Epicurean Charlotte

Food & Wine Magazine


The Medicinal Berry

by Brianna Melanson
images by Lydia Bittner-Baird

Hippocrates may have discovered the benefits of elderberries, but Stephanie Rickenbaker discovered the secret recipe to a delicious and healthy elderberry syrup she calls Sweet’s Syrup. Named after her daughter’s adorable nickname, the syrup became Sweet’s favorite cold and allergy fighting medicine after the Rickenbaker family shifted to a more natural lifestyle. Rickenbaker’s husband’s leukemia diagnosis, which is thankfully manageable, initiated the search for ways they could limit toxins from their daily routine, and she ultimately found that “food is medicine.”

Elderberries are a super-fruit with healing capabilities from bioflavonoids and proteins that attack viruses and boost your immune system. The elderberries, along with the other key ingredient, local honey from Herb’s, will make you unstoppable. The pollen spores that the bees collect from blooms around the Queen City become part of the honey, so when you consume it, the irritants that give you bad seasonal allergies will not bother you in this particular area. When the season changes, so does the honey. Often, people are skeptical about taking cough syrup, but the combination of ingredients in Sweet’s not only banishes your symptoms, but also tastes amazing. It tastes more like a fruity treat than medicine. Rickenbaker promises, “It feels like a warm hug, and I look forward to taking it every day.”

With hopes to share her wonderful remedy, Rickenbaker posted to a moms’ Facebook group about a year ago to see if anyone would be interested in purchasing a bottle. That single initial post intrigued 130 customers, and after that, the syrup increased popularity by word of mouth. An unexpected business was born for the stay-at-home mom with an MBA, and she has loved every minute.

When her family started to smell like elderberries from making the batches in her home kitchen, it was a sign to move onto a commercial kitchen. She now has a Johnson & Wales trained chef whisking up the syrup to help keep up with the orders. So far, Rickenbaker has sold over 4,000 bottles! That means she’s bringing in 10 to 20 gallons of Herb’s honey every week for a new batch.

Once they have a reduction of the elderberries, ginger, cloves, and cinnamon, the honey needs to be added when it’s cooled so that the live enzymes survive. It’s what makes Sweet’s stand out from the other elderberry syrups on market shelves—the honey loses its integrity when the other companies use a “hot pour” to sterilize the bottle. Since Sweet’s does not use that process, Rickenbaker’s product is ultimately more effective and must be refrigerated, so you’ll find it in the refrigerated aisles in stores.

The syrup can be recognized by its vintage apothecary-style packaging. The logo and label were designed by Rickenbaker’s sister, a graphic designer who has appropriately worked for the honey beauty brand, Burt’s Bees. Who wouldn’t be excited to take medicine from such charming packaging, complete with a purple bow?

Rickenbaker’s family takes a spoonful straight up, but she also recommends the dose over oatmeal or yogurt, or if you’re feeling sassy, in a mixed drink. Her kids run up to the refrigerator or fake sick to try to get more. The syrup is part of their daily routine as well as Juice Plus, Vitamin D, probiotics, and fish oil. Rickenbaker says, “I always feel like I’m going to jinx myself by saying this, but they haven’t missed a day of school from being sick, which is awesome for pre-schoolers.” Indeed it is!

Both kids and adults can’t get enough of the syrup. She’s even had people knocking on her door for more! Rickenbaker was even featured on the Charlotte Today show after her concoction helped one of the anchors combat a cold and get back to work.

Once you feel like you’re coming down with something, Rickenbaker recommends taking a dose every three hours until the virus surrenders. Also, you can take it every three hours for a few days, and then once every day to build up immunity before the start of a new allergy season. The syrup will shield you from any unwanted symptoms and have you feeling your best.

Currently, you can purchase an 8 or 16 oz. bottle on Etsy, or in Charlotte retailers such as Provisions Waxhaw, Laurel Market, Hive & Co, CLT Find, The Fitness Bar at the Dowd and Childress Klein YMCAs, Carolina Sweat, Dr. Shelia Kilbane’s office at Infinite Health, McLeod Organics at the Bradford Store, and Charlotte Center for Acupuncture. Some day, we’d love to see Sweet’s in Whole Foods. Rickenbaker’s Shark Tank dream is to be able to sell Sweet’s all over the country with that area’s local honey, as it’s important to her to keep the product genuine and support local businesses.

Allergy and cold sufferers of all ages in Charlotte are grateful for Sweet’s Syrup made with elderberries and local honey. Rickenbaker has been a significant leader in our community for spreading awareness of alternative medicine. It will be wonderful to see how the business expands and how more Charlotteans will look to Sweet’s and food in general for healing and good health. Leading others to more natural solutions through Sweet’s Syrup has been and will continue to be a gift for her.