Craft Spirits July 2021

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Montpelier, Vermont, whose portfolio includes Barr Hill Vodka, distilled from raw honey, and Barr Hill Gin, which includes honey as the only botanical other than juniper. “We think of our partnership with bees as just another way that we can extract the flavor of the region.” Bees gathering nectar in an orange grove in Florida are going to make an orange blossom honey that’s different from the one that they make from nectar gathered in essentially the same orange grove in California. The humidity in Florida and the relative lack thereof in California has considerable influence on the honey’s ultimate character. “Moisture has a lot to do with nectar,” Seiz explains. “And obviously in Florida you have a lot more moisture than you do in California.” That, combined with the soil, will play a significant role in the final product. “Is the soil rich in certain minerals, has it been a wet season, has it been a dry season?” Seiz notes. To be sure, the differences would be subtle, but people likely would be able to discern them if they’re tasting the two different orange blossom honeys side by side. It probably would be a bit harder to pick out in a distillate.

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Honeybees are very efficient creatures. The bees are going to fly to their nearest source of food and when that nectar’s depleted, they’re going to move on to the next closest area. “They’re not going to go over rows and rows of trees and go somewhere else—if it’s there, they’re going to get it,” Seiz says. They tend to stick to about a four-mile radius from a hive and throughout their very limited lifespan—only about four to six weeks—they fly a total of about 500 miles, having visited some 20,000 flowers. After that, their wings stop working and they die. The earliest evidence of bees can be traced back about 100 million years. Modern honeybees likely didn’t make it to North America until 1622—though fossil evidence says a now-extinct prehistoric breed of honeybee may have been here 14 million years ago. The main three bees in North America are European or Western, Africanized and Italian. The Italian variety, the National Honey Board says, tend to be easier to work with because they’re relatively docile.

The yeast requires additional nutrition when fermenting. Generally, honey has a pH of around 3.9, give or take, with gluconic contributing much of its acidity. Other acids present include acetic, butyric, citric and lactic, as well as a smaller amount of amino acids. The acidity contributes to honey’s stability, keeping wild yeast and bacteria at bay. You’re going to need a slightly higher pH for fermentation. To get it into the sweet-spot fermentation range of 4.7 to 5.4 pH, you’ll need to “feed” it with things like nitrogen, minerals and vitamins. “Honey has an inconsistent nutritional value,” says Christiansen. “If it’s not supplemented with [additional] nutritional supply, the yeast is just naturally going to be strained. If you don’t get the nutritional values correct, you just lose the wash’s ability to self-buffer. As its pH starts to reduce, you’ll see violent swings that lead to stress on the honey.” Randy Mann, co-founder of Up North Distillery in Post Falls, Idaho, will often add baking soda to get the pH in the proper zone. A 55-gallon drum of honey combined with around 280 gallons of water typically requires one package of Arm & Hammer baking soda, Mann notes. Up North’s Honey Spirits line includes a clear, unaged spirit distilled from 100% honey, as well as Barrel Finished Honey Spirits, aged for 1 to 2 years in American oak; Barrel Reserve Honey Spirits, aged for 2 to 3 years in American oak and Cask-Strength Single Barrel Honey Spirits. Honey’s character expresses itself whether it’s the substrate or a flavor Ingredient. For the best illustration of this assertion at work, compare the character of two different gins—one with honey as the base substrate for the spirit and the other, which uses honey as a botanical. The former is from Hatch Distilling in Egg Harbor, Wisconsin, with a 100% raw honey base, and the latter is the aforementioned Barr Hill Gin from Caledonia Spirits. “The base spirit [of Hatch Gin] is a neutral spirit distilled from honey and then they add juniper and spruce tips and that’s it,” says Seiz. “And it’s such a mind-blowingly good gin and an overall good product.” Seiz is equally effusive about Barr Hill Gin. “Barr Hill isn’t using [honey] as a distillate, but they’re using honey and juniper as the only two botanicals and it’s really an excellent use of honey because it really showcases what a flavorful [ingredient] honey is beyond sweetness.” ■