Mead is one of the oldest drinks in the world, and in Greek mythology it was often referred to as the drink of the Gods, but today many are unfamiliar with the honey wine. In the past few years, mead has grown in popularity, especially in the US, where they currently have around 500 meaderies and over 200 in planning. A lot of this is due to the growing demand for low-ABV options, and the craft beer scene has helped to push creativity in the drinks industry in general. And, of course, the popularity of Game of Thrones probably helped too. Now it is slowly making its way to Europe.
What is mead?
Mead is basically honey wine. The honey is diluted with warm water and fermented with yeast. Ideally, it is made with honey from a single source of nectar. There is as much variety in honey and nectar sources (wildflower, orange blossom…) as there is in grapes and, as a natural product, each batch of honey, and therefore each batch of mead, will vary in secondary flavours.
After fermentation, the wine is usually aged from a few months to a few years to allow the flavours to settle and mature. Sparkling mead is left to ferment in the bottle by adding live yeast and a touch of sugar.
Mead can range from dry, off-dry (try Kinsale Mead Co), semi-sweet to very sweet, and the alcoholic strength ranges from as low as 4% ABV up to 20% ABV.
A bit of history
Due to many TV shows, when you think of mead, you instantly imagine the Renaissance era (or the hobbits…), but evidence of mead production dates way back to 6500 BC in northern China. Everyone was drinking and making it: the Greeks, Romans, Celts, Vikings, Russians, Ethiopians, Finns… Some may have used a different name, but the idea of creating an alcoholic beverage using honey was still the same. In Europe, mead traces have been found in ceramics from 2800–1800 BC. Mead was also popular in medieval Ireland, where it was often infused with hazelnuts.
Shakespeare too mentions mead, and the pirate, poet and philosopher Sir Kenelm Digby collected over 100 recipes for mead from the great houses and palaces of England in 1669, including the favourite one drunk by Queen Elizabeth I.
Once sugar took over as the sweetener of choice, mead production plummeted.
Fun fact: Mead is associated with wedding celebrations, and the word ‘honeymoon’ is believed to be linked to it. A month’s supply or a moon cycle of mead was gifted to newlyweds to drink together to bring good luck to the marriage and help to conceive a child.
Styles of mead
Traditional Mead is made using just honey, water and yeast. The water needs to be warm, but not higher than the hive temperature to avoid losing those delicate aromas from the honey.
Melomel is made using honey and fruit. Some of the popular flavours include blackcurrant, blackberry, blueberry, strawberry, raspberry, apple, fig and cherry, which all bring different levels of acidity, tannin and colour into the wine. As with all mead, the type of honey will have an impact as well. The fruit is fermented in the fermentation tanks together with the honey.
Metheglin is made using honey with herbs, spices and flowers. Flavours include rose, hibiscus, elderflower, lavender, sage, rosemary, lemon thyme, chillies, meadowsweet, cinnamon, ginger, vanilla and nutmeg.
Braggot is mead mixed with beer or malt and hops. This style is commonly made in breweries.
Mead can also be barrel-aged. It will be influenced by the level of charring and the previous liquid in the cask. The flavour profiles can range from chocolate and smoky espresso to vanilla and caramel, coconut or other fruity flavours. Kinsale Mead Co, for example, has just finished ageing mead in wine barrels for one year.
How to store it
Like wine, mead is best kept in a cool and dark place before opening, and it will easily last over two years. Sparkling versions, however, are best stored in the fridge and consumed within a month or so. Once opened, store upright in the refrigerator. Make sure to close the bottle properly, ideally with a vacuum closure.
Traditional-style meads start to change flavour after seven days from opening and melomels after two weeks. Sweeter ones can last up to four weeks. The higher the alcohol content, the longer it will last. Even if the flavours start to change, the remaining wine can still be used in cocktails and, of course, in cooking.
