Maple syrup continues to grow as a cocktail trend, and enterprising Vermonters are using it directly to make their own spirits.
Enter Sapling, aka Saxtons River Distillery in Brattleboro, Vermont, which produces a maple syrup liqueur and a maple-infused Bourbon. (There’s also a maple-infused Rye, not reviewed here.) All are made from Grade A Vermont maple syrup from the state’s Green Mountains.
Sapling Vermont Maple Liqueur Whiskey – Three year old Bourbon is blended with maple syrup, then matured a second time in oak. The results are, well, maply. The nose is curious — a combination of Madeira, tawny Port, cinnamon, and rum raisin notes. On the body, the sugar level is nothing short of massive. Intense with brown/almost burnt sugar notes and plenty more of that madeirized wine character, the thick syrup character that makes up the body feels like it was just tapped from the tree. Whiskey is just a wispy hint in this spirit, a touch of vanilla that feels added into the mix an eyedrop at a time. 70 proof. B / $36 (375ml)
Sapling Vermont Maple Liqueur – Unsurprisingly, it’s extremely similar to the version blended with whiskey. Most of the same notes of the above — Madeira, port, cinnamon — are all in play here again, only on a more muted basis. If anything, this liqueur is a less overwhelming spirit, though it’s also a somewhat less intriguing one, as some of those more subtle vanilla and spice notes present in the former spirit come up short here. 70 proof. B / $36 (375ml)
Barely a year ago, Kinky, a hot pink Alize knockoff, first crossed our desk. Now, the club-friendly concoction is out with a second version, Kinky Blue. Which is not pink, but blue.
Again, this is technically not a liqueur but a flavored vodka, 5x distilled and flavored with blue things — “tropical and wild berry flavors,” according to the bottle.
The nose, however, is not nearly so distinct. Deep whiffs reveal almost nothing — it could be any berry-flavored vodka… raspberry? Schnozzberry? The body is equally vague. Many a flavored vodka has this same bittersweet note of Kool-Aid powder and tonic water, though few are quite this blue. There is a hint of pineapple on the finish that brings on a touch of interest, but it’s a long way to go for flavors that are done better in other, less silly spirits.
C- / $20 / kinkyliqueur.com
This dark chocolate liqueur is at least the 5th confectionary liqueur in the Godiva spirits lineup, which seemingly won’t be complete until it achieves complete chocolate dominance. Unfortunately it doesn’t quite measure up to some of Godiva’s previous, well-crafted concoctions.
It starts off quite strong: Amazing, authentic, rich cocoa on the nose, with just hints of vanilla. The body, tragically, is not nearly as successful, coming across as a bit thin, and much less full of flavor. It’s still got an authentic character, but it’s simply watery and weak, which is not what you want your dark chocolate to be. Bummer.
B / $28 / facebook.com/GodivaSpirits
Kuemmerling is a classic Krauter Likor, and one that’s almost exclusively available in mini format (pictured).
A bittersweet herbal liqueur that dates back to 1921, it’s an easily drinkable digestif that’s hugely popular in its homeland of Germany. The nose offers sweet raspberry paired with licorice and cloves. On the palate, the herbal character — cloves, cinnamon, ample licorice and other root flavors — tends to dominate. The finish includes enough sweetness to keep your mouth from sealing shut… at least until the bitterness takes hold in the end, requiring another sip.
It’s shockingly easy to polish one of these off without thinking much about it… and also quite soothing to the stomach without being terribly complicated.
B+ / $15 per 12-pack of 20ml bottles / ourniche.com
Drinkhacker finally takes a look at one of the classics, a staple of the back bar and an inimitable ingredient in any number of amazing cocktails. Need a dash of color and a kick of jammy fruit in your drink? A drop of Chambord (actually made from both raspberries and blackberries, along with currants, vanilla bean, Cognac, and some other additives) from its iconic Holy Hand Grenade bottle will do the trick.
The nose of this liqueur features big, burly, well, raspberry notes. Not so much bright, fresh fruit but rather raspberry jam, dense and well-sugared. Sipped straight, the body is more dessert-like than you might expect, offering an almost candylike character that mixes darker raspberry notes with clear vanilla and somewhat lighter chocolate notes. Ultimately, the berry fruit is what sticks with you. Not quite Jolly Ranchers, but not quite fresh berries, either. Chambord lands somewhere in between, which might be what makes it perfect for cocktailing.
A- / $30 / chambordonline.com
Elderflower, the flower that makes that inimitably peachy-lychee-pineapply flavor, has had a huge run lately, largely thanks to the premium liqueur St. Germain. Naturally, competition has followed from indie upstarts, including this liqueur from St. Elder. It’s made not in France but in Massachusetts and bottled not in a Deco masterpiece but in something that looks like it was designed for malt liquor. It’s also almost half the price… so is it worthwhile as a budget alternative to St. G? Read on…
The color is bright gold, as expected, and the nose is loaded with tropicality. It’s particularly heavy on pineapple, with sharper, lychee notes coming along behind. The body is creamier, almost like a pineapple upside-down cake, with caramel notes in the mid-palate. The finish is sharp and vaguely floral, with those tropical notes coming on strong again. It’s quite similar to St. Germain in the end, the most notable difference being the addition of 5% more alcohol to St. Elder, which makes this expression slightly punchier.
