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The Libations, Legends, and Lore of History's Oldest Drink
By Fred Minnick
Illustrated by Tobias Saul
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Beloved by figures as diverse as Queen Elizabeth and Thor, the Vikings and the Greek gods, mead is one of history’s most storied beverages. But this mixture of fermented honey isn’t just a relic of bygone eras — it’s experiencing a cultural renaissance, taking pride of place in trendy cocktail bars and craft breweries across the country. Equal parts quirky historical narrative, DIY manual, and cocktail guide, Mead is a spirited look at the drink that’s been with us even longer than wine.
Mead gives readers a fascinating introduction to the rich story of this beloved beverage — from its humble beginnings to its newfound popularity, along with its vital importance in seven historic kingdoms: Greece, Rome, the Vikings, Poland, Ethiopia, England, and Russia. Pairing a quirky, historical narrative with real practical advice, beverage expert Fred Minnick guides readers through making 25 different types of mead, as well as more than 50 cocktails, with recipes from some of the country’s most sought-after mixologists.
THEY LOOKED LIKE YOUR TYPICAL BROOKLYN BARTENDERS: handlebar mustaches, pink hair, leather aprons, and tattoos—lots of tattoos. They muddled mint, juiced limes, pinched nutmeg in empty glasses, clanked tin shakers with rhythmic precision, and poured fragrant libations into ice-filled glasses.
It was 2012, and these hipster bartenders were competing in a bourbon cocktail contest. I judged every drink they made, assessing techniques, analyzing flavor balance, and weighing creativity. I looked for the little things: Did they slap the mint to maximize the herb’s in-the-glass aroma? Was everything fresh?
Contestant one mixed bourbon with a muddled apple, lemon juice, and a branded margarita mixer—one of the cheap ones laden with high-fructose corn syrup. He unenthusiastically shook the tins and then strained and poured the mixture over a small ice ball in a collins glass. The drink tasted unbalanced and lacked creativity—ugh, store-bought mixers!
Contestant two shook bourbon, vermouth, and amaro as if he were a mechanical paint mixer. He strained and poured the contents over small ice in a coupe glass, garnishing it with an orange twist. The presentation was fine, but every bartender should know when all the ingredients are alcohol you stir them. Without a juice or solution of some kind, the shaken alcohols bruise and struggle to form a bond. He didn’t meet my expectations.
Then, in a far corner, a young woman pulled out a slightly amber-colored bottle and poured it into her shaker. What was this? It bore no label. As I pondered over what the liquid might be, she added bourbon, lemon juice, and strawberry jam. With all the contents securely in the mixer—the bartender didn’t spill a drop, impressive!—she fastened the tin shakers, raised them above her shoulders, and in one seamless motion sloshed the contents back and forth, perfectly melding the ingredients. Only single strained, she poured the drink over crushed ice in a rocks glass and garnished with the perfect lemon twist. Its aromatics were sound, the flavor was part strawberry, part bourbon, part lemon and honey. Wait—did I see her put honey in the cocktail mixer?
“I’m tasting a little honey in this cocktail. Did you add honey while you made it and I just missed it?” I asked.
“No, that’s my homemade mead,” she said.
Ah, that must have been the amber liquid I spied. For my palate, this was the best cocktail of the competition, dominating in creativity. Who makes their own mead? The drink was a whiskey sour meets the Brown Derby, only better. The pronounced bourbon and the amazing honey flavor just rocked me. I gave the cocktail a 9.4 out of 10, easily my highest score for the day.
Alas, my fellow judges didn’t agree. One said: “Who the hell makes mead?” Another: “Is that even legal? Can you make your own alcohol?”
She didn’t win or even place. The other judges scored her entry below a 5. And they were wrong: they were knocking her drink not because it was inferior, but because they didn’t understand mead.
Since that cocktail competition, I’ve watched mead grow from a virtual unknown into an international curiosity behind the bar. Australia’s popular bar The Powder Keg boasts the Medieval Mule: bourbon, mead, fresh-pressed apple, and sea salt topped with ginger beer. Charleston’s Cocktail Club sells a lot of the drink Pass the Mead: Chaucer’s Mead and Peychaud’s muddled berries topped with crushed ice and Montelliana Prosecco. And London’s We Are Bar has made its Yellow Bee famous. It is a combination of Polugar No. 4 vodka, Nardini Acqua di Cedro, lemon juice, honey, and mead. Bar menus around the world are adding mead drinks every day, while at-home mead making is at an all-time high. Many credit this to the rise of craft beer and home brewing, suggesting mead has captured curious audiences at a time when people want to drink what’s new, special, and different. Others say popular television series Game of Thrones and Vikings have made medieval life cool again to the benefit of mead.
