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by Alex Palmer | May 24, 2016
Famed The Palmer House Hilton hotel in Chicago boasts a rich history, rare art pieces, and more than 130,000 square feet of meeting space. But despite being the longest-operating hotel in the U.S., The Palmer House is also always looking for innovative ways to add to its offerings. One of its latest is a very unexpected amenity: barrel-aged maple syrup.

The idea came to the hotel's executive chef Stephen Henry as he was considering what to do with the Palmer House's underground tunnels. While the property already cultivates a garden and apiary on its expansive rooftop, the chef felt the network of subterranean stone passageways winding under the 145-year-old hotel offered its own culinary potential.

"I thought, 'Who gets to see these? Nobody,'" says Henry, who has been with The Palmer House for more than 12 years. "So I decided to do something that would age down there."

It would need to be something hotel guests could enjoy, and that could be used in a variety of dishes and presentations. That was when the idea of syrups occurred to him.

Henry secured a number of bourbon barrels, pouring a combination of sugar, maple syrup, and infusions into the wooden containers, where they age for several months. In the process, the syrups take on the distinctive flavor of the infusions -- currently these include Whistlepig Rye, singe-malt Scotch, tequila, a Palmer House-blend of Woodford Reserve bourbon, and Grand Marnier -- as well as flavor notes from the barrels themselves.  

"We can use them for desserts, offer with breakfast, or as dressings," says Henry, adding that it makes for a memorable, exclusive culinary treat for visiting groups and meetings. "We're going the firehouse on Tuesday to give all the firemen Palmer House cupcakes as thanks."

Henry's culinary experiment has caught the eye of Hilton's top brass. Next month, he will be flying to Aspen for the Food & Wine Magazine Classic, to offer up The Palmer House's barrel-aged syrup-infused All-American Brownie at the Hilton tent (it's a twist on the hotel's original recipe, replacing an apricot glaze with a maple-bourbon glaze).

But while the house-made syrups are a hit with visiting groups, Henry already has his eye on the next way he can add something unexpected to the menu.

"Next I want to age vinegars," he says. "But in the maple syrup barrels."