How to serve it
Each style of mead has its ideal serves, but to fully appreciate the flavour profiles, serve it without a mixer. There is no specific glass, and over the centuries it has been shared from various drinking vessels. Whether you choose a tumbler, stemless wine glass or a white wine glass, the main point is to experience the aromas. The ideal serve is around 125ml; you can use the small wine measure.
Traditional mead (try Kinsale Atlantic Dry Mead) is best served chilled or on the rocks. Drink mature melomels in a similar way to red wine, at cooler room temperature or slightly chilled. Younger fruitier melomels are best chilled or over ice. Alternatively, use frozen berries or grapes instead of ice to keep the drink cool without diluting it.
You’ll get the most out of the semi-sweet and sweet meads by serving them slightly chilled as this allows the aromas from the honey to shine through properly.
Slightly sparkling meads should be chilled at around white wine temperatures.
Before taking the first sip, smell the mead straight after it has been poured in the glass. Bring the glass close to your nose and open your mouth slightly; this will help you to broaden your palate and prepare your taste buds for what is coming. Smell is such a huge part of taste. Experiencing the aromas first through your nose can help you to detect more flavours that you might otherwise miss.
Once you take the first sip, allow the liquid to coat your whole tongue so you can experience the full flavour profile ranging from the tip of your tongue to each side and back of your mouth. Think about the overall mouthfeel and the aftertaste.
Oh yes, some of the more mature and fruitier melomel-style meads lend themselves as a replacement for vermouth in a Negroni. As Kinsale Meads are off-dry, I decided to mix two different meads together to enhance the fruitiness. Kinsale Wild Red Mead is made with blackcurrants, cherries and forest honey. This one has been matured for 18 months to achieve an even richer flavour profile. Their Hazy Summer Mead is made using six types of ripe summer berries.
25ml Gin (I used Kirkjuvagr Harpa)
12.5ml Kinsale Wild Red Mead
12.5ml Kinsale Hazy Summer Mead
25ml Aperitivo Bitter (I used La Valdotaine as it is slightly milder on bitterness than Campari)
Citrus peel for garnish
In the glass part of your shaker, combine all ingredients and stir well with ice. Strain into an ice-filled tumbler and garnish with a citrus peel.
Mead You Halfway
Some of the more traditional meads tend to be more crispy than sweet. Kinsale Atlantic Dry is fermented off-dry using raw orange blossom honey. It is crisp, citrusy and subtly floral and therefore it pairs well with savoury flavours. I went full-on and chose an Irish gin full of salty seaweed notes.
25ml Savoury Gin (I used An Dúlamán)
40ml Kinsale Atlantic Dry
Mediterranean Tonic Water
5ml Honey Syrup (optional)
Shake all but tonic with ice. Strain over an ice-filled glass, add some fresh mint (don’t forget to smack it to release the flavours) and top up with the flavoured tonic water.
Getting Your Honey’s Worth
Many meads pair well with fizz, especially melomel when it is filled with fresh berry flavours. The Kinsale Hazy Summer Mead is full of strawberries, raspberry and blueberry.
50ml Kinsale Hazy Summer Mead
15ml Hibiscus Syrup
10ml Lemon Juice
Shake all but Champagne with ice and strain into a Champagne flute. Top up with the fizz. Garnish with fresh berries.
Don of Kinsale
This recipe is from the Kinsale Mead Co website, and I just added a touch of lime into the recipe. A fantastic alternative to a Paloma or a Margarita!
40ml Kinsale Atlantic Dry
25ml Tequila Blanco (I used Pancho Datos)
10ml Agave Nectar
25ml Pink Grapefruit Juice
15ml Lime Juice
Salt & Chilli rim
Add a salt and chilli rim onto a Martini glass. Shake all ingredients well with ice and double strain into the glass. Enjoy!
Watch this space – From next Friday, 18th September, you can enter to WIN two bottles of Kinsale Mead Co mead!
Have you tried mead? What did you think of it?
Disclaimer: This post was sponsored by Kinsale Mead Co and written in collaboration with Kate from the meadery. All photos and opinions are my own unless otherwise stated.