Of course, mead was cool far before Tyrion Lannister drank himself silly. (Coincidently, Tyrion usually drinks wine or ale.) Some 8,000 years ago, somebody left a pot of honey outside in the rain. It fermented, and people drank it. Mead was born. Truthfully, how mead came to be is an educated guess, at best. But the earliest confirmed alcohol did contain honey. In Neolithic Chinese jars, researchers discovered 9,000-year-old alcohol from honey, rice, and fruit. Whatever this concoction was called, we do not know. But it’s quite clear that mead thrives as the world’s first branded alcohol type.
Zeus and Cronus are both said to have kicked back a few cups. When Jesus Christ was alive, the Romans sipped on mead, too. In the epic poem Beowulf, Danish warriors drink mead, and it was the elixir of choice for the Vikings, who were incorrectly thought to have enjoyed mead from the skulls of their enemies, and medieval Poles, whose dukes gifted visiting kings with mead. Queen Elizabeth I drank so much mead that she had her own recipe.
The medieval and Victorian Russians cherished mead and created gold kovshes from which one should only drink the finest meads. They believed in pure honey wine, while the Ethiopians liked a little spice in their mead. Mead was the noble’s drink and also used for medicinal purposes. The Physicians of Myddfai, historic herbalists in Wales who reigned from the thirteenth to the eighteenth century, recommended mead for inflammation and general home remedies, including tooth, eye, and muscle pain, while many doctors suggested it helped hurting stomachs and even eased wound pain. But mead’s medicinal dominance faltered with the rise of household distilled spirits, which influenced one 1865 account in The Medicinal Times & Gazette: A Journal of Medical Science, Literature, Criticism, and News: “I suspect that the custom of making mead is, like other branches of housewifery, dying out amongst the West Saxon peasantry. When I was a boy, brought up in a part of the ancient Wessex, a drop of mead was offered on calling at a better class cottage. Now, it was with the utmost difficulty that the messengers… could collect a few driblets of the liquor.”
This mid-nineteenth-century assessment offered the grim truth: mead’s heyday had been the ancient world. Wine, beer, and spirits became more accessible as time went on, slowly knocking mead off its pedestal. By 1898, the New York Times noted, “[Mead] has fallen from the position it once held… and the method of its manufacture is lost. In this part, mead is made to a very limited extent, and by persons who dispose of it at fairs, markets, and such like gatherings.”
As you will learn in this book, mead’s creation is dependent upon honey, good fermentation, and a lot of patience. Perhaps these tenets were not strictly adhered to by our forebears, casting mead into twentieth-century obscurity. Oh sure, an occasional brand appeared here and there, such as Wassail Mead, advertised as the “Love potion of the Vikings,” and at-home meaderies found fame in local newspapers. But honey wine remained a blip on the alcohol radar.
Until recently, that is.
Mead is now back with a honeycomb vengeance.
In hundreds of commercial and at-home meaderies across the United States, the modern mead maker is part historian, part honey expert and fermentation guru. In the world of alcohol production, mead makers are booze’s Swiss Army Knife, seemingly understanding all aspects of drinks. Perhaps that’s because the makers all come from other alcohol backgrounds and mead itself is so versatile and storied. “Mead hails from all over the world. Since honey was the first sugar known to humankind, it was the first fermented sugar,” says David Myers, owner of Redstone Meadery in Boulder, Colorado. “Mead predates wine and beer by several thousand years. They started blending in grapes and grain, and eventually these beverages become wine and beer. Honey with malt is known as a braggot (or bracket depending on the publication), and honey with grapes is a pyment.”
Unfortunately, the U.S. government does not recognize mead variants. Instead, it classifies all mead as honey wine. But that may soon change. In recent years, the American Mead Makers Association has lobbied for the passing of the Mead Equality and Definition Act, introduced by Representatives Mark Sanford (R-SC) and Paul Tonko (D-NY). The bill didn’t make it out of committee, but the act aimed to “allow, in the production of mead, the addition of wholesome fruits (including fruit juices, fruit puree, fruit extract, or fruit concentrate), vegetables, spices, and other ingredients suitable for human food consumption that are generally recognized as safe for use in an alcoholic beverage.…” In other words, mead just wanted protection for its historic production methods.
Legislation and awareness aside, mead is amazing and can be made at home.
5 cups filtered water
1 cup honey
¼ teaspoon wine yeast
Add the honey and water to your container, stir until dissolved. Proof yeast in a half cup of warm honey water, then add when temperature of must (the main mead mixture) is below 85 degrees, and stir vigorously. Add ¼ tsp yeast nutrient (Fermaid K) when it starts to foam, or 24 hours later. Add another ¼ tsp at 4 and 7 days. Stir twice daily during this time, and keep loosely covered and in a cool place for a month. About a month later, you have basic mead. Follow the instructions in the mead making chapter, especially regarding equipment and temperatures, for a better-tasting mead.
