The beekeeper who became an accidental distiller: ‘When I took it to the farmers’ market, it sold out within an hour’

Frustrated by wasted honey in her frames, a beekeeper tried soaking them in whisky. The results are award-winning, discovers Vicky Liddell, as she samples Beeble’s spirits.

Over the past few years, an amber-coloured drink has been flying off the shelves of smart farm shops and delicatessens. Its name is Beeble and it is a unique blend of three-year-old Scotch whisky and ethically produced Wiltshire honey that has produced a completely new category of spirit. Founded by Nicola Reed, artist and beekeeper, the Beeble range, which now includes a honey vodka and a honey rum, has already collected two Great Taste awards and there are plans for a honey mezcal with tequila later this year.

The Beeble story began nine years ago, when Mrs Reed took over a beehive that had originally been given to her husband for his 50th birthday. ‘James is a serious equestrian and didn’t think bees and horses go well together, so we came to an agreement and I went on a beekeeping course,’ she says.

From her first colony, Mrs Reed was able to give several jars to friends, but was frustrated by the waste honey that remained stuck to the frames and decided to soak them in whisky. When she returned a few days later, she discovered that a lucky alchemy had taken place. ‘The honey had infused into the whisky, making a delicious elixir,’ she recalls. ‘When I took it to the farmers’ market, it sold out within an hour.’

In 2017, Mrs Reed teamed up with friend and accountant Matthew Brauer and, together, the beekeeper and the book-keeper now sell more than 50,000 bottles of liqueur every year, made from the honey of some eight million Wiltshire bees.

From the early days of farmers’ markets, production has stepped up dramatically and so have the beehives, 119 of which are now managed by local beekeepers; Mrs Reed still keeps eight traditional hives in a beautiful walled fruit garden at her home on the edge of the Cotswolds. In spring, the orchard thrums with the sound of bees, which share the space with Indian runner ducks and chickens. ‘Poultry and bees make excellent bed fellows,’ explains the entrepreneur. ‘The bees don’t sting the hens and the chickens keep the area around the hives clean.’

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From spring onwards, Mrs Reed opens the hives weekly to check on the health of the colonies and make sure they have enough space: ‘I can tell immediately what their mood is: the lower the buzz, the calmer the bees. When they are stressed, the noise is raised an octave. Sometimes, the colonies expand too quickly and, if we get a late frost, it can be devastating.’

Honey is harvested ethically and sustainably, leaving half for the bees, she explains. ‘It’s a precious resource — it takes one bee a whole lifetime to produce half a teaspoon of honey.’ Collection begins in June and, if the summer is good, continues in September, depending on the health of the hive. ‘Spring honey tends to be lighter in colour and taste,’ adds Mrs Reed. ‘The later you leave it, the darker it becomes.’

Three times a year, the honey is sent off in enormous tubs to a family-run distillery in Scotland, where it soaks for a couple of months before being decanted into distinctive, bee-emblazoned bottles in three different sizes, called queen, drone and worker.

Naturally sweet and with no added sugars, Beeble honey spirits can be drunk neat with ice or used as a base for cocktails. The smooth taste is quite different from that of the base spirit and the original version has proven popular with people who don’t normally drink whisky.

All the products in the range carry distinctive notes from the various flowers from which the bees have been foraging and Mr Brauer is keen to expand around the country to create honey that reflects the different flavours of regional floras. Continuing the theme of minimising waste, the company also sells a collection of cosmetics made using leftover honey and beeswax.

Mrs Reed is a self-confessed bee evangelist and wants everyone to keep them. Every year, she hosts an ‘Idle Beekeeping Day’ with beekeeper Bill Anderson for anyone interested in taking it up and the event has already hatched many new apiarists who, in a perfect circle, often end up selling honey back to her. She has even managed to convert her husband, who now has two hives outside his office in London’s Covent Garden.

The latest plan is for Mrs Reed to set up her own beekeeping school to help safeguard the local population and she is an ambassador for the charity Bees for Development, too, which helps some of the world’s poorest communities become self-sufficient through beekeeping. ‘We need bees far more than they need us, they have so much to teach us,’ she reflects. ‘I am only a custodian. When I open the hive, I learn from the bees every time — but I’m not sure they learn anything from me.’