Mixing honey with water to make honey syrup (AKA honey water) makes it easy to pour, measure and integrate with other cocktail ingredients. This shouldn't be confused with honey sugar syrup which is either honey bulked up with sugar or just honey flavoured sugar syrup with little or no actual honey.
Properly stored natural honey will last years without any loss of flavour. Indeed, it can last for hundreds of years and remain entirely stable [see storing honey]. This impressive natural preservative-free shelf life is due to honey containing so little moisture that there is almost no free water for microbes and moulds to live on. Honey also has a low pH so is too acidic for most microbes. However, diluting with water upsets honey's natural sugar/water balance.
Honey sold in the UK must be a maximum of 20% water, and ideally it should be just 18% water. This is the natural level produced by bees when they concentrate flower nectars, which can be as much as 70% water, into honey as a winter food store for the colony. Honey with a water content of less than 20% is so concentrated that yeasts and bacteria are prevented from growing. Due to honey being hygroscopic, meaning it will absorb water from the air, there is no safe amount of water to add and even a small percentage of additional water may be enough to allow yeast and other microbes to grow and fermentation to start. [See fermenting honey].
Due to the above, you should only mix enough syrup to last a few days and ideally, you should store your syrup in a refrigerator.
Honey naturally consists
80% natural sugars (of which circa 70% is glucose and fructose)
2% pollen, minerals, vitamins and protein
How to make honey syrup
Raw honey sourced directly from a local beekeeper is preferable but, whatever your quality of honey, it's important not to 'cook' the honey whilst making syrup. Artisan honey producers are careful not to heat their honey to above the natural hive temperature, as above 36°C / 97°F honey starts to breakdown and lose delicate flavours. Sadly, this is not the case with supermarket 'honey' from large scale producers who heat their honey to pasteurise it and make easier to blend. These industrial honeys are less likely to ferment due to their natural yeasts being killed during pasteurisation. However, even these sterilised honeys will be susceptible to microbes in your kitchen or bar environment once water is added.
Given all the above, it's fair to assume that your honey, whether artisanal raw honey or supermarket 'honey', contains 18% to 20% water. Opinions on the proportion of water that should be added to this vary from 1:1 honey to water, to 2:1 and 3:1. I prefer and recommend 3 parts honey to 1 part water as this achieves the desired fluidity while retaining mouthfeel and viscosity.
I use raw honey from a local beekeeper, and I mix this in a chef's plastic squeeze bottle which is a convenient dispenser for the mixed syrup. I only make small batches of syrup that I'll use within a few days, either in cocktails or on my breakfast cereal. I also recommend balancing the bitter tannins in a mug of black tea with honey syrup. [Dick Bradsell drunk black tea balanced with honey.]
How to mix
To make a small quantity, I place the empty squeeze bottle on a set of scales and zero the scales. Then I pour in my desired amount of honey followed by 1/3 as much again (by weight) of water. If your honey is already warm and 'runny' and you use warm water then you probably won't need to heat further, just shake the squeeze bottle (with a finger covering open end) to encourage the two liquids to combine. Otherwise, apply gentle warmth by placing the squeeze bottle in a water bath and remember to keep this below 36°C / 97°F. Allow to cool and then refrigerate.
To make larger quantities, use a glass bowl in a pan of water over a hob or sous vide cooker with 3 parts honey to 1 part water and gently warm and stir to combine. Aim for 36°C/97°F max and be sure to keep below 40°C/104°F or you risk destroying desirable qualities in your honey.
Flavoured honey syrups
You can flavour honey syrup by infusing the honey with herbs, spices, citrus peel or other botanicals during the warming stage and then either strain out immediately or leave to infuse for a prolonged period before straining.
Due to the popularity of the Penicillin Cocktail, ginger honey syrup is by far the most popular flavoured honey syrup in bars, particularly in the USA and the UK.
To make honey & ginger syrup
- Peel and thinly slice 100 grams (3.5oz) of root ginger and place in a saucepan with 350ml (8.5oz) water.
- Bring to the boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes.
- Allow to cool and place in a sealed container and leave to steep in a refrigerator for 12 hours.
- Strain, to remove ginger pieces from the flavoured water, and place in a glass bowl in a pan of water over a hob or sous vide cooker with 340 grams (12oz) honey and gently warm and stir to combine honey and flavoured water.
- Bottle and store in a refrigerator.