Bartenders Are the New Beekeepers

One of the most ambitious trends in environmentally friendly bartending has a living, breathing mascot: the honey bee. Over the past few years, bars have gone hyper-local with this natural sweetener, installing beehives on their roofs and training staff to harvest the honey. This has encouraged not only environmentally sound cocktail-making, but also a slew of playful drinks made with the bars’ own honey in place of sugar. Here, everything you need to know about the country’s best bee-loving bars.

The New Kid

The latest New York City bar to employ its own small army of rooftop bees is The Stinger Cocktail Bar & Kitchen, located in the InterContinental New York Times Square Hotel. It’s the first cocktail-centric venture by James Beard award-winning chef Todd English. Though the hotel has owned beehives for the last four years, it only began incorporating the honey harvest into its offerings when The Stinger opened in October.

The kitchen serves dishes like truffled honey shrimp dumplings and honey grilled shrimp, while the cocktail program, dreamt up by Francesco Lafranconi, executive director of mixology and spirits education for Southern Wine & Spirits, creates inventive drinks with everything from simple honey syrups to more labor intensive ingredients like foams, mead and honey candy. The bar’s signature cocktail, The Stinger (pictured below), is topped with a foam made with dry sparkling mead (the bar’s only outsourced honey product), egg whites, their own honey and fresh lemon.

Courtesy of Noah Fecks

“We put all of that into a foamer, inject CO2 and convert that into a very fluffy foam,” says Dalio Calado, the bar’s assistant food and beverage director. The cocktail itself is made with citrus vodka, lemon juice and egg white.

All of the beekeeping and biannual honey harvesting is done in-house. Though only one of the chefs is currently a certified beekeeper, plans are in the works to make sure that every chef is certified before the addition of two more hives on the hotel’s rooftop this spring. That will give the bar a total of four hives, which are harvested in the spring and autumn, and a modest 80,000-plus bees. Calado notes that the honey is slightly different with each yearly harvest. While the spring honey is lighter in color and more floral, the autumn honey is richer in both color and flavor.

With The Stinger’s hive expansion, the bar will also expand its honey offerings with its upcoming spring menu launching in March. It aims to include some form of the ingredient in 50 percent of the cocktails and punches on its menu—a first for any beekeeping bar. Aside from experimenting with wacky ways to prepare honey, like dehydration, Calado is excited for the opportunity to pair honey with the season’s freshest offerings.

“Mentally people have this concept that honey is associated with fall and winter, but it actually showcases really well in the spring, mixed with fresh fruit and fresh herbs,” he says.

The Stinger’s honey program not only provides customers with delicious drinks, but it also gives back to the community: The bar donates $1 from each drink that uses the bar’s honey to the nonprofit Best Bees, which promotes bee health and education programs for local schools.

The Trendsetters

Courtesy of Waldorf Astoria Magazine

Though The Stinger may be the latest bar to take on this eco-friendly task in New York City—where urban beekeeping was only legalized in 2010—other craft cocktail bars across the country have been dabbling in apiculture for years. Executive chef and beekeeper Gavin Stephenson at The Fairmont Olympic Hotel in Seattle spearheaded the hotel’s rooftop apiary in 2008. Today, the hotel keeps an impressive 12 to 18 hives on its roof year-round.

“We produce anywhere from 150 to 400 pounds of honey at our peak yearly extraction,” says Jason Cairns, director of food and beverage at The Fairmont, adding that the output depends on how well the bees survive winter and the efforts of the staff to contain swarms and protect against colony collapse disorder. All that honey goes into making the bar’s signature sour-style drink, the Rooftop Lemon Drop—a blend of rooftop honey, lemon juice and vodka—as well as the Prohibition-era Bee’s Knees. Though the recipes are fairly standard, the resulting cocktails taste nothing like their counterparts made with store-bought honey.

“Raw honey in its most natural form does not go through the pasteurization process that most store-bought honey goes through,” says Cairns. “When you introduce heat to honey to pasteurize it, you destroy the nutrients and enzymes and antioxidants that occur naturally.”

Not long after Cairns got his program started, David Garcelon, director of culinary for The Waldorf Astoria New York, followed suit and was one of the first in New York to embrace the trend. He started the hotel’s beekeeping program in 2012 with six beehives and hundreds of thousands of bees, kept happy and healthy by the abundance of pollen-rich plants in nearby Central Park. The honey is used in various seasonal cocktails, including Peacock Alley’s current Leaves of Grass, which combines vodka with port, honey syrup and lemon juice. Following news of the bar and hotel’s impending renovation, however, the hives have since been moved to an undisclosed location.

The Polaris at the Hyatt Regency in Atlanta claims four hives that it rescued from an overturned truck traveling through rural Georgia in 2014 with the help of the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association. “Our bees are very special to us,” says Nikita Rochelle, restaurant manager at The Polaris. “Knowing that every element in the cocktail you are drinking is made and cultivated from scratch provides a sense of authenticity to our guests as well as pride for our team—value that you can’t get from buying honey.”

The bar’s hallmark honey drink is a Bee’s Knees made with Hayman’s Gin, their own honey and lemon juice. “Sometimes cocktails made with sugar can be overly sweet,” Rochelle says. “Our honey gives the perfect touch of sweetness that isn’t overbearing and is soothing to the palate.”

The Common Goal

While these beekeeping bartenders use their honey to create wildly different cocktails, they share a common sense of duty and responsibility to the bees. For many, that involves helping reverse the damage of colony collapse disorder and educating their employees and customers on the roles these small but vitally important creatures play.

“Bees have a tremendous impact on our ecosystem, so we wanted to embrace that very aggressively,” Calado says. “It’s a pleasure to be in a bar contributing to society in a very positive manner.”

Rochelle says the environmental impact of the bees is also an important factor for him and his team at The Polaris. “With millions of colonies being wiped due out to urbanization and pesticides, we are honored to do our part in being a positive, beneficial environmental driver for our community,” he says.

When it comes down to it, there’s no shortage of benefits to the blurring of bartender with beekeeper. The trend is a win-win-win for the environment, bars and customers. While local flora benefit from the bees and customers get to enjoy better drinks, bartenders get to take pride in their environmental impact and get to work with a quality ingredient they had a hand in creating. “It is simply the purest form of food straight from our rooftop,” says Cairns.