For the better part of two centuries, sugar has been the primary conduit of sweetness in cocktails, often in the form of the aptly named simple syrup or dissolved in a cocktail shaker.
Modern bartenders have shaken up the mix in recent years with alternatives like maple or agave syrup, jams and complex custom concoctions. But there is one oft- overlooked supporting player that’s been in the mixologist’s arsenal for generations, and it sits in most home pantries: honey.
“It’s so buttery,” said Tiffanie Barriere, an Atlanta-based bartender and consultant. “It’s my preferred sweetener. If I could put it in every cocktail, I would.”
Honey or honey syrup — an easy-to-make blend of honey and water — doesn’t have a home-run drink to its name as famous as the Old-Fashioned or the margarita. But it has scored a steady stream of barroom base hits: the Bee’s Knees, a honeyed, Prohibition-era gin sour; the Brown Derby, a mixture of honey, bourbon and grapefruit juice, named after the famous Los Angeles restaurant of the same name; and the Air Mail, a honeyed daiquiri topped with Champagne from the 1940s.
There are a few modern- day classics. In the early aughts, the Gold Rush, a whiskey sour that uses honey instead of sugar, was a crowd- pleaser the moment it was first served at Milk & Honey, the famed speak-easy in New York City. The Penicillin, another Milk & Honey whiskey drink, this one made with ginger- honey syrup, is even more popular at bars worldwide.
Stephen Bielawski, beverage director at Sunken Harbor Club in Brooklyn, makes a honey syrup flavored with two types of teas and various spices. For his English Armada, he combines the syrup with four rums and lime and grapefruit juices.
Bielawski said honey is more effective than sugar at taming strong flavors. “I always found honey to be really good at holding onto flavors like tea and baking spices,” he said.
Unlike sugar, which can hide itself inside a cocktail, honey keeps a bartender honest, he said. “If there’s too much, the biggest flavor that jumps out of the drink is honey.”
Honey has arguably found its steadiest home in tiki bars. Dozens of drinks created during their mid-20th-century heyday employed honey, including creations like the Navy Grog, Missionary’s Downfall and Rum Barrel.
According to Jeff Berry, a tiki historian and owner of the bar Latitude 29 in New Orleans, this can be credited to Donn Beach, owner of the famous 1930s bar Don the Beachcomber in Los Angeles. Beach was a big fan of honey-laced rum drinks, and because many bars copied his cocktails, that taste for honey proliferated.
“It adds a viscosity and a teasingly elusive flavor, if you’re not used to it,” Berry said. “If you make a daiquiri with honey syrup instead of simple syrup, it’s another level of flavor.”
Sugar, he said, can’t compete in terms of personality: “Simple syrup is just neutral sweetness.”
- 2 ounces bourbon
- 3/4 ounce fresh lemon juice
- 3/4 ounce honey syrup (see note)
Fill a cocktail shaker halfway with ice. Add bourbon, lemon juice and honey syrup; shake until chilled, about 15 seconds.
Strain into a rocks glass filled with one large ice cube. Makes 1 drink, plus additional honey syrup.
>> To make honey syrup: Combine 3 ounces honey and 1 ounce warm water in jar; cover and shake until combined. Makes 1/2 cup, and will keep at room temperature for a week.