HARDWICK, Vt. — When the USDA released its 2013 maple syrup production report earlier this year, Vermont sugar-makers rejoiced.
The state’s maple crop was the largest in 70 years, with more than 1.3 million gallons produced, up 76 percent from 2012.
The Green Mountain State still makes 40 percent of the nation’s maple syrup, but “Vermont’s other syrup” is quickly gaining a fast-growing, lip-smacking audience.
“I’ve said from the time we started this business that we could be the next Ben & Jerry’s,” said Linda Fox, who co-founded Sumptuous Syrups of Vermont with Don Horrigan.
Launched in June 2012, Sumptuous Syrups makes farm-to-bar cocktail syrups with produce from small family farms in Vermont, the Dominican Republic and Peru.
Fox and Horrigan run their startup company from the Vermont Food Venture Center in Hardwick, a once dying small town in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom that has significantly revived itself through the locavore movement.
Sumptuous Syrups has four flavors on the market: Black Currant, Yellow Ginger, Black Berry and Lemon 3 Basil. Fox knows exactly what each farmer has contributed to each bottle, and her producers are listed on the Sumptuous Syrups website, along with 200 drink recipes — with and without alcohol — that Horrigan wrote. He is a mixologist with a huge following on Twitter.
“He doesn’t make drinks,” Fox said. “He creates drinks.”
Sumptuous Syrups has created another market for farmers to diversify in Vermont, Fox said, and the business can rescue damaged crops for use in the syrups, which is particularly important this summer in Vermont, where record-breaking rains have ruined the strawberry season.
“We’re helping farmers recoup some of those losses,” Fox said earlier this month at the food venture center.
Fox called her product the “super high-end of cocktail syrups.” Most “simple syrups” are 1 cup water to 1 cup of sugar, she explained, but she and Horrigan make a “rich, simple syrup,” with 2 cups of sugar to 1 cup of water, which gives it the same texture and sweetness as maple syrup.
There are no preservatives and the bottles are glass, so Sumptuous Syrups can last months on the shelf or in the fridge.
“It feels like maple syrup in your mouth,” Fox said. “Only with different flavors. It’s funny, but when we are at shows or events, people look at the bottle and ask, Is this maple?’ When they learn it isn’t, they want to learn more.”
Crop farming and forestry are deep in Fox’s roots. Her father supplied grapes for Welch’s after he retired from the Pennsylvania steel industry, and she has spent much of her adult life working in the food business. She owned a community coffee house and international café in Hardwick in the 1990s.
Originally from Texas, Horrigan, 40, who also manages Positive Pie restaurant in Hardwick, followed the Grateful Dead for a decade and worked in restaurants to support himself on the road.
While Horrigan is busy with recipes, Fox oversees production, financials and legal matters for Sumptuous Syrups.
“He’s as old as my oldest son,” Fox said of Horrigan. “But we’re equals. We’re friends.”
In February 2008, Horrigan was the mixologist at Claire’s Restaurant in Hardwick, where Fox and her husband, Roger, were regulars. One night, Horrigan and Fox noticed not much was available locally to mix drinks, so they talked.
Later at home, Fox pulled berries out of her freezer and created the recipe that she and Horrigan use today: water, fruit, and free-trade organic cane sugar. After Horrigan sampled Fox’s first syrup, he started coming up with other recipe ideas, and it hasn’t stopped. After 18 months, they had created 11 flavors, but not a business. The syrups were still Fox’s gift to Horrigan at Claire’s.
One night, Horrigan looked up from the bar and noticed every customer sitting in front of him had a drink that contained one of Fox’s syrups.
“We realized we were on to something,” Fox said. “But without the Vermont Food Venture Center, we might not be here.”
Buzz about the food venture center started in 2010, and it opened a year later. Fox and Horrigan wanted to be one of the first clients in the door.
The center is a multi-use food processing facility — funded by federal economic stimulus dollars — that has 25 clients who make around 100 products ranging from sauces and condiments to beverages and chocolates.
The center has three individual kitchens, available at hourly rates; freezer and dry-goods storage; and, among its six employees, an in-house production manager who graduated from the New England Culinary Institute, also in Vermont. The center also has the capacity to make natural cosmetics.
“To have the businesses be where the producers are, and not the markets, and getting the products to the markets with no interstate access here, shows there is a revitalization of an ag-based economy in this area and the state,” said Sarah Waring, the Vermont Food Venture Center’s executive director. “Our clients aren’t just selling their stories. They’re selling the business of Vermont agriculture.”
At the end of Sumptuous Syrups’ first business year, they nabbed a distributor, which has boosted sales. Average production started with 25-to 50-case runs. Now, Sumptuous Syrups produces 100-case runs with help from a co-packer.
Fox and Horrigan plan to grow and build their brand as they eye their long-term goal: cruise-line contracts.
“Eventually, I’d just like to be the liaison between the farmer and us, and leave the bottling and production to someone else,” Fox said. “We are all about the farmer.”