What does birch syrup taste like? Even after twenty-four years of cooking it, Dulce Ben-East can't sum the flavor up neatly. "It's very complex," she says, "and it varies so much throughout the season. It's sweet, caramel-like, but it has undertones of fruitiness. There's a woodsiness about it. It's velvety. You see people taste it and their eyes open wide. Some people say, 'Wow, that's incredible!' Some say, 'Wow, I don't like that!' It's a kick-butt flavor either way."
Ben-East and her husband, Michael, are the founders of Kahiltna Birchworks, in Talkeetna, Alaska, which is the country's preeminent source for birch syrup. When Dogfish Head and Sierra Nevada wanted to add a touch of woodsy flavor to their Life & Limb ale several years ago, they used Kahiltna syrup. So did Great Divide, in Colorado, for this year's 19th Anniversary Ale. The researchers at Cornell University who are pushing birch syrup for New England hold Ben-East's syrup as their gold standard.
Truthfully, there isn't much competition. Although humans have been using birch sap as food and medicine since the beginning of recorded time, birch syrup is a fairly recent invention. And that's because it's very, very hard to make. Let's compare it to maple syrup. On average, a gallon of maple syrup comes from forty gallons of sap. A gallon of birch syrup can take more than one hundred gallons of sap. Birch syrup, says Ben-East, also burns more easily than maple syrup. Maple trees produce usable sap for four to six weeks each year, birches only two or three. You get the picture.
The hazards and costs involved in making birch syrup have driven many small operations out of business over the years, leaving only a few producers with the experience—and patience—to turn out a consistently good product. "It takes passion to make a living doing something like this, because it's not easy, and we're not getting rich," Ben-East says. "It's an art and a science, and it takes a lot of perseverance."
Birch syrup is a bit of a chameleon, and has a way of reminding tasters of various favorite flavors: honey, maple syrup, sorghum syrup, cola. Visitors to Kahiltna have suggested everything from licorice to orange to horehound candy. The reason that demand for the syrup has never been higher, though, is that it does not taste much like any of those things. In this era of culinary discovery, it's a rare find: a natural ingredient with a brand-new flavor.
Kahiltna, which produces a large percentage of the world's birch syrup, only made 1,500 gallons this year, and the work that goes into its production means a substantial price tag. If you can get your hands on a bottle, though, try it drizzled over pancakes and ice cream, blended into dipping sauces and vinaigrettes, and glazed on chicken and fish. It adds a sweet and dusky bite to everything from a cup of tea to—of course—a mixed drink.
If you want your birch and your booze to come pre-mixed, look for a bottle of Alaska Distillery's birch vodka. Though best known for their attention-grabbing smoked salmon vodka, the folks at Alaska do an admirable job with an surprisingly hearty spirit made from Alaskan potatoes and flavored with a generous amount of Kalhitna birch syrup.
Or try a simple bourbon and birch, adding a teaspoon of birch syrup for each ounce of brown water. Throw in a squeeze of Meyer lemon and a pinch of smoked salt for a variation on the Maple Leaf cocktail that Alaskan blogger Nicole Pearce has dubbed the Birch Leaf. With fall in the air, there is no better time to introduce the flavor of the northern woods to your home bar.