Heather honey is one of the best varieties you’ve probably never tasted.
It’s easy to find this honey varietal in Western Europe, especially in the United Kingdom where it’s thought of as “the Rolls Royce of honey.” In fact, an unofficial British holiday is partly centered around heather honey.
August 12 is called “the Glorious Twelfth” in Britain. One reason is because that’s when beekeepers traditionally set up their hives in the U.K.’s rolling moorlands. In most cases, heather flowers blossom during that week – and their nectar is only available for seven days – so honeybees have to be in place on time, in order to collect this very unusual honey. (In a few regions, the blossoms begin to appear in late July, or appear in late August/early September.) August 12 is also the day when British grouse hunting season gets underway, so there’s a lot for the British to celebrate in mid-August.
What makes heather honey so unusual? Let’s find out.
The Honey You Can’t Pour
The oddest characteristic of “true” heather honey is that it’s thixotropic, a fancy word that means it has a jelly-like consistency in the jar or bottle. If you tip the jar on its side, it won’t ooze toward the top; it will remain firmly in place. Manuka honey can have this character as well, but not to the same extent.
The purer the heather honey, the longer it will stay “glued” to the jar before softening and beginning to flow. In order to properly pour it you have to stir it first, and it will quickly become gelatinous again after that. You can also tell high-quality heather honey by its dark amber color which tends toward red or orange, and the large number of air bubbles trapped inside.
You may have noticed that we’ve called this variety “true” heather honey, which is commonly referred to as Ling Heather honey. Ling is a single flower honey which comes from the nectar of the Calluna Vulgaris plant, often called “common heather.” Other heather plants belong to the Erica species; for example, Erica Arborea, Erica Cinerea and Erica Carnea. The white, bell or snow Erica honey harvested from them respectively (and often sold as Scottish blossom honey) is quite good, but it’s not as terrific as Ling. It also isn’t thixotropic.
Handle With Care
Beekeeping can be a challenging profession, but no more so than when harvesting pure Ling heather honey. The thick consistency that causes the honey to stick to the side of a jar also makes it extremely difficult to extract from a honeycomb. Apiaries must be equipped with special equipment for the task; they can use either honey looseners or special plastic needles called “perforextractors” to remove the honey, and then use tangential honey spinners which temporarily liquefy the honey so it can be properly spun.
The rest of the honey production process is somewhat complicated, too. Heather honey contains more water than any other type, except for clover honey. The water content for each of those varieties can’t exceed 23% (less is better), so it must be liquefied and tested after pressing. It may be difficult and painstaking work, but the honey is worth it.
Finding Ling Heather Honey
The heather plants which are the sources of Ling honey grow most commonly in the moors of Scotland, but they also proliferate in northern areas of Ireland and Britain (in counties like Yorkshire). Some plants still grow in areas of Germany as well; heather was once plentiful there, but most once-open German heathlands have now been replaced by farms.
For those reasons, the U.K. and Western Europe are the best places to find heather honey since it’s not produced in the United States. One major producer, Heather Hills Farms, does sell its Scottish Heather Honey on Amazon, but be ready to pay premium prices for it. You can sometimes find it in specialty shops in major American cities, but again, it’s not cheap.
What do you get for that high price?
Qualities of Heather Honey
Heather honey, as previously mentioned, is usually dark amber, no lighter than caramel and often featuring a red or orange tint. It has a pungent aroma that combines fruit and woodsy scents, with a strong but mildly-sweet taste and a tangy aftertaste.
Connoisseurs love Ling honey, but not necessarily as a substitute for other honey varieties like regular wildflower honey. That’s because heather honey’s thick consistency and powerful taste makes it less than ideal for use as a sugar substitute in tea or in baking. However, it does provide a distinctive, interesting and different flavor when used as a topping on ice cream or waffles, or mixed with yogurt.
Its most popular uses, though, are to make uniquely Scottish dishes. For example, cranachan (also called cream crowdie) is a traditional dessert made from whipped cream, whiskey, raspberries and heather honey. Scottish honey cakes topped with almonds and Ling honey are another favorite dessert, and there are delicious regional recipes for poultry with a heather honey glaze.
This honey also has been used over the years to make unusual but delicious drinks. It’s the honey that was most often included in honey mead when it was popular, and it’s one of the ingredients in the Scottish liquor Drambuie.
Health Benefits of Heather Honey
All honey (as long as it’s raw and unfiltered) has a wealth of health benefits, and Ling honey scores high on the list.
It’s particularly valuable for its antioxidant properties. In fact, heather is the European honey variety with the highest levels of phenolic acids (1), known to prevent the cellular damage that can be done by free radicals in the body. That activity may help fight illnesses and diseases as serious as heart disease and cancer.
Heather honey is also very effective as an antibacterial and anti-microbial agent, believed to be even better than the Manuka honey renowned for treating serious bacterial infections like MRSA, as well as wounds and infections. (2)