Cocktail of the Month: Sunderbans Honeybee

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The late afternoon sun hangs lazily in the sky as I watch the water gently lap past me from the porch of my bamboo bungalow. I’m kicking back in the remote Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest in the world, where I’ve come on a tigerspotting expedition.

As I prop my feet up, I hear unaccompanied echoes from the wilderness. The only thing lacking is a refreshing cocktail, but the eco-lodge — where I’m the only guest at the moment — doesn’t have a bar or even a cold beer to serve with dinner.

Why? Because I’m in Bangladesh, where alcohol is forbidden to locals without a permit. There are provisions for foreigners, a handful of bars and shops, but they are few and far between.

The only option is to plan ahead and BYOB (which, luckily, I did). However, buying liquor in the duty-free was an odd experience. After landing in the capital, Dhaka, I passed what looked like a discount luggage shop or perhaps a Kmart circa 1976. Taking a closer glance, I noticed two circular shelves with bottles amid some cosmetics, tobacco and travel items.

The half-barren displays contained a spattering of random, mostly dusty bottles— some with torn or scruffy labels and unfamiliar names. There were even a few scotch-taped caps. I was desperately scanning for something fit to drink from this curious collection when I spied an immaculate bottle of aged Havana Club rum.

The purchase transaction was equally strange. Since the clerks were unable to take credit cards or American dollars, I suggested Singapore dollars. I was haphazardly given a somewhat high price and then told to hide the bottle in my backpack. I wasn’t even given a bag. They added that if I were asked by customs about it, to say that I bought it somewhere else. (Fortunately, I wasn’t.)

So now, after a day of boating through the jungle and trekking in knee-deep waters, I have a refreshing tipple in my hand. But procuring the alcohol wasn’tthe only obstacle I faced. Simple mixers are not available — no soda, no soft drinks, no tonic. I’m left to work with tea and water. I desperately need something to add some zing.

Good news: in addition to tigers, the Sundarbans is also world-famous for its honey. The locals bravely venture into the wilderness to collect this golden treasure despite the risks of pythons, king cobras, crocodiles and man-eating Bengals.

The honey has an amber color and a unique flavor that comes from Khalisa flowers on black mangrove trees. Harvested once a year, around April, after the Khalisa’s blooming period, it is among the preeminent honeys in the world, also valued for its benefits to the immune system.

While exploring earlier on our canoe, my guide spied a local honey hunter paddling down a small channel out of the forest and made a purchase. The seller lifted a large metal urn and slowly poured the fresh, unfiltered amber liquid into a water bottle for transport back to the lodge.

I now have the makings for a Honeybee cocktail. It’s a simple drink, requiring nothing more than honey, hot water, rum and lemon or lime juice. Opportunely, I have limes growing just outside my veranda.

This classic cocktail is a variation of a Prohibition-era favorite called the Bee’s Knees. The first mention of the Honeybee, back in 1948, comes from DavidEmbry’s “The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks.”

I find that the caramel-like taste of Havana Club mingles well with the raw and earthy flavor of the wild honey. The lime adds a bit of tang to this untamed concoction, capturing the spirit of adventure.

Before I know it, my jungle time is up. While I didn’t see any tigers, I created a delightful souvenir to take with me.

SUNDARBANS HONEYBEE

2 oz. aged rum (Havana Club or Flor de Caña 7 Year)

1/2 oz. Sundarbans honey (can be purchased online)

1⁄2 ounce hot water or tea
1⁄2 ounce lime juice

Combine the honey with the hot water or tea to dissolve. Shake all ingredients with ice and strain into a cocktail glass.

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