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Beer, bourbon and bacon: Welcome to the candy revolution

Pumpkin spice marshmallows

Hudson Hayden/The Globe and Mail

Okay sugar lovers, it's party time. No other single day glorifies the contemplation, accumulation and consumption of candy the way Oct. 31 does, so best to make it count. From mass-produced Mars bars to tired Tootsie Rolls, there is no shortage of the usual junk, but why not spoil yourself with a real treat?

The latest wave of artisanal candy makers want to help. Working in small batches with creativity, passion and quality ingredients, the new confectioners are making caramels, gummies, marshmallows and everything else your heart desires – only better. Like the re-imagining of virtually every food from bread to chocolate, candy is in the midst of a revolution.

And as individual craftspeople try to wrest control of the marketplace from huge corporations, the character of candy itself is changing, from overly sweet, obvious and flat flavours to more subtle, sophisticated and surprising ones.

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"We wanted to bring candy back to that elevated status," says Liz Gutman, coowner of Liddabit Sweets in New York. "When you're a kid and you get a candy bar as a treat, it's such a special moment. We've all had the experience when you go and get a treat as an adult and you open it but it's stale or sugary and so disappointing."

To ward off those bonbon bummers, Liddabit handmakes an array of candies with freshly churned butter, locally sourced dairy, artisanal honey and the like. Nostalgic, almost certainly, but not exactly old fashioned. From beer and pretzel caramels to bourbon– bacon candy corn, Liddabit's signature products are throughly grounded in the here and now.

A few thousand miles to the west in Oakland, California, Jenna Keys is working along similar lines. Her little candy company that could, Sugar Knife, began on Kickstarter and is now it its third season, selling sophisticated takes on marshmallows, candy brittle and lollipops online or at pop-ups around the Bay area. But where Liddabit is earnest, Sugar Knife has an edge. "I wanted to create a candy company that was a little cooler than most. I think my personal taste has veered more toward the masculine, and definitely toward flavours for the adult palate," says Keys. Consider, for example, Black Irish marshmallows with Guinness stout and chocolate-covered pretzels, or a New Orleans-inspired variety with coffee and praline liqueur. Prefer brittle? There's Blond at the Bar with beer, almonds and orange zest or Town Biz with Knob Creek bourbon and pistachios. Definitely not kids stuff.

"We pride ourselves on making our candy, especially our marshmallows, not too sweet," says Keys. "When you have too much sugar in a product, it masks other flavours. We've stripped down the recipes to use as little as we can."

Although grocery stores might not be stocking boozy handmade marshmallows any time soon, certain sophisticated flavours have crept into candy produced on a larger scale, too. Bourbon has officially made the leap from an accent in chocolate to a flavour in a wide variety of hard candies, and beloved Sriracha has carved a comfortable place for itself in lollipops and even candy canes. As for beer – watch out, says Dana McCauley, host of the YouTube series Food Trends TV. From ale to lager, beer is coming into a bevy of unexpected foods, she says in an episode. Just look at Jelly Belly's release of draft beer-flavoured beans as a harbinger of things to come.

Blazing a trail in Canada, Squish Candies is squeezing all these different types of innovations into little gummies with a satisfying chew. "We started bringing sophisticated gummies to the market in 2014," says Sarah Segal of her fledgling business. "We felt there were a lot of options in chocolate, but there wasn't much for the gummi lover."

With over 100 flavours, Squish can satisfy your craving for sweet, sour, spicy, boozy … even creepy. For Halloween the company, with three locations in Montreal and one in Toronto, is featuring Brains, strawberry-flavoured gummies with sour, liquid ooze in the centre. "It's amazing how many people love to eat candy on Halloween. For a few days, it's allowed! But we kind of think it should be all year round. We want to encourage that adult love of candy."

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Liz Gutman agrees. "We make candy, which nobody really needs. So if you're going to eat a food that you can't ever argue is good for you, you really should choose something special."

The only tricky part is deciding where to start. Liddabit, Sugar Knife and Squish all take orders online (though the former only delivers in the U.S.), but if you're itching to impress your peeps and make some sweets on your own, no need to be afraid. Our recipes for pumpkin spice marshmallows and bourbon pecan brittle will have you toasting, caramelizing and fluffing your way into candy heaven. No costume required.

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