Spirits

Why Honey Is the Next Frontier in Drinks

Distillers, brewers, mixologists, and winemakers are tapping artisanal honey as the next in-demand ingredient

Lee Hedgmon, owner of artisanal honey producer The Barreled Bee, poses with bees. Photo courtesy of Lee Hedgmon.

Belinda Kelly is on the front lines of farm-to-bar mixology. Her Happy Camper Cocktail Co. is a mobile cocktail catering business in the Seattle area that features fresh locavore ingredients. “I see a very educated consumer at my events,” she says. “Wellness is definitely a standard by which my Pacific Northwestern, mainly millennial clients are living and drinking. They’re seeking products that feel holistic and healthy and that can be traced back to their own area code.”

Kelly has found that her nutrition-conscious consumers are enthusiastic about her house-made simple syrups, which contain local, single-origin, sustainably sourced honeys. Her customers are also surprisingly well-informed about honey’s benefits, she says. Honey has a relatively low glycemic index score; contains proteins, vitamins, amino acids, and minerals; and has antimicrobial, antioxidant, and anti-inflammatory properties. It is also believed to alleviate seasonal allergy symptoms because of trace amounts of pollen present. 

“I think it’s a natural part of the farm-to-bar movement, and [growing] health food consciousness, that people would seek a natural sweetener like honey,” says Kelly. In addition, she says, her customers are fully aware of the imperiled state of the world’s pollinator population. “I think people have a real respect for high-quality ingredients,” she says, “and honey is one of the most high-quality ingredients available. The work the bees go through to make honey is beginning to be more appreciated by the general public as we learn more about [declining] bee populations and how our actions are affecting them.”

On her seasonally rotating cocktail list, Kelly matches an array of locally sourced honey varieties with specific spirits. “Honey can have such variation of character based on the [bees’ food sources],” she says. Thus, a wildflower honey goes into an herbaceous gin-based drink, while a grassy clover honey is matched with rye whiskey. Kelly often integrates complementary fresh herbs like lavender, sage, and basil as well. “It makes sense,” she says, “that honey would pair nicely with the other garden ingredients we focus on for our menu.”

Belinda Kelly operates Happy Camper Cocktail Co., a mobile cocktail catering business in the Seattle area that features fresh locavore ingredients. Photo by Meredith McKee.

Understanding Honey Varieties and Terroir

It’s possible to imagine a near future when honey will be delineated by variety, terroir, and vintage, like wine. Of the 7 species and 44 subspecies of the genus Apis, the Western honeybee is the most common. But a colony’s surroundings, rather the type of bee, are what determines the variety of the honey. Bees forage nectar and pollen from whatever crop is closest to the hive, and this is reflected in the aromatics and flavor components of the resulting honey.

It’s not uncommon to encounter “vulture bees” buzzing around garbage dumpsters or crawling over roadkill. These bees feast on meat instead of pollen, and the resulting honey isn’t anything you’d want to taste. But beyond their palatability the best honeys are single variety (that is, sourced from a single terroir and crop), so apiaries that can guarantee a single source are of most interest to honey aficionados, who geek out about the differences between, say, the various fruit-tree honeys.

Additionally, honey, like wine grapes, manifests the terroir of its birthplace. Buckwheat honey from a farm in Oregon, for example, will taste notably different from buckwheat honey sourced from a farm in Michigan. And wild mustard blossoms can render a distinctive honey, as can other vineyard cover crops, which presents an interesting way for winemakers to explore how their sites exhibit terroir. 

And—another connection with wine—honey’s vintage variation is distinct. “Just like every harvest is different with grape growing, every honey vintage varies,” says Wendy Rohan, the owner of Rohan Meadery at Blissful Folly Farm, a bee-friendly-certified farm in La Grange, Texas. Rohan, who also grows grapes and makes wine and cider in addition to mead, notes, “[The honey is] coming from the same place every year, but every year that honey will be a little bit different.” 

Growth Fueled by Culinary Demand

Most alcoholic beverages are made from edible plant materials such as fruits, grains, potatoes, agave, and sugarcane. Honey is the world’s most improbable ambrosia, extracted from flowers and processed by striped, furry insects. And yet archaeologists believe that honey may have been fermented as many as 100,000 years ago by the very first tippling hominids, and we know that honey was often added to grape wines during antiquity, establishing a precedent for later mixologists. 

While single-origin honeys have been prominent on restaurant menus over the past few decades, they haven’t played a notable role in the craft beverage revival until now. As today’s artisanal producers and mixologists look to push the present boundaries of beverages by digging deep into the past, high-end honey is making a comeback in the glass, generating—forgive the pun—buzz in every drinks sector. 

