The science behind mixing honey into cocktails

You don't have to be an experienced bartender to get your guests buzzin'.
A honey-infused Bee's Knees cocktail on a white plate on a table next to a jar of honey, some lemons, and a honey dipper.
Honey, alcohol, and citrus work well together. Depositphotos

In Washington, D.C., a honey bee landed on a restaurant bar, creating quite a stir. But a man a few feet away, who was allergic to the insect’s sting, was not alarmed. This bee’s head and wings were metal, and its abdomen glass.

The bistro, Bresca, which means “honeycomb” in Catalan, likes to serve its riff on a Bee’s Knees cocktail in this bee-like vessel. And, to fit the theme, Bresca’s version swaps out simple syrup made of processed sugar and water for a syrup made entirely of honey and water. Unlike the sucrose-heavy simple syrups that many bartenders use in cocktails, honey is mostly fructose and glucose. Because fructose is sweeter than sucrose, honey goes a long way in a cocktail, and knowing how to use it is key to impressing your guests. 

Use different varieties of honey to your benefit

“Honey comes from thousands and thousands of varietals of plants,” says Juliana Rangel, associate professor of apiculture at Texas A&M’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “Each plant has its own unique [taste] profile that’s not found in [table] sugars.”

[Related: How to build a garden that’ll have pollinators buzzin’]

When you are familiar with the varieties of honey available to you, you can choose the perfect honey to complement the other ingredients in a cocktail. “Horsemint honey,” Rangel notes, which comes from a plant that grows wildly across central Texas and other areas, “would be a great complement to a minty beverage like mojitos because the honey itself has those components.” Rangel also explains that because honey naturally contains acids, it combines well with citrus fruits often used in cocktails. 

Work with honey’s texture, not against it 

Honey, unlike a simple syrup, imparts mouthfeel, texture, and aroma, says Chris Gerling, senior extension associate at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

“Because honey has this viscosity, this texture, and waxiness,” Gerling says, “it helps to soften and round out ethanol, which can be harsh. It can make the more strident parts of bitters… less aggressive.”

But because of honey’s thickness, it needs to be thinned out before it goes into a cocktail. At the urban apiary on the rooftop of the Hilton hotel in McLean, Virginia, the harvest goes to the kitchen and bar, where it’s mixed with equal parts warm water. This keeps it viscous and flavorful, but loose enough to be blended easily into a cocktail of whiskey, Cointreau, and muddled lemon slices so the oils from the skin can help round out the drink.

Actually, mind your beeswax

Bees work busily, visiting flowers and converting pollen and nectar in their stomachs to remove water and produce a simple sugar. A harvesting bee then passes this nectar to another bee that stores this sugar in the honeycomb, drying it out with their wings and capping it with beeswax. As it turns out, beeswax is another useful agricultural product and has its place around alcohol.

Bresca’s bartender works much like a bee. Not only is cocktail construction a busy process, but to infuse the right flavors into the drink, the bartender must move it from vessel to vessel, aging it in beeswax for nine days before it goes into the metal and glass bee.

Storing a cocktail in a jar with a beeswax-coated interior is a lot like putting wine into an oak barrel, Gerling explains. “Alcohol is a solvent. It’s extracting properties from the beeswax.”

Hawksmoor in New York City goes as far as infusing whiskey with melted beeswax harvested from Manhattan rooftops to make their Night Nurse cocktail. After time in the refrigerator, the bartender skims off all that rises to the surface—about a quarter of the initial wax. It’s the same process as fat-washing a cocktail, and the melted beeswax imparts floral flavors and a creamy mouth-feel. Hawksmoor also acid-adjusts their honey with malic acid from apples and citric acid for a cleaner taste.

[Related: 5 ways to keep bees buzzing that don’t require a hive]

While Rangel says beeswax can add an earthy and floral taste to a cocktail, she is less keen on aging alcohol in beeswax. Alcohol will degrade the wax particles, she says, resulting in leaching. And because bees visit agricultural crops and can carry pesticides on their bodies, those chemicals get imparted into the beeswax, giving it a chemical residue.

But it’s no different than eating a salad without the organic label stamped on the bag. And it’s probably no worse than the alcohol itself.

“In urban environments,” Rangel notes, “the pesticides are actually less.”