Mead: The word alone conjures up notions of goblets, grubby pirates, or perhaps a trip to Medieval Times. But Game of Thrones imagery aside, mead is simply a beverage made by fermenting honey and aging it in oak barrels.
It suffers from a lack of knowledge about the category, however. It’s unfamiliar and often confusing, particularly compared with wine, beer, or spirits. “People tend to think mead is a single product, not a whole category,” says Chrissie Manion Zaerpoor, the author of The Art of Mead Tasting and Food Pairing and the owner of Kookoolan World Meadery.
Contrary to what you may think when you hear the phrase “made from honey,” mead is not necessarily sickly sweet or overly saccharine. Its flavor profiles range from crisp and wine-ish to yeasty and beer-leaning.
“I wish more people knew that mead is a whole broad category,” says Zaerpoor. “It can be dry, it can be sweet, it can be sparkling. It can be anywhere from 5% to 25% ABV. It can have crazy flavors or be very pure. It’s a huge, vast category.”
What Is Mead?
“Mead is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey mixed with water, and sometimes with added ingredients such as fruits, spices, and herbs,” says Jon Talkington, the owner and mead maker at The Brimming Horn Meadery.
“There’s already yeast in and around the hives, so the mixture will spontaneously ferment,” says Anthony Caporale, the director of spirits education at the Institute of Culinary Education. “The sugars convert directly into alcohol by that yeast, which makes a fermented beverage. If you stop the fermentation early by chilling the mead, you’ll end up with a lower alcohol content with a bit of residual sugar, and if you let it continue, you end up with a high-ABV beverage with no residual sugar.”
“But just because it’s made from honey doesn’t mean it’s going to be sweet,” says Raphael Lyon of Honey’s, a mead-focused bar in Brooklyn. “Remember, grapes are sweet before they are fermented.”
The resulting liquid is “beautiful,” says Caporale, a mead brewer himself. “It’s interesting. It’s complex. It’s different. It’s new.”
How (and Why) to Mix with Mead
Where does mead fit into a bar program?
“Mixing with mead is ridiculously easy,” says Caporale. “When you’re working with mead, you’re not just adding sweetness; it’s not simple syrup. Mead adds a very distinctive flavor to cocktails.”
Take a Death in the Afternoon cocktail. “Traditionally, it calls for Champagne," says Caporale, “but if you substitute dry sparkling mead, you’re going to get a completely different profile. There are added layers of flavor. With absinthe’s herbaceousness, mead’s floral component is exactly what you need.” He’ll also top a Champagne cocktail with sparkling mead. “Those bitter-sweet flavors are going to have the same balancing effect on a sparkling dry mead as they will a sparkling dry wine,” he says.
Chelsea DeMark, the beverage director at Bar Julian in the Thompson Savannah hotel, loves working with fortified ingredients and “mead is no exception,” she says. “The typically rich, earthy flavor of mead is a nice juxtaposition to the botanical notes in gin, or the spice profile of an aged rum.” A splash will add some complexity to vodka-based cocktails and round out the structure of a sour or spirit-forward drink made with lighter liquors, she finds.
“Mead can provide texture, making drinks more round and creamy,” says DeMark. “It adds a bit of earthiness to the drink. There’s a good balance of sweetness and acid in mead, so it makes a great modifier.”
Zaerpoor finds it’s a “little bit mysterious” as an ingredient. “A little hard to identify. Not everyone is used to mead, and they’re typically delighted by how interesting it is.” She finds “mead goes well with oat and bourbon flavors.” Any cocktail that uses pure honey mead and bourbon will “almost always work well.” (Try a riff on a Stinger.)
Mead brewer Talkington likes breezy highballs with mead contributing a subtle honey base: Just add soda or tonic water, ice, and a slice of lemon. Outside of that, “A sweeter mead provides a robust and elegant sweetness that is much preferred to sugar or corn syrup,” he says. “We use it in place of liquor, in place of wine, or as the base spirit for a cocktail. The joy and benefit of working with mead is that honey is receptive to other flavors, so a mead cocktail can take any shape you can think of.”
While bartenders can preach about the product’s versatility, using mead in cocktails isn’t as simple as grabbing a bottle and swapping it into drinks. Mead is a broad category, with a variety of styles and ingredients.
“Honey is such a terroir-driven ingredient, mead is as well,” says DeMark. “The overall flavor profile varies widely depending on what the honey is made with and the climate at that moment, in addition to the production decisions that were made by the mead-maker.”
At Calgary’s Chinook Honey Meadery, mead maker Art Andrews will make a wide range of hyper-specific meads, from a floral mead made with an alfalfa-clover honey blend to a bold, scotch-like mead made with buckwheat honey.
Enlightenment Wines in New York makes wine-like meads. One is fermented with raw spring honey and white wine yeasts and then bottle-conditioned to produce a bubbly, rich, wine-adjacent drink. Another, perfect as a nightcap, is made by caramelizing honey and fermenting it with wine yeasts before aging it in Heaven Hill whiskey barrels for two years.
Mead can incorporate a variety of ingredients, from apples to cherries or black currants, says Lyon. “That's a really broad palette.” He recommends working with an aged mead in cocktails—“something that has some kind of density,” he says—rather than lower-ABV or “session” meads. “They’re watered down, so there’s not as much flavor to lend to a cocktail.” Dry mead is his way to go. “You can add honey flavor or simple syrup for sweetness later,” he says. “If a mead is already sweet, you’re very limited in what you can work with.”
“Every bartender can talk to you about the difference between brut Champagne and all the other sweetness levels,” says Caporale. “That’s where the challenge is: There are no designations on mead’s flavor profiles that people are familiar with.” But he proposes that bartenders treat mead like any ingredient they’re unfamiliar with: “Taste it; research as you read the labels.” Try different styles, different producers, and different products, he advises.
“Open it, learn it, understand its alcohol profile,” echoes Zaerpoor. “What profile is this mead: sweet, sour, or acid-balanced?”
There are also other issues to be aware of. Mead is pricey because it’s a small-batch agriculture product, and honey is far more expensive to farm than cereal, grains, or grapes. “With colony collapse and all the issues happening in our environment, production of honey is very expensive,” says Caporale.
But at the moment, many consumers don’t possess the awareness and appreciation to shell out for a bottle of mead. “If we can get to a point where people are excited about and willing to pay higher prices for mead, it encourages production, which will then subsidize and finance the production of honey,” Caporale continues. “That will allow us to put more resources into things like beekeeping, bee research, and prioritizing bee habitats.” A mead renaissance would indicate a shift to prioritizing healthy food systems, he says. “If we can get to a point where mead is widely available and appreciated, that’s exciting.”