PHOTOS BY KATIE NOBLE
Plastic tasting cups filled with amber liquid of varying shades are lined up in a row in the back room of Post Road Liquors in Wayland. It’s easy to mistake the setup for a wine or spirits tasting, but a closer look reveals the liquid’s high viscosity, and an even closer smell brings up warm tones of vanilla, crème brulée, molasses, butterscotch.
It’s a maple syrup tasting, but this is no ordinary syrup. Aged in bourbon, rye, single malt or porter barrels, the Vermont syrups take on the flavors of the spirits originally aged in those barrels as well as the barrels themselves, which add more of a mouthfeel.
“Just take little sips,” instructs Nick O’Connell, one of Cask Force’s four co-founders (no relation to me), as I sip the porter barrel–aged syrup, one of seven variants. “The easiest way to taste it is by immersing the palate in it.”
The syrup is a featured product of Cask Force, which sources barrels from France to Vermont, filling them with spirits, beer and cider to create new high-end expressions. An extension of the O’Connell family business—which, in addition to Post Road, owns and operates three other liquor stores in Boston’s western suburbs: Upper Falls Liquors, Needham Wine & Spirits and Auburndale Wine & Spirits—Cask Force was launched in 2014 by O’Connell, his brother Mike, cousin Dave Recco (all business co-owners) and Post Road wine manager Taylor Condon. The first product release: a whiskey aged in a 20-year family reserve Goslings rum barrel shipped from Bermuda. Another involved partnering with Somerville’s Bantam Cider to age cider in a whiskey cask.
Cask Force added the syrup line two years ago, branding it as the Artist Series. O’Connell, who manages Cask Force’s food line—which also includes honey aged in Sauternes barrels—traces his interest in syrup to his trips to the Green Mountain State for craft brewery releases, picking up syrups along the way.
“Our goal with Cask Force is to make people appreciate maple syrup like wine,” says O’Connell.
The best-selling bourbon and rye barrel–aged syrup evokes the torched caramel of crème brulée. Its deeper flavor is a result of the syrup grade blend and the long finish in the bourbon and rye barrels. O’Connell recalls a meal his brother made with it: roasted bone marrow with pulverized pecans and rosemary, “painted” with syrup. He likes to use it as a finishing agent after pan roasting Brussels sprouts over high heat.
“Kasai,” (Japanese for “fire”) is bourbon barrel–aged and steeped with a secret blend of ghost chili flake procured from David Ashley, creator of the Sudbury-based Mad Dog hot sauce. The spice notes linger but they’re not overwhelming. One fan drizzles it on popcorn and O’Connell loves this one on vanilla ice cream. “It gives it that back-end warming,” he says.
The Artist Series also includes a single malt-finished Super Delicato; bourbon barrel–aged syrup; single malt barrel–aged (a staple in O’Connell’s mother’s Thanksgiving Butternut squash soup) and a cannabis-infused single malt, the latter of which is distributed by Ermont, a Quincy-based medical marijuana dispensary that specializes in edibles.
Cask Force’s Artist Series has an exclusive partnership with Purinton Maple—the result of a blind test of 10 varieties of Vermont maple syrup. The family-owned business produces single-origin maple syrup on a farm featuring high-ledge soil. “We really like their terroir, how because of their location and how high up they are, a lot of times the maple farmers need to wear crazy footwear and tie themselves to certain trees to tap them,” says O’Connell.
While the porter barrels are all sourced from Bissell Brothers of Portland, ME, the bourbon, rye and single malt barrels vary. For each batch, O’Connell brings the barrels up to Vermont and, with the syrup producer, determines how to achieve new flavors by tasting the syrup to determine its baseline. “By smelling the aroma of the cask and seeing how wet it is on the inside, you can tell what kind of profiles [the syrups will achieve after aging],” O’Connell says.
When asked what exactly barrel aging does for maple syrup, O’Connell has this to say: “It adds depth and mouthfeel. It almost amplifies the natural maple flavors and pulls out some of the tones that maybe you wouldn’t notice if you were just tasting it on its own.”
After the syrup is acquired in Vermont, it’s brought back to a temperature-controlled environment at Post Road to age between one and four months. The labels—featuring seven original prints by Boston artist Elaine Buckholtz—are affixed in O’Connell’s South Boston apartment.
In addition to syrup, Cask Force produces Noble Bee honey—the first honey ever to be aged in a Sauternes cask. To O’Connell, pairing honey with the French dessert wine was obvious. “You taste Sauternes and think, ‘This tastes like honey.’ I was really surprised, but I did extensive research and no one in France has ever done it,” he says. Cask Force partnered with Holliston-based Boston Honey Company for its raw, unfiltered natural wildflower honey. O’Connell tells me Noble Bee is great paired with parmesan—in fact, Blackbird donuts featured a Sauternes barrel-aged honey parmesan donut in November 2017. The name, O’Connell says, is a pun on the bacteria that infects the grapes to make Sauternes sweet: noble rot.
The honey’s label was designed by Boston artist Floor van de Velde, who also designed the labels for Cask Force’s cold brew coffee bourbon—a four-year bourbon proofed down to 43% with single-origin Misty Valley cold brew concentrate from Sudbury’s Karma Coffee Roasters—and double barrel bourbon—finished in Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet barrels.
Whatever’s next for the food line of Cask Force—“I think our focus will be on finding products that are sustainable like the syrup and expanding at an organic rate,” O’Connell says—it’s bound to be high-end and surprising.
For more information, including where to buy Cask Force products, visit cask-force.com.
Lesley Mahoney is a South Dartmouth-based writer, editor and content strategist who loves a new food find, whether at a farmers market, restaurant or local purveyor. She can be reached at email@example.com.