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When I moved to Northern California, my long-dormant allergies started acting up again. I blame the trees and flowers. Damn those beautiful, pollen-spewing bastards! Everyone said that eating local honey would stop the sneezing, so I went on an epic honey-shopping spree. I was naively surprised that there's so much more out there than the honey that comes in the squeezy bear. Wildflower honey, orange blossom honey, eucalyptus honey, starthistle honey, and the list goes on—and each variety tastes distinct.
As is my tendency, I overdid it on the honey shopping and needed to find some creative ways to use up my apocalypse-level stash of honeys. Naturally, that meant one thing—honey cocktails! The rich and funky flavor of honey inspired mixing creativity and turned the old drink standbys into exciting and exotic concoctions.
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Of the commercial honey liqueurs I've tried, Bärenjäger not only has the most umlauts but it also has the purest honey flavor. It's made with a neutral spirit, so what you get is sweet honey with an alcoholic kick. Most well-stocked liquor stores carry it for about $25 or $30.
But there are also a number of trendy honey-whiskey combinations on the liquor store shelves. And you know what? Every single one I've tried is pretty good. Wild Turkey American Honey, Evan Williams Honey Reserve, Celtic Honey, Bushmill Irish Honey, Jack Daniels Tennessee Honey, and Bärenjäger Honey Bourbon are among your options for about $15-$20. (Drambuie is made with honey and Scotch, but other flavors are involved, so I don't think of it in the same way as these others.)
Making your own honey liqueur is dead simple. You don't have to do anything but heat the honey with some water and then mix it with vodka. I like to let the liqueur sit overnight to ensure the flavors are totally integrated, but if you're truly impatient you can use it right away. As much as I love Bärenjäger, when I compared it side-by-side I liked the homemade stuff just as much and it was a hell of a lot cheaper. While I'm pretty sure the store-bought stuff is made with high-quality ingredients, I know for a fact that mine is made with pure, raw local honey. That type of artisan, locavore fanciness usually goes for a premium.
Honey varies so much depending on region and which type of flower the nectar came from, so it's possible to make several batches of honey liqueur that all taste entirely different. A little fun with fractions and you can increase the recipe to make a large batch or reduce it to make a small one. I like to make several batches using different varieties of honey.
Clover honey is the most common and least expensive, but it's also the most mild. When I use a mild honey, adding a little orange zest and cinnamon gives the liqueur an extra layer of flavor. But really anything you think tastes good with honey, such as lemon zest, vanilla, chamomile, or anise, could do that job. With bolder honey, I usually skip the extra ingredients. For example, blackberry and lavender honeys have a strong floral taste and a much richer sweetness, so additional flavors would just get in the way.
If you want to do the whiskey plus honey thing, start off with a smaller amount of honey syrup and taste the blend until you've got it right. Since whiskey has a lot of its own flavors and sweetness, taste the whiskey and honey together before mixing to see if they're a good match.
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Honey and tea are natural companions. Splashing a little DIY honey liqueur in any tea, hot or iced, gives you a no-effort brunch drink or evening wind-down cocktail. The Herbaliser is a lovely hot-tea cocktail that uses chamomile tea, elderflower liqueur, and lemon along with honey liqueur. (Honey liqueur, iced tea, and lemonade makes for a tasty spiked Arnold Palmer.)
For killer sangria, try mixing peaches, nectarines, honey liqueur, and white wine. Use sparkling wine and a dash of orange bitters, and it's a party.
With a little tasting and tweaking, using honey liqueur instead of simple syrup in Daiquiris, Mojitos, Whiskey Sours, Mint Juleps, and other classics added a whole new set of drinks to my cocktail repertoire. (I usually start by using half as much liqueur as I would simple syrup and reducing the amount of spirit by about a quarter ounce and then working my way up from there by taste.)
Any dessert that would taste good with honey could benefit from a little honey liqueur—pour it over fruit and vanilla ice cream, drizzle it on top of tarts, or use it as a glaze. Cook some cherries in it and either snack on them or use them to garnish your drinks.
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