When the 2011 Labor Day wildfires roared through Spicewood, engulfing land and homes around the Pedernales River, Taylor and Casie Hall weren’t just worried they’d lose their house — the beehive they kept behind it was just as precious.
The local fire department was able to save both. The honey the couple later harvested from their bees, they noticed, had a noticeable smoky flavor, in part because smoke and soot remained on the nearby plants.
That was a particularly distinctive batch of honey, Casie Hall recalls. Another memorable harvest took place at the end of last year in the young apiary of the Halls’ new restaurant, Apis, which opened early last month. Thanks to September and October’s heavy rains and a subsequent bloom of wildflowers, the fine dining establishment on Texas 71 received an unexpected 400 pounds of honey from the 20 hives that are spread out on a grassy stretch of Apis’ six acres.
The Halls are making honey and the nearby bees that create it the focal point of their new dining project, with honey an ingredient in many of the dishes and drinks on the menu and honeycomb inlay on the tables and ceiling. They’ve tapped into the burgeoning recognition that in cocktails, at least, honey is a healthier sweetener than some of the others out there, and it adds a layer of complexity that most sweeteners don’t.
Among those noticing honey’s benefits is William Grant & Sons brand ambassador Charlotte Voissey, who says she attended a conference last year put on by the National Honey Board to let the beverage industry learn about honey’s uses and versatility.
It was enlightening, she says. “A lot of crude people would say honey is simply bee vomit, but I’m not that crass,” she says.
“Honey is a beautiful, natural product.”
Because there are more than 300 varietals available in the U.S. — this part of Texas will see a lot of mesquite or wildflower versions because that’s what the bees tend to pollinate here — bartenders have a lot of to work with, Voissey says. “The darker the varietal, the stronger and more robust the flavor,” she says. “Did you know some honey can be really thick, with rich molasses and malt flavors?”
At Apis, the honey this spring will derive from mesquite blossoms, giving it an earthy and assertive taste, Casie Hall says. She expects about a ton of honey each year from the restaurant’s bees, though each batch will vary substantially in taste depending on the season and what’s in bloom. And once a planned garden in between the restaurant and the apiary starts sprouting herbs and vegetables, the honey will no doubt reflect those flavors as well.
Apis’ beverage director Jose Luis Sapien looks forward to having such a variety of honey to incorporate into his cocktails, although only three of the nine drinks on his menu feature honey as an ingredient, a decision he made for the sake of balance.
“I love raw honey, but it does get sweet pretty quick, especially with certain drinks,” he says while talking about one of the cocktails, the sparkling wine-based Queen’s Nectar. “I didn’t want it to be overwhelming. I want you to say, ‘OK, I do get a little bit of honey, but I also get some grapefruit and herbs.’ And the bubbles are just to make you happy.”
A deep golden color, the Queen’s Nectar is so named, he says, because “it looks like the best version of their honey.”
He also makes the Apiary with honeycomb-infused Herman Marshall bourbon (the honeycomb isn’t quite as sweet as honey) and the Hill Country with Tito’s Vodka and a honey syrup. Tellingly, they are Apis’ most ordered cocktails, he says.
Classic cocktails that have always added honey — in syrup form because it’s too thick to mix in its natural state — include the bourbon-based Brown Derby and the gin-based Bee’s Knees, but bartenders like Sapien are creating more original concoctions than ever before to capture honey’s sweet complement. “Honey is the fastest growing new flavor,” Voissey says.
She recommends using a lighter honey when pairing with a less assertive alcohol base like vodka, gin or champagne and a bolder honey for the darker spirits that can stand up to it. Common honey varietals like clover and orange blossom will be more floral, while buckwheat honey is rich enough to be a maple syrup replacement.
And a varietal called bluebonnet honey simply doesn’t exist, Casie Hall says. “That’s a myth — bees are actually color blind to that blue color,” she says. “They go for reds and oranges. Lantana, brown-eyed Susans, Indian paintbrush.”
She and her husband both know a lot about bees and honey after having kept a personal hive at their home since 2009, when Taylor Hall read an article about colony collapse disorder. Deeply shaken upon learning how much bees contribute to our food cycle, he then attended a Round Rock Honey beekeeping class.
“He instantly fell in love with it,” she says. “The way he talks about the experience, how the whole ground is vibrating when they first open the hives. It’s this life force.”
Put a little honey in it
Honey simple syrup
4 parts honey
1 part hot water
Heat honey and water gently in a saucepan over medium-low heat until the mixture reaches a simmer. Remove from heat and cool.
Store at room temperature or refrigerate as desired.
1 1/2 oz. Bulleit Rye
1/2 oz. honey syrup
1/2 oz. allspice dram
1/2 oz. lemon juice
Combine all ingredients into a cocktail shaker and fill with ice. Shake well and strain into chilled cocktail glass.
— Adapted from the Hightower’s Robin Ozaki
Lavender Honey Cream
1 1/2 oz. vodka
1 oz. organic heavy cream
1 oz. organic egg white
1 oz. honey syrup (made from lavender honey if you can find it)
Add all ingredients over ice in a shaker, egg white last. Shake gently for 30 seconds to make a thick, creamy cocktail. Strain into a chilled martini glass and garnish with lavender.
— Adapted from H. Ehrmann in “A Guide to Honey Cocktails”
The Queen’s Nectar
1/2 oz. Amaro Averna
2 oz. fresh Ruby Red grapefruit juice
3 dashes Peychaud bitters
2 spoonfuls honey syrup
Add the Amaro, grapefruit juice, honey syrup and bitters into a champagne flute. Top with sparkling wine. Garnish with a grapefruit twist.
— Apis Restaurant & Apiary’s Jose Luis Sapien