Honey may be an old flavor, but it’s making a comeback in the world of spirits and has distillers abuzz, said panelists at the Tales of the Cocktail in New Orleans.
In a seminar called “Honey, I’m Home! The Old New Flavor,” panelists Sebastian Reaburn of Melbourne, Australia, Jacob Briars of New Zealand, and Lacy Hawkins, a Portland, Washington, beekeeper, discussed the distribution and production of honey, how bees make it, how it’s best used in cocktails and why mead (a fermented alcohol made with honey) is experiencing a comeback.
“Honey is like a taste in time,” Raeburn told the audience.
Presented by Dewar’s Scotch Whiskey, Drambuie and the National Honey Board, the seminar began with a history of honey, the oldest known sweetener, Raeburn said. It will keep forever if it is covered, and if not, the water in it will evaporate and it will ferment, he said. The sugar in honey inhibits the growth of mold, he said.
Among the oldest drinks using honey are mead, made with fermented honey; metheglin, a drink also made with alcohol (ideally mead), ginger and spice; wassail, usually made with ale, cream, cider, honey, spices; atholl brose, the Scottish drink made with honey, porridge (oatmeal), cream, water and whiskey; and the toddy, made with whiskey, honey and water.
The panelists also offered an explanation of what honey is. “Honey is simply bee vomit, or is it?” said Hawkins. “The foraging bee gathers nectar and stores it in its honey stomach, which is part of its nutritional system, not its digestive system.” It takes the honey to the hive where a “house bee” takes the nectar and regurgitates the honey into a cell in the comb.
Reaburn said nectar is sucrose, or table sugar, plus water. The bees add an enzyme and dehydrate the honey by fanning the honey with their wings. They reduce the honey from 80 percent water to 17-18 percent water.
“We still haven’t been able to identify what that enzyme is,” he said. Although the enzyme is not fully understood, it allows honey to remain safe to use years after it is harvested, he added.
Weather, location, the beekeeper and the queen bee are factors that affect honey’s taste, Hawkins said.
“Bees can’t fly when it rains or the temperature is less than 55 degrees,” Reaburn noted. “They only travel 2-5 miles.”
As seminar participants tasted various honeys, Briars pointed out “no other product has so distinctive a terroir (the unique qualities imparted to food in terms like geography and climate) in the same area.” One honey tasted of honeysuckle, nectarine and lychee while a dark, thick honey he called a forest blend tasted more of prunes, chocolate and orange. “Darker honeys have more tannins and crystallized molecules, he said.
Honey has natural antibacterial qualities, but the seventh honey tasted, manuka honey, is “the healthiest honey in the world,” Briars claimed. Medical-grade, “unique manuka factor” honey, produced by bees that pollinate New Zealand’s manuka bush, is used to treat burns and wound infections.
“One of the biggest issues is the future of honey,” Briars said when the panelists discussed the collapse of bee colonies. “Think bee mite, a high fungal load and insecticides” as possible causes of the loss of many bee colonies, Reaburn said.
“Honey is a by-product of pollination,” which agriculture depends on to feed the world. “Within five years the food industry could collapse” if the bee colony collapse isn’t reversed or programmable robotic pollination isn’t perfected, Briars said.
There’s a honey whiskey revolution going on, he said, with customers snapping up distilled spirits flavored with honey. For example, Dewar’s Highlander Honey features blended Scotch and honey, and Bushmill’s Irish Honey includes Irish honey and other natural flavors, but the “hardest problem is remaining true to the barrel,” Briars said. Drambuie, a liqueur made from malt whiskey, “a fine whack of honey,” herbs and spice, is the official drink of Antartica, he said.
Comb White is not a flavored spirit, but a vodka distilled from a local orange blossom honey that is fermented and pot distilled. Barenjager, a liqueur also called Barenfang (bear hunter), made from a 15th century Prussian recipe, is often made at home in Germany using a neutral spirit and honey spices.
The panelists also discussed a number of honey-flavored cocktails and their flavor compounds. Honey is a complex flavor, and unlike a simple syrup made with sugar, honey syrup needs to be made every day, they told the bartenders in the audience. They recommended at least two parts honey to one part water.
For further information on honey, go to the National Honey Board’s website, honey.com.