And whether they’re fermenting honey or simply pairing it with spirits, contemporary honey-focused craft producers and bartenders are now repurposing age-old techniques to create novel products that are as classic as they are groundbreaking. They’re exploring the fundamental connection between bee populations and place and finding that honey may offer a more profound expression of terroir than any other medium.

Creating Artisanal Honeys Using Beverage Techniques

In Portland, Oregon, Lee Hedgmon pairs single-origin honeys with alcohol-cured barrels she has handpicked from among her network of colleagues in the Oregon distilling industry, with the aim of marrying complementary flavors. She releases her honeys in batches, under the label The Barreled Bee. “I play matchmaker,” she says of her process. “I never know if this is a couple that’s going to last forever.” 

Hedgmon is a professional brewer and distiller whose interest in terroir has led her to an obsession with bees. She works with Bee and Bloom, an educational apiary; maintains a bee colony at Willow Bar Farm on rural Sauvie Island, near Portland; teaches mead-making classes; and is studying with the Oregon Master Beekeeper program.

Hedgmon describes single-varietal honeys like the beverage pro she is: Meadowfoam flower makes a honey with notes of marshmallows and vanilla. Carrot honey has parsley-like aromatics, while buckwheat honey smells like molasses and barnyard. Avocado blossom has a creamy, nutty, cashew-butter texture, with aromas of avocado oil. 

Lee Hedgmon ages single-origin honeys with alcohol-cured barrels for her Barreled Bee products. Photo courtesy of Lee Hedgmon.

Using her well-trained senses, Hedgmon considers aromatics, flavor, and texture when she pairs honeys with barrels for an aging period of four to seven months. Previous releases from The Barreled Bee have included a high-desert wildflower honey, with “juniper, sage, dusty, dry” notes, aged in a corn whiskey barrel chosen by Hedgmon for its “oily” quality. A different wildflower honey—this one with wheaty, white-flower aromatics—went into a “malt-forward” Westward Whiskey barrel. 

Hedgmon’s current batch, number 105, is a honey derived from pumpkin flowers that has aged in an Eastside Distilling bourbon barrel—the honey and barrel share “mellow, slightly caramelized” notes that complement one another, she says. Soon she will release a honey derived from vetch—a flowering wild pea that’s a common cover crop—aged in gin barrels. And she’s planning a collaboration with Abbey Creek Vineyard that will involve unsulfured wine barrels, most likely seasoned with Gewürztraminer. 

Although Hedgmon is as comfortable distilling spirits as she is making beer, wine, or mead, her single-batch honeys only have trace amounts of alcohol, so they can both amp up the flavors in cocktails or be drizzled onto fresh fruit, popcorn, nuts, or a cheese platter. For aficionados of craft spirits, the honeys exhibit a one-of-a-kind aromatic fix.

Honey’s desiccative properties—that is, its ability to absorb moisture—make it ideally suited to barrel aging, because it extracts alcohol and (typically) oaky notes from the wood’s pores, making for subtle layers of flavor. At the same time, the process is challenging—even for a seasoned brewer, distiller, and winemaker like Hedgmon. The honey dries the staves out to the point where leakage is a constant concern. And if there’s anything you don’t want to be mopping up off a floor, it’s something that’s sticky, stubborn, and irresistible to ants.

Diluting her products is not an option, says Hedgmon, because the addition of water would thin out the distinctive flavor and aromatics. Also, raw honey’s low-pH, high-Brix natural antibacterial qualities—which make it shelf stable indefinitely, without pasteurization—are lost if it’s watered down. So, through trial and error, Hedgmon has developed her own proprietary methods for minimizing leakage while her golden nectar ages in her hand-selected barrels.

Hedgmon’s business model is remarkably sustainable. Not only does she give used spirits barrels a second chance, but when her aging process is complete, Hedgmon donates her honey-soaked barrels to local brewers, cidermakers, and distillers to experiment with yet again. In addition, she works with apiaries that are focused on pollinating crops rather than selling honey, finding use for honeys that may never have been harvested and sold. And she has a soft spot for darker-hued honeys, which may not otherwise be desirable for sale due to their color but which in fact are higher in antioxidants and more flavorful than lighter-colored honeys.

Exploring New Applications for Apiculture 

For the Lelarge-Pugeot family, Demeter-certified winemakers in Champagne, France, honey has solved a supply problem. In keeping with the organic and biodynamic certification, winemaker Dominique Lelarge had been trying to locally source an organic sweetener for his dosages but couldn’t access sugar from anywhere closer than the French Caribbean. 

Then, starting with the 2017 vintage, Lelarge began experimenting with honey from his estate’s own bees. The vineyard property, where barley and alfalfa are also grown, happens to have 15 hives. It was a risk, as the protein content in honey had the potential to cause excessive foaming, but Lelarge made it work. So far, so good, says his daughter, Clémence Lelarge-Pugeot, who adds, “[Our] blanc de blancs was our favorite, as the acidity of Chardonnay balances well with the sweetness of honey.”

