Amber syrup from a maple tree meets the bourbon-soaked wood of an oak barrel, and six months later the result is a rich and novel fusion of two great American traditions.
“They simply go together,” asserts Nate Bissell of Bissell Maple Farm, speaking of the union of the bourbon barrel and maple syrup. “I don’t think I can describe it, you just have to try it yourself.” The confluence of the two tree sugars gives Ohio’s first barrel-aged maple syrup its distinctive flavor profile. “We didn’t realize it early on, but with maple syrup we are caramelizing maple sugar. When making bourbon, you’re doing the same thing by putting a flame to the barrel and charring the inside—you’re caramelizing oak sugar.” Using only the highest grade of Ohio maple syrup, the Bissell Maple Farm has created an elixir that is lush, harmonious, and nuanced.
In August, the ineffable taste of Bissell’s Sugar Chalet Bourbon Barrel Aged Maple Syrup won over the palates of celebrity chefs Zack Bruell and Dante Boccuzzi at Heinen’s first-ever Shark Bank competition. Among 60 submissions from local food entrepreneurs, Bissell asserts that the gourmet maple syrup pulled ahead, “because our product is innovative, but also because we are somewhat established. The judges had confidence in our experience.”
‘Somewhat established’ is surely an understatement, as the Bissell family has been making maple syrup since before the American Civil War. In fact, Nate explains that by farming maple syrup, his family aligned themselves with the abolitionist movement. “Maple syrup could be made in America, unlike cane sugar, which was farmed by slaves in the south, and in the Caribbean.” As a sixth-generation maple farmer with a background in chemical engineering, Nate is committed to continuing the northern craft tradition, but is also experimenting with different facets of maple syrup production. “To my Dad, we’re ruining the syrup,” Nate said, “and he’s right, we are ruining the syrup, and it tastes delicious.”
A self-declared “maple nerd,” Nate remembers when he felt compelled to return to his family’s farm in Ashtabula County. “Growing up I didn’t want anything to do with maple syrup. It wasn’t until I went away to college that I realized how unique it was, and I started to miss that piece of home.” In the past century, the Bissell family has produced maple syrup in Austinburg, Saybrook, and Jefferson, Ohio. Today the farm resides in the small town of Rock Creek, where they benefit from the lake-effect snow that prolongs the maple season. Harvesting begins in late February or early March, and so while many associate it with autumn, maple syrup is actually the first crop of the year in Ohio.
Being a stone’s throw away from Kentucky has given the Bissells access to oak barrels imbued with some of the world’s best bourbon. Last year the Van Winkle family approached Bissell Maple Farm and offered the use of their 23-year-old Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrels. In collaboration, the Old Rip Van Winkle Distillery and Bissell Maple Farm bottled what Nate calls the “rarest maple syrup on earth”; pure Ohio maple syrup aged in Pappy Van Winkle bourbon barrels for 100 days. The product represents the coming together of two families, both with a long history of expertise in their respective fields, and an unwavering commitment to quality.
Bissell Maple Farm is currently the market leader worldwide for bourbon barrel—aged maple syrup, and their ability to meet increasing demand is due in large part to other maple farmers in Ohio who sell their syrup to Bissell. About a decade ago Nate realized that much of the Ohio-produced maple syrup was being distributed in other states, often labeled as Vermont maple syrup. Moreover, Ohio maple farmers were losing out in unfair transactions with food distributors. With their infrastructure, knowledge, and resources, Bissell Maple Farm has formed a community of close to 50 local maple farmers who produce some of the world’s best syrup. Bissell is able to sell their product directly to restaurants in Ohio, thus ensuring chefs a pure, local product, and farmers a fair price for their crop. “We are really good at tasting and packaging syrup, and maple farmers are inherently bad at selling their product,” explained Nate. “So we buy syrup from other Ohio farmers based on quality, we pay a fair value for the syrup, we package it, and we sell it. But we only buy the best, Vermont can have the rest.”
The Bissells currently find themselves at an exciting juncture in their family history. In response to the increase in demand, they are in the beginning stages of a transforming a former General Electric factory in Jefferson, Ohio into their new production facility. While continuing to honor the family tradition of delivering pure, high-quality Ohio maple syrup, the Bissells will be repurposing the old rust-belt building to process the sap from over 15,000 maple trees, and to incubate new maple-based products. So what exactly is next for the craftsmen at Bissell Maple Farm? Look out for maple vinegar. “And what’s better than maple vinegar?” asked Nate, “Bourbon barrel—aged maple vinegar.”
To learn more about the history of Bissell Maple Farm and their products, visit them online at BissellMapleFarm.com. Want to taste Bissell’s Sugar Chalet Bourbon Barrel Aged Maple Syrup for yourself? You can pick up a bottle at your neighborhood Heinen’s.