Sprucing Up Your Cocktail

A lost flavor of the northern woods, rediscovered

Chris Hannah, an accomplished bartender from New Orleans, was halfway up a spruce tree in northern Maine, picking at gobs of dried resin, while Misty Kalkofen—also a very good bartender, based in Boston—looked on from below. Under the pretext of a vacation, I’d lured the two of them to a remote corner of the state where I spend a part of each summer. (Cocktail-enhanced games of Scrabble may have been promised.) But when they arrived, I immediately conscripted them into a march through piney forests in search of the resin that oozes from the fissured bark of spruces and then hardens. After we gathered a reasonable amount, we returned home to the kitchen.

Spruce was a familiar flavoring in the 18th and 19th centuries, especially if you lived up north. It was found in tea, in beer, and perhaps most commonly in chewing gum—spruce gum was produced commercially all the way until the 1970s. “I have tended evening meetings up in Maine,” noted the writer Henry Wheeler Shaw in 1877, “and everybody was chewing gum except the minister.”

The taste of spruce resin is quite potent, described by one late-19th-century writer as “sweet, peculiar and balsamic.” In my experience, spruce engages not just the senses of smell and taste, but also a more primitive part of one’s brain, conjuring a dank and loamy forest. I’m mystified that a flavor this large and powerful has been forgotten by consumers.

Given how a well-crafted cocktail isolates, condenses, and amplifies flavors, I’d had the notion that mixing a spruce cocktail would be a fine way to rediscover a lost taste. Hence the invitation to Hannah and Kalkofen.

We quickly discovered, however, that spruce resin is not the easiest ingredient to work with. It’s like road tar scraped from the bottom of a sneaker—eager to bond to anything, including human flesh. “I’m not going to lie to you,” Kalkofen said to me during one experiment involving resin and hot water. “It looks like boogers.” The resin proved resistant to our initial efforts—a pot and two spoons were badly disfigured in the process—but we eventually persuaded it to yield its flavor by simmering the nuggets overnight into a sweet, viscous syrup. Though our experiments took place in late summer, the cabin acquired a yuletide aroma that lasted for a week.

Armed with our new flavoring, Hannah devised a spruce-inflected Manhattan that brought to mind those fragrant balsam pillows sold in woodsy gift shops. It bordered on the ambrosial, but I don’t know that I’d attempt it again: concocting the syrup to make a batch was like having to build an automobile each time you need a carton of milk from the grocery store.

The good news is that spruce is now cropping up in commercially available products, notably beer. These beers aren’t made from the irksome resin, but brewed using the bright-green buds of spruce branches. Spruce beer tastes “a little bit like trees, in a good way,” Chris Richardson wrote on the Love Good Beer blog. To my mind, it has a lighter, more citrusy sort of spruciness than a drink made with the resin—more evocative of a Kiwanis Club Christmas-tree lot than the sunless northern woods.

Spruce has also found its way into at least one spirit: Rogue Spruce Gin, made in Oregon. It’s been on the market for six years and is now available in 31 states. By definition, gin is flavored chiefly with juniper berries (the word gin derives from genever, the Dutch word for juniper). But given its northern heritage, the spirit marries quite well with spruce.

Why spruce? “It was obvious for us, in the sense that we’re surrounded by spruce trees,” Brett Joyce, of Rogue Ales & Spirits, told me. His father, Jack, one of the founders of the company, confessed that he also finds great sport in vexing the federal officials who regulate new liquor products by submitting ingredients that make them think WTF?

In Rogue’s gin, spruce adds an intriguingly earthy layer to what can sometimes be an astringent-tasting spirit. A spruce gin and tonic turns out to be a wondrous thing. The G&T is typically a summer drink, of course, but the spruce notes evoke moonlit winter nights. With my first sip, I could taste the woods. By the second or third, I could’ve sworn I heard owls.