It started with a mess.
One night, while eating dinner with his wife Carrie at their home in Richmond, Virginia, Ames Russell took to his ritual of dressing up fried chicken with dollops of honey, splashes of Tabasco sauce, and specks of red pepper flakes. Fed up with the recurrent disarray in their kitchen every time fried chicken was on the menu, Carrie offered a suggestion.
“Why don’t you find a way to make and bottle spicy honey?” she said. This was the impetus to what would come to be known as AR’s Hot Southern Honey.
Soon after that dinner, Russell began researching the processes, ingredients, and producers he’d need to turn the idea of “spicy honey” into something tangible. He studied infusing methods, surveyed the pepper selections at his local grocers, and connected with honey producers from the Shenandoah Valley.
Then came time to get to work in the kitchen. Russell explains that the hot honey cooking process was, and continues to be, a sticky one. “Honey ends up all over the place,” he says. “It requires your full attention.”
He begins by heating the peppers and honey on the stove. (The hot honey’s cooking time and temperature are top secret.) Once the peppers’ flavors have had time to release, he strains them, leaving the aromatic oil to infuse the honey with its signature spicy notes. The result is a honey unlike any other, with a subtle sweetness and a piquant heat that stalls in the back of your throat.
After fine-tuning the recipe, Russell’s hot honey became a staple in his household. And after encouragement from friends and family, he started selling it locally. His honey was an instant success, but customers kept asking the same question: Could it be made hotter?
So, back to the kitchen Russell went, this time experimenting with various chili peppers before landing on the habanero. The pepper provides a fuller heat that lingers longer than the de Arbol he originally tried. “Habanero also adds a smoky flavor that pairs beautifully with the sweet honey,” he says.
Russell’s interest in honey began at a young age. His grandfather Ames was a beekeeper, and Russell grew up eating honeycomb on their family’s farm. A salesperson by trade, Russell admits he was originally more of a honey enthusiast than an expert. “I knew I liked honey, but I knew little about it,” he says. “I just thought honey was honey.” Turns out it’s more complicated.
When Russell started his venture, he chose wildflower honey for its flavor complexity. His producers ran out of it one day, so they offered clover honey as an alternative. “I wasn’t sure it would work,” he says. But he took a chance—and ended up liking it more than his original recipe.
Flash forward to today, and Russell uses both wildflower and clover honeys in his line of products, which are additive-free and made with all-natural ingredients. The AR’s brand offers a mild hot honey, made with Russell’s original de Arbol pepper recipe, along with his habanero-infused hot-hot variety. Russell also sells plain honey, bourbon barrel aged honey, spicy honey peanut butter, and a spicy-sweet peach hot sauce. And he has more products in the works.
While Russell partially credits these serendipitous occurrences with his brand’s success, the journey hasn’t been without difficulties. “There’s always something,” he says, from production issues to trademark complications. But to him, every challenge or mishap is an opportunity for growth. He describes entrepreneurism as a quest to get from one obstacle to the next.
“Everything I’ve been confronted with has been a learning experience that’s made me better,” he says. “I love what I do. I feel like this is what I’m meant to do with my life. I only hope that for anybody else.”
Grilled Oysters with AR’s Barrel Aged Hot Southern Honey and Bourbon Butter
Serves 8 to 10
½ cup AR’s Bourbon Barrel Aged Hot Southern Honey
¼ cup bourbon
4 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup finely chopped peeled garlic cloves
1. Make the butter: In bowl, whisk together the honey and bourbon. Add butter and garlic and combine until incorporated, by hand or in the bowl of a food processor. On a piece of parchment paper, place butter in the form of a log. Wrap butter into a log shape, and refrigerate for 1 hour.
2. Heat grill to medium-high heat. Shuck oysters and remove butter from fridge. Cut butter into thin, 1/4 -inch pats. Place a pat of butter on each shucked oyster and place on the grill until butter melts and starts to bubble. Let butter sizzle for about 1 minute. Carefully move oysters from grill to a platter. Let cool for 1 to 2 minutes before serving.
Written by Daniela Johnson