If you're looking for a cocktail sweetener, it's time to look beyond sugar.
For bartenders and home drink-makers who strive to introduce a locavore element to their cocktails, honey is a goldmine. Honey from your local food shed is made by bees that feast on the nectar of local plants, carrying subtle flavors and scents from the plant back to the hive, where the honey is made. If you live in an area known for its blueberries, say, or its oranges, you can find honeys that carry the essence of blueberry or orange blossom. Find them at a farmers' market or health food store and mix them thoughtfully into a drink, and you can add a subtle locavore kick to your cocktails.
But even clover honeys or those you find at big-box groceries—y'know, the honeys you buy in bear-shaped bottles—impart enticing floral notes you can't find in sugar. You can make great drinks with mass-market honey, thanks to honey's ability to pair well with spirits, citrus, and other cocktail ingredients.
At the recent San Antonio Cocktail Conference, Charlotte Voisey led a discussion of how to use honey to make layered, lightly floral cocktails. Voisey started in restaurant management at the age of 18 and opened her own bar—London's Apartment 195—six years later. She's now a brand ambassador at William Grant and Sons. The seminar got me buzzing with ideas, and today, I'll talk about how to mix with various types of honey and create balanced cocktails, and how to make honey syrup.
Need to brush up on what honey is and how it's produced? Jump over here for a peek into the secret lives of honeybees.
There's one more thing I should mention: since honey is an animal product, many vegans don't eat it. Further, some people are allergic to honey. If you use it in a cocktail, be sure you let your guests know, no matter whether you're a bartender or a home-mixmaster.
Which Type of Honey Should You Use?
Honey ranges from lightly floral varieties such as clover honey all the way up to earthy, dark, and rich options such as buckwheat honey. Which type you choose depends on the direction you want for your cocktail and the other ingredients you're using.
- Clover honey is light in both color and flavor, sweet, and mildly flora. It's a workhorse behind the bar, and it's hard to go too wrong using it. Reach for clover honey in any cocktail that calls for honey, unless the recipe specifies a certain type.
- Alfalfa honey comes from the alfalfa plant, which grows mostly in Western states. It's mild, with a subtle grassiness; it's a common table honey, and in cocktails you can generally use it interchangeably with clover honey, although you should account for the fact that it's both lighter tasting and sweeter than clover honey. Unless a recipe specifies a certain honey, alfalfa will work fine.
- Orange blossom is also a mildly-flavored honey. The name is a bit of a misnomer, since it can be made from grapefruit or other citrus blossoms as well as orange. The flavor is mildly sweet and has light hints of fresh citrus. Orange blossom is a good choice for citrusy drinks, or paired with lighter spirits, such as gin or vodka, where its floral notes will really shine.
- Blueberry honey is made by bees feasting on the nectar of blueberry bushes, mostly in New England and Michigan. It has noticeable berry flavors, and it works well in cocktails made with fruit and berry flavors; it's also nice in drinks where you might want a delicate berry flavor without using actual berries—for example, in a delicate gin cocktail, such as a French 75, with the honey syrup subbing in for simple.
- Buckwheat honey is a dark brown and strongly flavored variety that tastes much like very dark molasses. Funky and earthy, it has flavors of dark chocolate, vanilla, and coffee. Use it in rich cocktails where the complex, dark flavors won't overpower the other ingredients. Pair buckwheat honey with rum, bourbon, rye—even a peaty Scotch would be a good choice.
- Other honey options. There are many, many more types of honey; hit your local markets and see what's available to you. Honeys that come from herbal sources, such as sage honey and thyme honey, offer savory notes that could play well with tequila or gin, two spirits with flavors that reward savory experimentation. Chestnut honey's flavors of wood and smoke are nice in a hot toddy made with a great blended Scotch or Irish whiskey. Guajillo honey, if you can find it, is almost jammy, with flavors of stone fruit; try using it in a margarita variation.
How to Make Honey Syrup
Working with honey in cocktails is pretty simple, but the one thing you need to do first is to make your honey into a syrup. Honey on its own is a little too thick to mix well with other ingredients, unless one of those ingredients is hot. Honey in hot tea is fine, but honey in an ice-filled cocktail shaker won't mix in nicely.
Making honey syrup is easy, almost as easy as making simple syrup. No, wait, it's exactly as easy as making simple syrup. All you do is take equal parts honey and water and heat them in a saucepan until the honey melts into the water. Bottle, cap, and store in the fridge for two weeks. If you don't need a lot, get a teeny pan and make a syrup of 1/4 cup honey and 1/4 cup water. If you need more, double or even quadruple the formula. The syrup shouldn't separate in the fridge, but it doesn't hurt to shake before using.
A one-to-one ratio of honey to water will make a mild-tasting honey syrup. For something richer, you can bump up the ratio of honey to water, making a 2:1 syrup or even a 3:1.
Another option is to make an herb- or spice-infused honey syrup, as the chef Jonathan Benno mentions in this piece on using honey in the kitchen. This is an opportunity to add more flavors that will blend well with your other ingredients. In the Bee's Knees, for example; a little ginger works, as would lemongrass or thyme.
Just add the herb or spice (go light; a little goes a long way) into the pan with the honey and the water, and then strain them out when the syrup is cool.
Seeking Balance in Honey Cocktails
Before you begin making cocktails, taste the honey on its own. Make sure you understand its flavors and aromas. Taking notes is good, but don't get caught up in tasting-note jargon; just jot down your general impression of the honey.
Ask yourself: how will this honey balance with the other flavors in the cocktail? Are the spirits and other ingredients you're using light and herbal? Bold and aggressive? Somewhere in between? Intense buckwheat and chestnut honeys wouldn't work well in, say, the Bee's Knees, which is made with gin and lemon juice. But clover honey will work well, and orange-blossom honey will be even better.
Keep in mind that honey, especially the kind you get from local apiaries and farmers' markets, is a natural product. It changes from season to season. The flavors and aromas you get from a jar in April won't necessarily be the same in August. Taste each new jar you buy, and adjust your recipes if necessary.
If you're adapting a recipe that uses sugar or simple syrup, it's safest to start with less honey syrup than the recipe calls for. Honey syrup has more flavor than regular simple syrup, and you don't want to overwhelm your drink. I suggest halving the sweetener, testing the drink, and then adding more honey syrup to taste.
Not sure where to start? Consider experimenting with apple brandy cocktails, swapping in honey syrup for other sweeteners, or using it to enhance the other sweetener. Apples and honey are a terrific flavor combination; I'm sure your parents sometimes offered you a honey-dipped apple slice when you were a child.
My Favorite Honey Cocktail
Because I love bourbon cocktails, the Gold Rush is my favorite honey-laced drink. Little more than a bourbon variation on the Bee's Knees, it melds honey, lemon, and bourbon, which come together harmoniously in the cocktail. I find it to be a nice variation on a traditional whiskey sour, with the honey providing a complexity that sugar lacks. The honey also brings out the spiciness in the bourbon. The name helps, too, calling to mind a pre-Prohibition cocktail, even though the drink is only a little over a decade old.