You won’t find spirits inside the bourbon and whiskey barrels at Sugar Hill Berry Farm, but fresh-from-the-farm honey.
Jerry Hill, owner at the family-owned farm in Murrayville with his wife, Sherry, and son, Drew, is trying his hand at a couple of flavored honeys after giving it a test run last year with a beekeeper friend. Come Thanksgiving, he’ll have bourbon barrel sourwood honey as well as a rye whiskey barrel orange blossom honey for sale.
“We buy the barrels from a distillery,” Hill said. “They've been used, but there's no alcohol, no liquor in them. The wood contains the bourbon flavor in there.”
The honey comes straight from his farm — some honey comes from his friend Jim Walters’ bees, too — and goes straight into the barrels he bought from ASW Distillery in Atlanta.
After the honey has been sitting in the barrels for about three months, Hill will start to give out jars to everyone who has reserved one. He said he’ll have about 100 one-pound jars of each flavor available for $20 per pound. They can be reserved through Facebook or by calling 770-540-6952.
The honey can’t age in just any old barrel, though. Hill said he has to get wet barrels.
“You have to find the barrels freshly poured, because they'll shrink as they dry out and they'll leak,” Hill said. “So you have to put the honey in a freshly emptied barrel, that way the wood is still nice and firm and there’s no worries of leaks.”
Then comes another important part: the barrels have to be rotated every few days to make sure the inside of the barrel stays coated with honey. That’s how the honey gets all of its flavor.
Honey is hygroscopic, so it “sucks things to itself,” Hill said.
“It pulls the flavors out of the wood,” he added.
After a few months of rotating and taste testing, Hill said he has to dry the honey in a room with a dehydrator. Since honey attracts moisture, it has to be dried to a certain point to make sure it’s the right consistency and doesn’t sour.
Once it’s been dried, it’s time for bottling.
Hill said he has about 80 bottles of bourbon barrel sourwood honey reserved so far.
“There's a great demand for it, especially with men,” Hill said. “You can taste a good, strong bourbon flavor to it.”
The flavored honey is a great choice as a glaze for meats, he said. And there’s no alcohol and no powerful alcohol bite. That’s why he’s taste testing the whole way during the aging process.
“You don't want to get the stuff to where it tastes like a shot of liquor,” Hill said. “You don't want it like that. You really want a good balance. You don't want it to be too far one way or the other.”
He said he chose sourwood honey because it’s a premium honey and he considers this a premium product. And when it comes to the orange blossom honey, Hill said he thought it would pair well with rye whiskey.
It’s a new venture for Hill, selling bottles to his own customer base, but it’s been successful so far and he hopes it continues to take off.
“All new products have to have a beginning,” Hill said. “We sell a lot of honey from my farm. Lots and lots of honey … And a lot of people don't just like regular honey, they want to have flavored honeys.”