A Modern Guide to Mead
Take off the viking helmet and drop ye olde English accent because mead has gone modern. No longer relegated to Renaissance faires, the fermented honey drink is cropping up in craft bars, and new meaderies (yes, there are new meaderies) are coming out with all manner of meads, from dry to sweet, to suit any taste.
Here, everything you need to know to get started on your honey wine journey.
A Brief History of MeadMead is practically primordial booze. Ancient civilizations across the world from East Asia to the Mediterranean to Africa were sipping it long before vikings or Friar Tuck-types ever got a hold of it. There’s even a documented recipe for mead from ancient Roman historian Columella, which dates back to 60 AD:
“Take rainwater kept for several years, and mix a sextarius of this water with a pound of honey. For a weaker mead, mix a sextarius of water with nine ounces of honey. The whole is exposed to the sun for 40 days, and then left on a shelf near the fire. If you have no rain water, then boil spring water.”
In Europe, mead lost its throne to beer and wine around the 12th century. And in the 16th and 17th centuries, mead’s fate was sealed when European nations began colonizing Africa and the Americas and discovered sugarcane, which quickly surpassed honey as the preferred and much more easily sourced sweetener. Because of that, European-style honey wine never really took hold in the New World—until now.
How to Pick a MeadThe variety of meads currently on the market almost rivals that of liqueurs or amari. It can be overwhelming, but a bit of handy terminology will help you choose the right bottle.
To get a taste for mead in its pure form, you could start with a traditional mead or “show mead” that excludes additional fruits or spices. If you want to sip it alone as an after dinner drink, opt for “sack mead,” which has a dessert-worthy sweetness and an extra kick of booze.
If you intend to mix your mead into cocktails, Arley Marks—an owner of Honey’s, a mead-centric new Brooklyn tasting room launched and supplied by Enlightenment Wines—suggests seeking out dry meads with fruit or herbal notes. “Melomel” refers to any mead made with fruit, while “cyser” is made specifically with apples, “morat” with mulberries, “black” mead with blackcurrants and “pyment” with grapes. There are also varieties of “metheglin” which offer various combinations of spices and purported medicinal properties.
How to Store Your MeadOnce you’ve purchased and popped open your mead, remember to keep it in the fridge in between sipping sessions. “Like wine or vermouth, mead will oxidize once it’s opened,” says Paul Blumer, bar manager at The Rogue Gentlemen, a cocktail bar in Richmond, Virginia. “Always keep it in the fridge with a cork and try to use it within a week or so.”
How to Drink Mead StraightThese days, mead is mostly sipped neat from a wine glass. In Ethiopia, honey wine known as tej is served in a berele, which concentrates the aromas into a thin spout, and you might also find it served in bowl-like German mazer cups.
Mead can be served at room temperature or chilled, depending on type. Dry mead can be chilled like white wine for a refreshing way to cool off, while a fuller-bodied or sweeter mead goes well over ice with a meal or neat as an after dinner drink. But there are no hard and fast rules.
How to Mix with MeadCocktails are a great gateway for mead skeptics. According to Blumer, mead is a great replacement for wine, port, wine-based vermouth or quinquina in cocktails. But, he explains, exactly how you use it depends on the type of mead: “Some mead will come off sweet and syrupy like Grand Marnier or Cointreau, so you could use that in a Margarita. If it’s dry enough, you could use it to replace the vermouth in a Martini. It can be shaken, stirred, poured on top—mead can be anything. It’s incredibly versatile.”
Mead is especially wonderful paired with floral gin, subtler tequilas or aquavit. At Honey’s, for instance, the Floralia Gimlet combines juniper-lavender-marjoram mead with vodka, sake and lemon; a Negroni variation features St. Crimson blackcurrant mead; and a sparkling mead called Night Eyes tops spritzes.
Matt Trahan of Sap House Meadery in Ossippee, New Hampshire, suggests mixing mead with muddled citrus. “In general, mead doesn’t have the same acidity that wines have, so combining it with some sort of muddled citrus often produces good results, especially with sweeter meads,” he says. “For instance, we muddle limes with a bit of agave syrup and use blueberry mead to make a Meaderita.”
If you are mixing with a sweeter mead try to balance out those strong honey flavors with something on the bitter side. At Distilled in New York City, beverage director Scott Kennedy mixes Carroll’s Mead from Washingtonville, New York with Campari in the Mead Americano.
At The Rogue Gentlemen, Blumer draws upon viking lore in the Odin’s Cup. Based on Odrir, a drink of Nordic myth, the Odin’s Cup swaps out the legendary version’s base of “god blood” for blood orange liqueur. Also in the mix: honey-flavored vodka liqueur Bärenjäger (for double the honey), oyster-infused aquavit Øster Vit, lime and raspberry.
The Future of MeadWhile mead mixology is still in its early stages, there are exciting things happening on the production side of mead that will drastically affect the mead cocktails you see hitting bar tops in the coming months.
At Honey’s, Marks and his partner Raphael Lyon have started designing meads specifically meant to be used in drinks. “We have a completely vertically integrated system from garden to bottle to glass,” Marks says. The team is also playing around with distilling mead to a higher proof spirit, something akin to aromatized wine.
While Honey’s is offering fresh new meads, other bars and meaderies are focusing on barrel aging. At The Rogue Gentlemen, Blumer uses a barrel aged mead from Black Heath Meadery in the Plusieurs Petit Mort, a cocktail made with Barr Hill gin, apricot-infused Evan Williams, Cedilla açai liqueur and El Guapo Polynesian Kiss bitters. “The mead is aged in oak barrels, which pull out a lot of the sugar and produce a dry mead that’s almost like a fino sherry,” he says.
In the distant future, Trahan expects mead to become more regional as production grows. “Honey flavor is dependent on the flowers bees collected nectar from,” he says. “Different flowers impact the honey, which in turn affects the flavor of the mead. I think we’ll see differentiation by region—mead made with honey from New England compared with mead from the Northwest—with flowers and agriculture of specific areas coming through in the mead.”
Marks says that it is exactly this sort of experimentation that makes mead an incredibly exciting field at the moment. Whether you’re close enough to a modern meadery to taste the latest inventions or you’re ordering mead online to tinker with at home, there are plenty of ways to reap the honey wine’s sweet reward.