With the growth over the last two decades of farmers’ markets touting their finest local products, honey has become a popular ingredient in both food and drinks. The flavors and fragrances producer Firmenich named honey its 2015 flavor of the year, and the growing popularity of mead shows how the ancient honey-based beverage is poised for a comeback. But beverages made with bees’ nectar can be found across all drinks categories.
Since honey doesn’t need to undergo processing before fermentation, it’s a natural fit for brewed beverages. MillerCoors’ Blue Moon brand features Summer Honey Wheat ale seasonally, and the company’s Leinenkugel Brewing Co. has long offered Leinenkugel’s Honey Weiss year-round. Both beers include honey in their recipes. North American Breweries’ Genesee Brewing Co. began producing J.W. Dundee’s Honey Brown lager in 1994. Brewed with white clover honey, the beer is so popular that the company broke it off from the Dundee brand in 2010 and changed its name to Original Honey Brown lager.
Craft breweries have taken to honey as well. Rogue Ales launched a limited-edition Honey Kölsch (pricing for a 750-ml. bottle varies by market) in 2013 that became a permanent part of the lineup this year, and the Belgian style known as bière de miel has inspired variations from Jester King Brewery in Austin, Texas, among others. A similar beer type called braggot led to the creation of Samuel Adams Honey Queen ($5.99 to $6.99 a 22-ounce bottle). The Boston Beer Co. released it on a limited basis in 2013 and has subsequently revived it for the following two years from March through August.
Braggot dates to the 12th century and was traditionally a blend of mead and beer. Honey Queen uses three kinds of honey—orange blossom, clover and alfalfa—along with chamomile and hops to create layers of sweetness, floral aromas, and citrus and earthy notes. “We’ve seen a great response to Honey Queen from our drinkers,” says Boston Beer Co. brewer and director of brewery programs Jennifer Glanville. “They’re passionate, curious and looking to explore different flavor profiles and styles of beer.” She notes that the braggot isn’t Boston Beer’s first foray into brewing with honey: Samuel Adams Cherry Wheat, among other expressions, also uses the ingredient.
Honey can also contribute to distilled spirits, as the numerous honey-flavored whiskies currently enjoying strong sales show. But the ingredient goes beyond simply sweetening an existing spirit. Port Chester, New York’s StilltheOne Distllery makes Comb vodka and Comb gin from honey, and Pennsylvania’s Pittsburgh Distilling Co., which produces Wigle whiskey, uses local buckwheat honey to distill its Landlocked white spirit. Hardwick, Vermont’s Caledonia Spirits sweetens its Barr Hill gin ($37 a 750-ml. bottle) and Tom Cat barrel-aged gin ($55) with raw honey. The company also ferments and distills honey into Barr Hill vodka ($65). Founder Todd Hardie spent 50 years with the Vermont Department of Agriculture inspecting hives and apiaries and had long sold honey-based medicines and meads before venturing into distilling.
“There’s a sense of place in the spirits,” says Caledonia Spirits’ New Jersey brand ambassador Warren Bobrow. “The raw honey comes straight out of the hives and goes into the gin. It’s authentic.” In fact, Barr Hill gin contains only honey and the required juniper—no other botanicals are added. Because the honey isn’t processed, it retains a host of aromas and flavors from the different flowers accessed by the bees. “What makes Barr Hill gin so memorable is the mouth feel,” Bobrow explains. “It’s not just an aroma and it’s not just a flavor—it’s something that really transforms the gin.” He notes a similar characteristic in Barr Hill vodka. “It’s really creamy,” he says.
Bobrow uses raw honey from Caledonia’s hives to make simple syrup and has also designed drinks featuring Barr Hill products. Riffing on the French 75, his As We Approached Saint-Denis cocktail combines Barr Hill gin, Champagne (brand varies), house-made blackberry-fennel shrub, house-made raw honey aromatic bitters and a brown sugar cube, while his A Cottage Near A Moor cocktail blends Barr Hill gin, Carpano Bianco vermouth, fresh grapefruit juice and the Bitter End Moroccan bitters. “Raw honey has healing properties, and vermouth is great for digestion,” Bobrow notes.
In the on-premise, honey-based drinks are playing off the locavore movement and attracting consumers interested in alternative sweeteners. For several years, certain properties of the 56-unit Omni Hotels & Resorts have incorporated honey from their own hives into menu items. This summer, the chain launched a honey-focused poolside menu in partnership with the National Honey Board. “Think about wildflower honey: Those bees go only a mile or two, so the flavor of the honey is going to be whatever plants are close by,” says vice president of food and beverage David Morgan. “Using wildflower honey in our cocktails means they’re truly local.”
Morgan points to honey’s diverse flavor profiles as an attractive quality when devising cocktails. “Honey is versatile and there are many different kinds,” such as clover, orange blossom and wildflower varieties, he notes. “Most people aren’t familiar with all the types of honey. We wanted to use a few different kinds because not only does that change the flavor profile of the cocktail, but it helps tell a story and gives our customers a new experience as well. Honey is more than just an alternative sweetener.” Omni’s Honey Melon Mojito ($9) blends clover honey water with Cruzan Light rum, lime juice, Finest Call bar syrup, Finest Call Watermelon purée, mint leaves and club soda.
Honey isn’t a cheap ingredient: According to the National Honey Board, wholesale honey cost $4.94 a pound in July 2015. The American Sugar Alliance shows that refined sugar cost only $0.34 a pound during the same period. That premium price will likely limit honey to use in specialty products. But as the locavore movement grows and consumers continue to show a preference for alternative sweeteners, honey-based drinks seem likely to proliferate.