At some point in 2016, an increasing number of bartenders started to shelve boring simple syrup and incorporate the sticky sweetness of honey into their craft cocktails. The rich viscosity of the sweet nectar mixed with the natural flavor of the substance makes honey more powerful than sugar and gives drinks certain flavors that work really well with booze. At least, that’s what many bartenders think as they jump on the trend.
“Honey is a time traveler with a provenance older than spirits, distillation or the cocktail itself,” says Nick Korbee, the executive chef and beverage director at Egg Shop in New York City. “Using honey in modern cocktail mixing is a simple way to coax the rich organic history of flavor from even the most rarified fire water.”
“I love using honey due to the fact that it adds actual flavor and sweetness to a cocktail, unlike simple syrup that strictly adds a sweetness,” says Brett Esler of industrial-chic Whisler’s in Austin. “If I walk into a craft cocktail bar anywhere in the U.S., or the world for that matter, I’d be fairly shocked if they didn’t carry a honey syrup at all times.”
Esler isn’t far off. After perusing menus from bars all across the country, it’s clear honey has made a mark at dozens of establishments including barmini by José Andrés in Washington, D.C., Spiaggia in Chicago, The Third Man in New York City, Hugh Acheson’s 5&10 in Athens, Ga., and Trick Dog in San Francisco, to name a few. At these places, you can find drinks featuring honey melding with mezcal and passion fruit, pear and sparkling wine, and green Chartreuse with cucumber.
But not only does this golden nectar sound cooler on the menu, it imparts a very unique flavor to a drink—something that changes depending on what type of honey you are using. “Try substituting wildflower or buckwheat honey stirred with a little warm water,” says Korbee. “Mixing with honey is also a super easy way to ditch the simple syrup for good.”
At Whisler’s, Esler uses the sweet stuff in drinks including strong spirit-forward cocktails, citrusy, refreshing drinks and classics such as the Brown Derby. Behind the bar, he mainly uses clover honey but enjoys playing with different varieties he finds at the farmers’ market. For him, honey is part of the natural evolution in the bar world and one he sees continuing.
Another clear case of honey love is buzzing around Todd English’s first cocktail-focused concept, The Stinger Cocktail Bar and Kitchen in the InterContinental New York Times Square Hotel. Heading the program is Francesco Lafranconi, who as a child warmed himself in northern Italy by drinking chamomile tea with honey, a beverage that not only brings him nostalgia for those wintery nights but helped fuel his love affair with the golden nectar.
“Honey is one of the most beautiful and healthy ingredients and foods to man and can bring a viscosity that rounds off the heat of a high-proof spirit,” says Lafranconi. “If you’re tasting chestnut honey, which is very popular in Italy, it’s a beautiful, intense, rich and dark honey, and if you compare it to a clover honey, there’s a tremendous difference.”
Lafranconi loves to play with different types of honey (he covets the expensive white kiawe honey, a thicker honey that the bartender says is fantastic in cocktails) and now has the unique opportunity to really get into the stuff by utilizing the hotel’s rooftop beehives in his creations. At the NYC bar, you’ll find the Stinger, made with Grey Goose Le Citron vodka, yellow Chartreuse and fresh lemon juice and finished with house-made mead foam and fresh honeycombs. They also have the Bee Good, a drink made with Langley’s No.8 gin and the mead. As a bonus, when you order this cocktail, the hotel donates to The Best Bees Company and Urban Beekeeping Laboratory and Bee Sanctuary to help fund research to protect bees and, hence, keep the honey flowing.
Rum and honey are two of Lafranconi’s favorite combinations. And while he finds inspiration to recreate Tiki drinks with honey, some classic and well-known cocktails also list honey as part of the original recipes. For example, the Bee’s Knees, a gin, lemon and honey mixture that dates back to the Prohibition era, as well as the similar Bebbo cocktail, which adds a dash of orange juice to the recipe. In the last decade, Sam Ross’ Penicillin cocktail has helped to highlight honey as a prized ingredient, and to much fanfare, T.J. Siegal recreated the Whiskey Sour with honey and dubbed it the Gold Rush. Overall, while honey isn’t a brand new component to the bar world, it’s nice to see it buzzing around the ingredient list more and more as long as there are bees enough to provide it.
Korbee uses honey in his Tequila Honey Bee, with a touch of smokiness thanks to a mezcal wash, which goes brilliantly with the sweet nectar and tart lemon.
Esler adds honey to his Fallen Leaf, a creative take on the Hot Toddy. It gets a nice spice from ginger liqueur, a round sweetness from house-made honey syrup and plenty of spice from cinnamon and allspice. Keep in mind this tipple proves strong, so it’s best to sip slowly.
Sexy and smooth, the Eau de Lavender by Patrón has a hint of lavender and a dash of sweet honey syrup. It’s spring in a cup, but since the floral flavors come from bitters, you can sip it all year round.
Pamela Wiznitzer of Seamstress in New York City thinks that if you have just one drink, you might as well Make It Count. This lovely red-hued cocktail takes the bitterness of Campari and mellows it out with a little honey syrup and sweet blood orange. It gets a little sparkle from soda water and proves perfectly refreshing on hot day or as an after-dinner treat.