Honey brings more than sweetness to cocktails. Here’s how to use it.

March 19, 2024

Humans have been hoisting honey from beehives for at least 8,000 years and, in English at least, appropriating the bees’ bounty as a nickname for their sweethearts since the 1300s. Referring to one’s beloved with terms related to sweetness is a fairly global trend, but crystallized sugar hasn’t been widely (or affordably) available for anywhere near as long as honey — and the language of endearment reflects that: “Sugar” as an affectionate nickname only seems to have come widely into use in the 20th century.

I’ll leave it to others to delve more deeply into just how a substance that bees process in their stomachs and regurgitate became such a widespread term of affection, with honeybunnies going on honeymoons to produce little Honey Boo Boos and later, be tasked with honey-do lists. Suffice it to say: We’re a species that wants some sugar in our bowl, in whatever form we can get it.

But I’m just here for the drinks. And as St. Valentine was the patron saint of both lovers and beekeepers, this month seemed a good one to delve into honey with yours. (By the way, St. Valentine is also the patron saint of fainting and epilepsy, but those are a little tricky to add to a drink, though I’m sure some mustachioed hipster behind an unmarked door in the Village during the early aughts probably gave it a shot.)

now consumed out of ironic drinking horns and paired with anachronistic vape pens at countless Renaissance fairs, was made and quaffed thousands of years B.C. It was beloved in ancient Greece, associated with the ambrosia consumed by the gods, and in De Re Coquinaria, a collection of Roman recipes thought to date to the 5th century or earlier, a beverage described as a refresher for travelers involves mixing pepper-spiced honey with wine. Honey has antimicrobial properties (specifically, an enzyme that breaks down into hydrogen peroxide), which may be part of why it’s been used so much in folk medicine over the centuries, and why it’s remained one of the most consistent ingredients in recipes for the purportedly cold-vanquishing.

Drinkmakers in the modern era have retained their appreciation for honey as a flavor, even if they’re less likely to pour it on battle wounds. In the early 20th century, the (gin, honey, lemon) and the (bourbon, grapefruit, honey) made their mark, and the former is still a regular at many bars today. In the tiki world, honey sweetens the lime and other citruses in drinks like the and. And in the 21st century, honey’s lent its specific funky sweetness to several modern classics including the (bourbon, lemon, honey) and the (where Sam Ross baroqued up the approach by adding ginger to the honey and a touch of smoke via Islay Scotch whisky).

You’ll note a commonality across these diverse drinks: Honey and citrus — like those couples still googly-eyed over each other after decades together — seem to have been made for each other.

In cocktails, sweetness is most often obtained with simple syrup, made with white sugar and water. White sugar brings little to the palate except sweetness, making simple syrup a neutral and hugely versatile ingredient. But honey, along with its glorious amber hue, brings some funk (from the specific chemical junk in the bee’s trunk) and retains aromas and flavors from the plants those bees were getting busy with. Those botanical notes can complement the citrus in more complex ways. “You complete me,” citrus says. “Shut up,” says honey. “You had me at ‘hello.’”

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Most of the classic cocktails you can make with honey require nothing more exotic than the clover honey you can grab from the supermarket, but are well worth exploring. Compare, for example, the depth and nuttiness of darker buckwheat and chestnut honeys, which are particularly well paired with aged spirits. And of course, as with simple syrup, you can infuse honey with fruits, herbs and spices.

For cocktail newbies interested in making honey-sweetened drinks, here’s the most important thing to remember: While TSA considers that fancy chestnut honey you bought in Rome a liquid, your cocktail definitely does not. Just ask anyone (and by anyone, I mean me 20 years ago) who’s tried to whip up some sexy cocktails by squeezing a measure of honey into a cocktail shaker, adding booze, lemon and ice and shaking that up.

What I got was not a beautiful balanced cocktail, but lots of cold, sour froth foaming around a gummy ball of hardened goo, vaguely resembling the talking ball of mucus in the Mucinex commercials. I don’t generally consider myself qualified to offer advice to the lovelorn, but one thing I can say with confidence: You don’t want to add Mr. Mucus to your throuple.

To incorporate honey smoothly into your drinks (the cold ones, at least—hot toddies are more welcoming!), make it more affable by adding water, turning it into what’s usually referred to as honey syrup (or “runny hunny” by Winnie the Pooh cosplayers). I like a 2:1 ratio. If I’m being nerdishly exact, I will measure out one cup of honey to half a cup of water in a saucepan and bring them briefly to a bubble, stirring till everything’s incorporated and smooth. But honey is gooey enough to make scraping out the measuring cup an annoyance, so I often slide with an easy hack: I buy a standard plastic honey bear, squeeze out just enough to empty its ursine noggin, fill that headspace up with hot-but-not-boiling water (aim for about 180 degrees), then shake that up till it’s combined into a cocktail-friendly syrup that will store in the fridge for weeks.

I wanted to make a new honey-based cocktail for Valentine’s Day, but I wanted something on the dark side, that felt at home in the bleak midwinter. Along with honey, I threw two other hubba-hubba ingredients, strawberries and chocolate, into the mix. You make a quick strawberry honey syrup (delicious over vanilla ice cream if you have leftovers you don’t want to use in other drinks), and add chocolate bitters. The drink’s sweetness is balanced out by a little hit of acid from balsamic vinegar. Odd, I know, but don’t knock it till you try it: There’s, and balsamic pairs especially well with strawberries. The half teaspoon you add here is just enough to provide balance and bring out unexpected flavors.

With all due respect to Shakespeare, I don’t think a rose called a “stabby smellweed” would have the same appeal. Ditto a cocktail called Bee Barf, so I gave this one a more palatable name. Enjoy the in sweet company, and if you do, don’t thank me, thank a bee.

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