Amidst murmurs of conversation, ice rattling in shakers and people gathered around drink stations, a half dozen lady bartenders mixed drinks at Proof+Gauge, a tasting room and cocktail bar in Long Island City on Monday.
The six women competed to be the Queen Bee at the third annual Queen Bee Cocktail Classic. The event highlights the versatility of honey in alcoholic drinks and kicked off New York City Honey Week’s slate of events. The weeklong affair is meant to start a conversation about honey, beekeeping in the city and community building.
Beekeeping was legalized in New York City in 2010 and a year later the New York Honey Fest was launched as a one-day event. After three years, Honey Fest expanded to a weeklong celebration with the Queen Bee Cocktail Classic as one of its major events. The point: to make people aware of bees and how they make honey. As of 2014, there are around 300 registered beehives, according to the NYC Health Department, most of which are located on building rooftops scattered around the city.
“Spirits are an agricultural product just like food and we want to encourage folks to think about how their drinking choices affect the bee-cosystem, as we call it,” said Anastasia Cole Plakias, one of the producers of NYC Honey Week. “Honey is just a really incredible ingredient to play around with when making cocktails so we thought that it was a perfect fit.”
Rather than having a competition, the organizers decided to call the event a cocktail classic to celebrate the work of each of the bartenders. And to see what drinks they can come up with using locally made Queens Courage Old Tom Gin, a type of sweetened gin.
“It’s really about working together as the bees do for a greater good,” said Plakias. “It’s a great opportunity for everybody to come together and play around with a product that we all feel good about.”
The women bartenders come from the all over the city, and spent as much as two days working on their drink recipes. The ladies’ concoctions had to showcase honey and Queens Courage gin, source local ingredients, and of course, look and taste good.
This year’s Queen Bee was awarded to Laura Gardner and her Hoppy Honey cocktail. Gardner, who brews beer at home, set out to incorporate hops into a cocktail by making a hop honey syrup out of honey, water and freeze dried hop flowers. Aside from that she added hop bitters and garnished her drink with a hop flower.
“Bitters go really well with gin,” said Gardner, who has been bartending for over 10 years. “And hops are bitter so I wanted to see how it would work with Queens Courage gin.”
Garner used muddled ginger, local honey and New York State Dry Cider to cover the local ingredients requirement. She also thought about what was in season such as apples. The cocktail tasted like beer but sweeter and not as bitter while the hard apple cider rounded out the flavor and gave the drink a nice fizz.
“I want them (customers) to taste the seasons of fall,” said Gardner who works at The Hop Shoppe on Staten Island. “I want them to think of New York and all the great resources we have here – honey, apples, even gin.”
The other winner of the night was for the people’s choice award. The Buzzed Fan Favorite went to Hayley Traub and her drink, Yaasskween. The cocktail’s ingredients include pear puree, lavender, lemon, Queens Courage gin and a pistachio orgeat, a sweetened pistachio milk. The orgeat gave the drink a creamy texture that made the Yaasskween stand out from the rest of the cocktails.
“The gin gave me a lot of inspiration and so many ideas came to me,” said Traub, who is the bar manager at Butter & Scotch in Brooklyn. “And also this idea of just using local ingredients – I had a lot of fun going through the farmers market and what can I play with.”
And just like bees who work together to make honey, last year’s winner Jena Ellenwood worked with NYC Honey Week to host the event at Proof+Gauge, which she manages.
“Astoria Distilling Company also generously offered to front the gin, and Queens Courage is made with local honey,” said Ellenwood. “I also wanted to use it (the cocktail classic) as a platform to involve other women bartenders, get the word out about Honey Week and our gin.”
The NYC Honey Week continues until Sunday with different events throughout the city. Anastasia Cole Plakias and the rest of the organizers hope that people will think about how eating and drinking sustainably can affect our lives as well as honeybees.
“We hope that this week can be a metaphor for the larger work that we as urban farmers, as beekeepers, as folks who care about how our food, is affecting our ecosystem,” said Plakias.