Design by Maitane Romagosa for Thrillist
On a recent trip to Quebec, I found myself standing in the autumnal drizzle at Isle de Bacchus, a small-production winery on l’île d’Orléans. The winemaker I was chatting with was young and ambitious, and told me how he’d recently acquired hives and planned to experiment with mead. Fermentation being fermentation, it only seemed natural to go from fiddling with crushed grapes to turning fresh honey into mead.
As September’s chill tested the limits of my light jacket, I surveyed the dense forest that lay beyond the vines, and my mind began to wander. “Does anyone up here make alcohol from maple sap or syrup?” I ventured.
“Like Sortilege?” he said, referring to the cloyingly sweet syrup-spiked whiskey popular for after-supper sipping. It took a few Google searches to determine that, no, that’s not what I meant. “Oh, fermenting just the maple syrup?” he said. “Hm, I’m not sure.”
My answer came the following evening, when I sat down to dinner at Chez Rioux & Pettigrew, a fiercely seasonal restaurant in Quebec City. There, the inventive and very Quebec-focused cocktail list featured a drink called Espresso Acertini. It was made with espresso, coffee liqueur, Madagascar vanilla, and something called acerum O’Dwyer.
I was intrigued. The acerum O’Dwyer gave my Espresso Martini riff a smooth, boozy kick plus a lingering earthiness that gracefully showcased the drink’s coffee and vanilla components.
Made from distilled Quebec maple syrup with no additives, acerum is a fermented spirit that can resemble cognac or whiskey in the glass.
“When you talk about a maple syrup spirit, people are like, ‘Oh, a super sugary liqueur!’ I have to be like, ‘It’s not Sortilege, so get that out of your head,’” says Michael Briand, co-founder of O’Dwyer Distillerie in Gaspé, Quebec. “If they think it’s going to be a dessert liqueur and it tastes like a scotch, it won’t go well.”
O’Dwyer isn’t alone, either. It’s one of five regional outfits behind the Union of Maple Spirits Distillers, a federation devoted to promoting the official classification of acerum, dubbing it the “Spirit of Quebec.”
So, why have so few people heard of this distinctly Quebecer elixir?
“Usually, where there’s an orchard, you’ll see barrels of brandy or Cognac in somebody’s basement. But maple syrup, people just never thought you could make alcohol from it, which is silly because it’s sugar,” Briand says. “I think there might be a clash there, because people are so used to it being a domestic product for pancakes and cooking. Making alcohol out of it might be a bit off-putting, but we’re getting there.”
As dictated by the Union, acerum can be made from fermenting and distilling either maple sap (clear, unrefined sugar water straight from the tree) or syrup (a more viscous, concentrated sap produced through boiling). O’Dwyer’s version clocks in at 43% ABV and is derived from a particular type of maple syrup that Briand describes as more closely related to molasses than amber-hued waffle sauce.
Funny enough, it was a botched attempt to get into the artisanal rum game that led the distillery to embrace acerum.
“We were buying molasses from Jamaica and the cost of moving it was just silly—1000 liters weighed like three tons—so the shipping alone is taking all of your profit,” Briand recalls. “So we said, ‘Why don’t we just use our base store of sugar, which is maple syrup?’”
That led Briand and his business partner, master distiller Frédéric Jacques, down an acerum research rabbithole. First, they needed to acquire a company that could supply them with enough maple syrup to make distillation not just possible but, hopefully, profitable. Quebec’s maple syrup industry is almost comically regulated—even leading to a world famous heist—so the team decided to cut out the middlemen and go straight to the top.
“We use the end-season sap,” says Briand, noting that the Quebec Federation of Maple Syrup Producers had tried to market it as a culinary product, but “it never caught on. Maple syrup producers have to give a certain quota to the Federation, but the producers want to sell as much grade A or whatever as they can, so they’ll give away the end-season stuff.”
After testing with this end-of-season sap, Briand and his team found it performed similarly to molasses. “When we compare ours with other acerum on the market, we can find more notes of maple at the end, because the end-season syrup is much stronger.”
From there, the distillation process is similar to whiskey. O’Dwyer’s team pasteurizes the sap, dilutes it to decrease its sweetness, puts it in the mash tun until it gets to 172℉, measures the Brix, “and then slaps it in the fermentor,” he says.
Several argue that acerum should become the province’s official spirit. It makes sense, given the area’s steadfast predilection for embracing local goods from strawberries to wine to mushrooms to seaweed. Acerum also speaks to many Quebecers’ penchant for outside-of-the-box experimentation.
“A lot of places are trying new and funky things,” says Briand. “We have the first wild mushroom gin in the world, and our amaretto is made from lichen moss and raspberry leaves. You have [fellow acerum producer] Distillerie St. Laurent using freaking seaweed in their gin. You take what’s around your house.”
Other ambitious Quebec distilleries shouldering the Union of Maple Spirits Distillers’ mission include Distillerie St. Laurent, a sprawling operation set along a dreamy, pastoral stretch of the St. Lawrence River. It’s been in business since 2014, but had been toying with a maple eau-de-vie on a (somewhat illicit) homebrew-level for several years. St. Laurent even coined the term acerum—“acer” is Latin for maple, a term some winemakers had already adopted—upon its first bottled release.
St. Laurent quickly made a name for itself by developing a series of gins infused with head-turning homegrown ingredients like laminaria seaweed from the St. Lawrence. Coupled with a line of fine Canadian whiskies, the company blossomed into one of the most celebrated distilleries in the province, establishing a global distribution network and picking up a smattering of international awards. In 2017, Distillerie St. Laurent was asked to form a maple-focused federation by Domaine Acer, a northern Quebec maple farm and winery that obtained the first permit for the artisanal production of maple-based alcohol in 1996, and had been making specialty maple wines ever since.
Some 310 miles south, Distillerie Shefford set up shop on a maple farm near Montreal, intent on using the land’s abundance of sap to create their own distilled maple beverage. Coincidentally, Shefford also used the name “acerum.” Licensed in 2017, the company joined the Union shortly thereafter. O’Dwyer opened in 2016, but started cranking out acerum in 2019, the same year it joined the Union. And Domaine Small, an ironically spacious organic maple grove, vineyard, and microdistillery in southern Quebec’s Chaudière-Appalaches region, signed on in 2020.
While there’s undoubtedly strength in numbers, convincing consumers to get in on the acerum action hasn’t always been easy.
“We’re trying to make this new category of alcohol, but people are not sure,” says Briand. “It would probably be the same for gin—imagine if you were like, ‘Hey, I got this really good product that tastes like pine needles!’ People would be like, ‘You are crazy.’ We’ve got to be patient and consistent.”
The secret has been to lean into acerum’s unique character and never, ever, trying to pretend it’s something it’s not. That’s something the people of Quebec, a province that’s not quite North American and not quite European, know a thing or two about.
“You have one ingredient: maple syrup or sap from a maple tree. You can’t add sugar, you can’t add anything after, and it has to come from Quebec,” says Briand. “We want it to have its own signature and we’re not trying to copy rum by using a sugar base like molasses. We’re within Canada, but it feels like its own little country. It’s ingrained within people here to do their own thing.”