Christian DeBenedetti, the owner of Wolves & People Farmhouse Brewery, is tapping the potential of bees in a number of ways. Photo courtesy of Christian DeBenedetti.

On the brewing front, honey beers aren’t anything new, but Christian DeBenedetti, the owner of Wolves & People Farmhouse Brewery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, is applying his skills as an amateur natural beekeeper in innovative ways. DeBenedetti aims to source as much as possible from the historic 1850 farm purchased by his family in 1967, aging beer on his own hazelnuts and collecting wild yeast from his Italian plum trees. He’s even starting to grow his own hops and barley and is also beginning to condition his beers in bottle and keg using his own farm-raised honey as the priming sugar to kick-start fermentation. 

In addition, DeBenedetti makes his hazy IPA-style Honeycone beer by introducing cilantro, raspberry, wildflower, or meadowfoam honey at the whirlpool stage—just before the wort goes to the fermenter—not to overtly affect flavor but rather to lighten the body and add aromatics. DeBenedetti is also beginning to brew beers using wild yeast he’s harvested off the honeycombs in his hives. “The honey,” he says, “literally smells like the farm.” 

Microscopic wild yeast. Photo courtesy of Christian DeBenedetti.

Working with “yeast wrangler” Nick Impellitteri of The Yeast Bay, a purveyor of rare yeast strains based in Portland, Oregon, DeBenedetti isolated the strains that were most prevalent in honeycomb samples he’d removed from his hives—an idea he credits to Evan Watson, a co-owner of the ultra-locavore Plan Bee Farm Brewery in New York’s Hudson Valley. Impellitteri found that most of DeBenedetti’s hive yeasts were derivations of Saccharomyces cerevisiae var. Boulardii, commonly found on wine grapes—no surprise given that the farm is surrounded by vineyards and wineries. 

“Wild yeast from the skins of fruit are all over the bees’ bodies,” says DeBenedetti. “Beehives are antimicrobial and very stable, so the wild yeast does not ferment the honey inside the hive. It’s just in there.” In effect, honeybees inadvertently capture the terroir that’s inherent in wild yeast and store it in a shelf-stable environment. For anyone interested in fermentation, the idea that hives all over the world are, in effect, yeast libraries, safely storing the imprints left by crops that may have been harvested weeks or months in the past, is fascinating. 

One yeast sample was particularly promising. Brewed at a high temperature on the hunch that the wine-grape connection would favor a hot ferment, the resulting beer came out at 4.73% ABV, reports DeBenedetti, “with pleasant aromas and tastes of ripe Asian pear, green apple skin, and Sauvignon Blanc, a kiss of honey and wheaty crackers. We were so excited to taste it and can’t wait to scale up the yeasts in a bigger batch.”
Single variety apiaries are of most interest to honey aficionados. Photo courtesy of Christian DeBenedetti.

Natural Beekeeping, an Eco-friendly Trend

DeBenedetti practices no-spray apiculture, a farming method “also” known as “natural beekeeping.” Rohan and Hedgmon, mead and barrel-aged honey makers, respectively, also speak passionately about the importance of ecologically sensitive apiculture, using language that sounds very much like an artisanal winemaker talking about sustainable or organic viticulture. 

The benefits of such practices are multifold, and the stakes are high. Not only does sustainable apiculture make for the most terroir-driven honeys, but by encouraging their hives to develop natural defenses against predators such as mites, minimal-intervention beekeepers help strengthen the overall bee population, which is essential for the pollination of many food crops.

Rohan says she has noticed a marked uptick of interest in her locally sourced dry meads in recent years, as consumers have become more aware of endangered bee populations and the vital role that pollinators play. 

“I think it comes from two places,” she says. “The first place is the growth of the craft movement. People are interested in something that is transparent and natural. The other side is a growing awareness of what we are doing to our environment, and the fact that bees are a canary in the coal mine in a lot of ways.”

Consumers are increasingly educated, poised to purchase products because of personal interests that include nutritional and environmental concerns. At the same time, craft producers and mixologists are zeroing in on the profound ways in which the aromatics and flavors of honey can speak of a place of origin. Whether it’s rarefied meads, farm-to-bar cocktails, innovative farmhouse brewing techniques, or single-origin honeys redolent of spirits and mellowed by barrels—get ready for bees to break out in a big way this year.

Katherine Cole is the author of four books on wine, including Rosé All Day. She is also the executive producer and host of “The Four Top,” a James Beard Award–winning food-and-beverage podcast on NPR One.

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