For those not interested in making mead, rest assured, you will find a burgeoning mead shelf at your local liquor store. Some of it is as sip-worthy as a glass of California chardonnay, as refreshing as a craft IPA, and as rich as a rare Bordeaux. This is not to mention mead’s flexibility as a cocktail component complementing bitters, amaro, or vermouth.
This book’s intent is not to replace anything behind the bar or in your home. Rather, it’s to open your eyes and palate to the world’s oldest alcohol and to introduce you to the royalty, raiders, and gods who sipped and glugged mead. You shall discover a new additive for your whiskey, rum, vodka, and gin cocktails, while learning how to make your own at home or in the bar. And if you’re a bartender and somebody says they want to drink like a Viking or Zeus, you now have something for that. You can tell them that mead is made today the same way it was during Pliny the Elder’s time. Just ask the bees.
AS THE BEEKEEPER IGNITES CRINKLED BURLAP IN A TIN CAN, a few bees swirl around him, analyzing his every move. Is he a threat to their queen? When bees detect trouble, they release a pheromone that smells like banana oil, informing their fellow protectors to prepare stingers for battle. If the worker bees (all sterile females) come blazing, the man is ready, fully clothed from head to toe in thick material that is impenetrable to a stinger, with a mesh cage around his face.
The beekeeper’s secret weapon is the smoke. Bees detect smoke and assume fire awaits; they collect as much honey as possible and prepare to build another hive. In terms of a threat level, the bees see the smoke as the true intruder, not the astronaut-like person coming to collect their honey. On this day, the beekeeper avoids any escalation. He’s harmless, or so it seems to the reconnaissance drones who fly back to a Langstroth hive, a popular multiframed box invented in the 1800s that uses beeswax hexagon-patterned sheets to encourage bees to create cells, develop broods, and store honey.
The smoke easily fools this Italian breed colony, but many beekeepers take extra precautions. For more aggressive species, such as killer bees, beekeepers duct-tape every joining piece of clothing to prevent that one angry worker bee from flying up their pants and making life much worse.
With six legs, two compound eyes, three simple eyes, and two pairs of wings that beat 200 times per second, bees are the only insects to produce human-consumed food—honey, a $3 trillion agricultural product that’s a chemical composition of fructose, glucose, minerals, moisture, reducing sugars, sucrose, acidity, and protein, as well as vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. The demand for this sweet delicacy dates back 9,000 years, when researchers believe prehistoric humans domesticated bees. This places honey production at the same point on our timeline as farming for food instead of hunting and gathering. Today, beekeeping is its own art and science practiced by both hobbyists and professionals.
These days, you’ll find bee farms in country gardens, suburban backyards, vineyards, and even on major metropolitan rooftops. “I set up Langstroth hives just like any other beekeeper; the only difference is that many of my hives are on roofs” in Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens, says Nick Hoefly, the beekeeper for Astor Apiaries Inc. “Instead of walking or driving out to the beeyard, I’m climbing a ladder up to my beeyard. Obviously, the height is an inherent danger of rooftop beekeeping, but we do benefit from the fact that we don’t get many pests like small hive beetles or ants that you get with hives in contact with the ground. And there’s pretty much no larger animals that bother the hives, unlike with other beekeepers who deal with skunks and bears.”
In the wild, bees build a “box” in hollowed trees, caves, and on the sides of cliffs, among other places, where they’re vulnerable to sharp-clawed critters who climb and risk painful stings for the sweet nectar.
Wherever they reside, bees all make honey the same way. Worker bees leave the hive to gather nectar, the sugar-laden liquid in plant glands called nectaries. Nectar is about 80 percent water, and the rest is complex sugars. Bees stick their large tongues into the glands, extract the nectar, and store it in their honey sacs, where the nectar is broken down into simple sugars. Upon a honeybee’s return to the hive, it stores the nectar in the honeycomb, where constant flapping from the wings of the colony fans the nectar to the point of evaporating the water to form honey. They seal the comb hole with beeswax and fly back into the wild for more nectar extraction. A deeper look into the biological process of how bees make honey finds an interesting debate over the word vomit, which Merriam-Webster’s defines as “to eject matter from the stomach through the mouth.” Many sources suggest bees have a honey stomach, while others say it’s merely an enlarged end of the esophagus. The distinction, of course, is that if they merely store nectar in an esophagus extension it’s not vomit when they expel it into the honeycomb. The stomach argument typically comes from the mainstream, with generalist writers saying, “honey is basically bee vomit,” as Julie R. Thomson wrote in Huffington Post. But scientists tend to disagree with this sentiment. Retired UC Davis apiculturist Eric Mussen says: “I make the distinction between honey bee regurgitation and mammalian vomit based on the fact that the nectar and honey being processed by the bees never have direct contact with food being processed, or expected to be processed, ‘digestively’ as is the food in a mammalian stomach. Although many sources refer to the honey bee crop as the ‘honey stomach,’ it is not a place where consumed foods are being digested in honey bees.”
