Honey garlic sauce tends to get a bad wrap. It’s considered “wussy” by heat enthusiasts, unrefined by food snobs, and generally dull by pretty much everyone. I get it. Honey garlic doesn’t have the kick of hot sauce, the tang of sweet and sour, or the complexity of whatever food truck daydream has recently tickled your fancy. But I’m willing to bet that back in the day you doused your chicken nuggets in the stuff. You probably requested honey garlic spareribs when your mom gave in and ordered Chinese. You may have even flirted with adding it to your fries. Look how much joy this saccharine sauce has brought to so many of us over the years. How can we turn our backs on it? Well, I couldn’t, so I grew it up, fed it some booze and I have these Honey Bourbon Chicken Wings to show for it.
These Honey Bourbon Chicken Wings may not be a picnic or BBQ recipe, but they flirt with the promise of summer. Now, I don’t know about you, but when the summer hits I swap my Irish whiskey for bourbon and I put everything I can find on my Traeger smoker. As the name of this recipe suggests, I certainly gave the wings a hefty dose of bourbon, but bringing that telltale smoky flavor was a bit trickier.
The smell of a slow, smokey cook is like instant summer vacation. It’s a smell I look forward to all winter long. Unfortunately, the weather this spring has been decidedly wet and inhospitable, so thus far my BBQ plans have been met with rain checks. But even if I can’t babysit a pork shoulder or brisket for the better part of an afternoon, I can inject a little smokey flavor to my meals in the form of smoked salts, smoked garnishes, and smoked nuts. These little bites don’t require a lot of time or attention, so I don’t have to spend too much time huddled under an umbrella. With this in mind, it seemed only natural to bring the smoke to my wings by garnishing them with a batch of smoked pecans.
If you don’t have a smoker, I demand you remedy this situation immediately. I’m just kidding. Those beasts can carry a hefty price tag. If you don’t have the space for a smoker, the money, or you’re just not sure you’ll use it enough, I suggest getting a stovetop smoker. They are far cheaper, don’t require outdoor space, and are dead simple to use. If you’re not into buying any extra equipment just to garnish some chicken wings with my personal sense memory, that’s cool too. You can sub the pecans for hickory smoked almonds or regular nuts or you can say “Nuts!” to nuts and skip them all together.
While the previous paragraph alludes to a “You do you” spirit, I am going to have to put my foot down about one thing: the rosemary. You have to include this herb or the sauce will be too sweet and too predictable. The rosemary brings an anchoring earthiness to the Honey Bourbon Chicken Wings that I never anticipated would be so vital. I thought the bourbon would separate the grown-up version from the honey garlic sauces of my youth, but it’s the rosemary. It carries a floral quality and a hint of grassy bitterness that offsets the sweetness of the sauce. Don’t skip the rosemary – it elevates these wings from takeout send-up to adult-ish starter.
Adult-ish. I think about that non-word a lot. Since turning 30 this year, I feel like it’s the most I will ever be and, in many ways, I’m glad. I never want to be so divorced from my younger self that I can’t enjoy eating slightly stale (aged?) gummy bears or find pleasure in using fries as a vehicle for ketchup. Sure, I can’t and, frankly, don’t want to eat like that all the time. But I also don’t want to fool myself into believing I’m above it. These Honey Bourbon Chicken Wings to me, feel like an honest representation of what I am at the moment: Adult-ish. The rosemary, bourbon, and pecans flirt with sophistication while the honey garlic sauce feeds my inner and undying brat.
So there you go, an overblown explanation of why I put a sweet, boozy sauce on some chicken wings and covered them in herbs and smoked nuts. But even if you’re not into the culinary metaphors about where I am in my life, you’ll love these Honey Bourbon Chicken Wings with Smoked Pecans. Tune me out and make ’em today.
- 1 lb (450 g) chicken wings
- 2 tablespoons + 1 teaspoon cornstarch, divided
- 2 tablespoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 6 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/4 cup bourbon
- ½ cup honey
- 1/3 cup soy sauce
- 1/2 cup smoked pecans
- 2 tablespoons fresh rosemary needles
- Preheat the oven to 425F.
- Pat the chicken wings dry with paper towel and toss them into a large resealable bag. Add 2 tablespoons of the cornstarch, the baking powder and the salt to the bag. Seal the bag and shake to coat the chicken.
- Place the dressed chicken on a greased cooling rack and place the cooling rack on a large baking sheet lined with tin foil.
- Bake the chicken for 40 minutes, turning once.
- When the chicken has 15 minutes left on it's cook time, make the sauce.
- Heat a quarter-sized amount of olive oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic and saute until fragrant. About 3-5 minutes.
- Pour in the bourbon and scrape the brown bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the soy sauce and honey and reduce the heat to a simmer. Simmer the sauce for 5 minutes.
- In a small bowl, whisk the remaining cornstarch and a small amount of water together to form a slurry. Pour the slurry into the sauce and cook until the sauce thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon.
- Place cooked chicken wings in a large mixing bowl and pour the sauce over top. Shake the bowl to coat the wings in the sauce.
- Pour the wings onto a platter and top with crumbled smoked pecans and needles of fresh rosemary.
- Enjoy with a cold beer.