Good thing or bad thing? It doesn’t seem to matter much: St. Elder may not be as refined on the outside, but what’s in the bottle is a big winner.
A / $18 / st-elder.com
Consider the hazelnut.
Best known as a secondary ingredient in a popular chocolate-flavored spread, it’s also long been the only way to get hazelnuts into a cocktail (though newer options have recently availed themselves).
Frangelico is a classic spirit that reportedly dates back more than 300 years to a bunch of Italian monks who made the stuff — hence the distinctly monk-shaped bottle. The liqueur is indeed made from roasted hazelnuts, steeped in alcohol, distilled, then flavored with cocoa and vanilla (among other proprietary flavorings) before being sweetened with sugar. Caramel color is added.
Surprisingly light in color, the toasty character of freshly roasted hazelnut really comes through here. It’s particularly hefty on the nose, a bit dusty and smoky, like fresh-baked pecan sandies. As you sip through the liqueur, the hazelnut evolves into more of a peanut butter character, with the vanilla element growing and becoming distinctive on the finish.
Frangelico is easy to like but difficult to truly love, a relatively simple spirit that works fine in a handful of cocktails and thrives with coffee. For the record, the distiller’s serving suggestion: On the rocks, with a squeeze of lime. Curious.
B+ / $24 / frangelico.com
It should be noted at the start that “INTENSE” is by far the largest text on the label of this liqueur, but that’s to be expected from any ginger-flavored spirit. It simply comes with the territory.
Ginger liqueurs are a small category, for obvious reasons. The number of cocktails you can use it in is limited, and ginger beer does the trick in most cases. My bottle of Domaine de Canton — the most venerable product in this category — has been half-empty for years.
But Barrow’s, an artisanal product made in Brooklyn, NY, easily gives it a run for its money. This cloudy, intriguing liqueur (Canton is transparent) really does live up to its name. The nose is pungent without being overwhelming, offering legit ginger character plus a smattering of lemon and grapefruit notes. There’s more of the same on the body, which starts off with moderate sweetness — brown sugar melted into ginger ale — then jumps off a cliff into that classic, fresh-grated-ginger bite. The finish is spicy hot yet oddly refreshing, a spirit that’s both rustic and authentic. (The swing top bottle stopper completes the effect.)
Do I still like Canton? Absolutely, but it’s more perfumed, offering jasmine, incense, and vanilla notes up front, with all the ginger in the back. Barrow’s is a bolder and less distracted rendition of the spirit with, yes, a bit more intensity.
A / $31 / barrowsintense.com [BUY IT NOW FROM CASKERS]
Barenjager, Germany’s classic, beehive-stoppered honey liqueur, got its first line extension, Honey & Bourbon, two years ago. Now it’s launched two more extensions, as honey spirits continue their ascent in the marketplace. Here’s a dive into these new additions, all naturally-flavored, to the Barenjager hive. Both are 70 proof.
Barenjager Honey & Tea Liqueur – The nose is initially overwhelming, like walking into a Persian rug shop — all incense and wet wool. The honey character here is intense, deeply earthy, and moist, taking on clear influence from the tea component. But here, that tea comes across not as sweet, brewed tea but something completely different. It starts with overwhelming notes of dried, crushed black tea leaves (none more black), then digresses into notes of forest floor, licorice, menthol cigarettes, and camphor. Barenjager makes a highly enjoyable honey liqueur, but something has been lost in the tea mash-up. C
Barenjager Honey & Pear Liqueur – It never would have struck me to add pear flavor to a honey liqueur, but what do I know? This liqueur blends Barenjager with pear brandy, and the results are quite pleasant. The sweetness of the pear spirit is a natural companion to honey — like an apple pie baked with sliced pears — and the two work well together. The honey is the strongest element here (with pear almost indiscernible on the nose), but the finish brings the pears on strong. They’re crisp and clear and definitively not apple, offering that slightly more umami version of the fruit that’s unmistakably pear. The effect isn’t huge, but it’s noticeably different. All in all, it may not add a whole lot over the standard Barenjager bottling, but it works well enough in its own regard. B+
each $29 / barenjagerhoney.com
If Vermont’s known for anything — besides the Trapp Family Lodge — it’s maple syrup. They make more of it here than in any other state in America — and literally no one lives in Vermont. (Did you know: It’s the 2nd least populous state in the nation?) But who can actually consume all that syrup as food? The natural solution: Turn some of it into booze, of course.
Vermont Ice Maple Creme is one of a small selection of maple liqueurs available, a creamy concoction blended from maple syrup and brandy made from Vermont-grown apples. (And cream, I presume.)
The results: Not at all bad. The syrup character is clearly evident on the nose, with a touch of vanilla caramel beneath it. There’s more where that came from on the palate — ample syrup notes (and not the cheap chemical pancake stuff, the real deal), sultry with a gentle earthiness and wood notes — even a tinge of apple character late in the finish. This all comes together surprisingly well. Spirits like Baileys can be overwhelming in their sweetness, but Vermont Ice, while plenty sweet, doesn’t make you feel like you’re about to lose your teeth from drinking it. The maple syrup component also gives it a unique spin that you don’t get from most cream liqueurs — and a recommendation, to boot.
A- / $28 / boydenvalley.com