavors often found in bourbon.
Wood, Vanilla, Oak
Bourbon gains woody, oaky vanilla flavors from aging in charred oak barrels. Maple syrup has its own subtle woodsy character from being derived from tree sap. When paired, the oak notes mesh nicely.
Spicy rye is commonly used in bourbon recipes, giving a peppery kick. Maple syrup helps round out and temper the spice so it doesn’t become overpowering.
Some bourbons have a fruity edge, often with notes of cherry, apple or citrus. Maple syrup has a faint fruity note as well. When combined, they create a nice fruit complexity.
Maple syrup has a lush, silky texture that gives a smooth mouthfeel. This can complement and enrich the often oily, thick texture of bourbon.
Potential Downsides of Maple Syrup in Bourbon
While maple syrup does work well in bourbon cocktails, there are a few potential downsides to keep in mind:
- The maple flavor may overpower more nuanced bourbons, especially if too much syrup is used.
- Added sweetness can make the drink too sugary or one-dimensional.
- Maple syrup has a distinct flavor profile that some bourbon purists may find distracting.
- More complex bourbons offer layers of flavors that get lost when maple is added.
To prevent issues, opt for a hearty, oak-heavy bourbon and use maple syrup sparingly. Look for cocktails that use maple thoughtfully to accentuate certain characteristics instead of drowning out the bourbon.
Should You Use Real Maple Syrup or Flavored Syrup?
When mixing bourbon cocktails with a maple component, real 100% maple syrup is strongly recommended over artificial maple-flavored corn syrups like Mrs. Butterworth’s or Log Cabin. Real maple syrup offers an array of flavor notes and natural sweetness that artificial syrups cannot replicate.
Here are some key differences between real maple syrup and maple-flavored corn syrup:
|Real Maple Syrup
|Maple-Flavored Corn Syrup
|Made from maple tree sap
|Made from corn syrup with artificial flavoring
|Complex flavor with notes of caramel, vanilla, and earth
|One-dimensional maple taste
|Smooth, silky texture
|Thin, artificial texture
|Contains minerals like calcium and magnesium
|Does not contain minerals
|Expensive but worth it for quality
|Cheap but lower quality
Maple-flavored corn syrups lack the subtle flavors, texture, and aromas of real maple syrup. They often have a bitter, artificial taste. For the best flavor in cocktails, spring for real maple syrup.
How Much Maple Syrup Should You Add to Bourbon?
When adding maple syrup to bourbon cocktails, moderation is key. As a general rule of thumb:
- Use 2 teaspoons (10 ml) or less of maple syrup per cocktail.
- Add the maple syrup gradually and taste as you go to prevent over-sweetness.
- For lighter, more delicate bourbons, use just 1/2 teaspoon (2-3 ml) of syrup.
- For heavier, oak-forward bourbons, you can use up to 1 tablespoon (15 ml).
If a cocktail calls for muddling the maple syrup, start with 1/2 ounce or less. You can always muddle more but you can’t take it out once it’s in the glass.
Remember that a little maple goes a long way. You want it to accent the bourbon rather than becoming the dominant flavor. Err on the light side when experimenting with new maple bourbon cocktail recipes.
What Type of Bourbon Should You Use?
Bourbon comes in many styles, from mellow and sweet to rich and smoky. Certain types of bourbon work better than others when mixed with maple syrup.
Look for a bourbon with these qualities:
- High rye content – Rye whiskey has an inherent spiciness that stands up well to maple syrup.
- Aged at least 4 years – Longer aging gives bourbon bold oak flavors.
- 95-100 proof – Higher proof bourbons have enough flavor intensity.
- Thick, viscous texture – Maple syrup does well with an oily, mouth-coating bourbon.
On the other hand, avoid younger, lighter bourbons or wheated bourbons that are too delicate. Stick to bourbons with some punch that won’t get drowned out.
Recommended Bourbon Types for Maple Cocktails
- Rye bourbon like Bulleit, Four Roses, or Wild Turkey 101
- Wheated bourbon with a high rye percentage, like Maker’s Mark
- Bottled-in-Bond bourbons like Old Grand-Dad or Evan Williams
- Single Barrel bourbons like Woodford Reserve
How to Make a Maple Old Fashioned
The Maple Old Fashioned highlights maple syrup in a classic bourbon cocktail. Use an assertive bourbon like Four Roses Small Batch or Wild Turkey 101. Here is a basic recipe:
- 2 oz (60ml) bourbon
- 1/2 oz (15ml) real maple syrup
- 3-4 dashes Angostura bitters
- Orange peel for garnish
- Ice cubes
- Add the maple syrup and bitters to an old fashioned glass. Use the back of a spoon to muddle and dissolve the syrup.
- Fill the glass with ice cubes.
- Pour in the bourbon and gently stir to combine.
- Express the orange peel over the glass to release the oils then drop in as garnish.
- Serve and enjoy!
Creating Your Own Maple Bourbon Cocktails
Once you understand the basic flavor interactions, feel free to get creative with your own maple bourbon cocktail recipes. Here are some tips:
- Let the maple enhance natural bourbon flavors like oak, caramel, and vanilla.
- Add maple to classic sour, smash, or hot toddy templates.
- Pair maple with fall spices like nutmeg, cinnamon, and ginger.
- Maple cocktails work well before or after a big meal.
- Garnish with orange, cherry, rosemary, cinnamon sticks, or apple slices.
- Splash in some apple cider or aromatic bitters.
- For lower sugar options, use maple extract or maple whiskey stones.
Any way you sip it, maple syrup brings a unique sweetness and flavor to bourbon cocktails. Just keep the maple in balance. Cheers!
Maple syrup can add an interesting new dimension to bourbon cocktails when used judiciously. It pairs well with the sweet, oaky, and vanilla notes inherent in bourbon. However, too much maple syrup may overpower the nuance of quality bourbons. For the best results, opt for a bold, high-rye bourbon and add maple syrup gradually to taste. Stick with real maple syrup over artificial syrups, and keep quantities in the 1/2 to 1 ounce range. With a quality bourbon and a delicate pour of maple syrup, you can craft delicious and complex bourbon cocktails with a hint of sweetness and character.