Vomit or no vomit, nobody can dispute the bee’s absolute value to the world. Albert Einstein once said: “If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would only have four years left to live.” Whether that’s true or not—well, let’s hope we never find out. But bees pollinate the world.
When the bees are out collecting nectar from various plants pollen sticks to bee hairs and it remains on their bodies, especially legs, as they fly away. Upon landing on a new plant of the same species, the first plant’s pollen falls onto the second plant. If this encounter was male and female of the same species, pollination occurs. This cycle links the world’s ecosystem, and some say it is at serious risk of collapsing because of modern agricultural practices.
Contemporary research suggests the world’s bee populations are drastically declining, especially in the United States, where 700 species are on an extinction trajectory. “The evidence is overwhelming that hundreds of the native bees we depend on for ecosystem stability, as well as pollination services worth billions of dollars, are spiraling toward extinction,” says Kelsey Kopec, a native pollinator researcher at the Center for Biological Diversity and author of the 2017 study, Pollinators in Peril: A systematic status review of North American and Hawaiian native bees. “It’s a quiet but staggering crisis unfolding right under our noses that illuminates the unacceptably high cost of our careless addiction to pesticides and monoculture farming.”
This alarming study sent shock waves around the world, but the bee population isn’t the honey industry’s only problem.
In the past decade, fake honey has been erroneously labeled as “honey,” despite its being adulterated with the likes of glucose, dextrose, molasses, sugar syrup, invert sugar, flour, corn syrup, starch, and other sweeteners. Much of this fake honey comes from China and is extremely sticky due to the added sweeteners, runny, light in color, packs a residual sugar aftertaste, and does not caramelize when heated. It is likely that average consumers unknowingly purchase honey that is only 40 percent true honey.
Fake honey takes on the flavor of its ingredients, a hodgepodge of chemicals formed in a food lab. Real honey presents true terroir, the French term that suggests an agricultural product’s influence from climate, vegetation, elevation, sea proximity, and precipitation. Since bees in Jackson, Mississippi, obtain different floral nectar than those in Greenwich, England, they produce honeys that taste dramatically different, and thus, the same exact mead variants from these Mississippi and England honeys would be night and day. “I have made mead from Zambian honey, and it was smoky vs. local stuff that was sweet,” says David Myers, owner of Redstone Meadery in Colorado. “Honey makes all the difference for the flavor.”
But the matter of fake honey actually goes far deeper than consumer deception.
In 2010, one-third of the world’s honey was suspected of having lead or antibiotics, leading to bans on Asian honey. Investigations of the problem pointed toward complex organized crime schemes peddling fake honey in the U.S. and European markets. At first, bans were simply imposed on Chinese honey, but then the fake honey producers began funneling their product through Malaysia, once again granting it safe passage to American grocery stores; thus, the all-out Asian honey ban in the United States.
With tariffs and policing, you are less likely to find fake honey in your local grocery store. But the sad fact is that it continues to be big business. For the purposes of mead making, it cannot be stressed enough that the honey source matters. Fake honey will yield a nasty-tasting and even dangerous alcohol, drawing unwanted bacteria; thus, it’s always recommended that you purchase from your local apiary or visit TrueSourceHoney.com before purchasing.
In fact, honey’s entire composition—the color, flavor, aroma, and viscosity—is directly tied to its floral source(s). “Many times, characteristics of floral sources are recognizable in the honey, such as orange blossom’s citrus flavor notes and sage honey’s herby scent. And although honey bees may collect nectar in the same field at the same time each year, the resulting honey can differ based on climate changes such as rainfall, soil composition, and temperature,” says Jessica Schindler with the National Honey Board.
"Minnick sprinkles in his quirky sense of humor here and there - he muses at one point that King Erik Bloodaxe has to be the best Viking name ever - but for the most part he plays the part of researcher and story-teller, a considerable skill he has honed over the course of his notable career as a writer and author (seriously, you can't talk about bourbon literature without mentioning Minnick). ... Mead is for a wide audience, an audience that is ever growing. Once again, Minnick is there to help guide us."
- On Sale
- Jun 12, 2018
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Running Press