In this era of constant accusations of media bias — left-wing, right-wing, gull-wing (that’s bias against DeLoreans) — I confess: I have a long-held bias against mead. Despite regularly incorporating honey syrups into cocktails, until recently I’d largely avoided honey’s fermented iteration, either straight or as a mixer.
The source of my bias was a Renaissance festival I attended years ago. I expected to love it; after all, I’d read “The Chronicles of Narnia” at least five times. I can wench with the best of them. When we went, my friends and I bought cups of mead and “medieval” food (crusaders apparently got around on funnel cake and Ye Olde Empanadas) and wandered about taking it all in: the jousts, the bearded men in velvet pantaloons smithying various weapons.
Giddy from the mead, I paid extra to see a creature billed as “The World’s Littlest Unicorn,” which turned out to be a goat in a jacket. No one had even bothered to stick a fake horn on it. When the little girl ahead of me said plaintively, “That’s not a unicorn!,” The World’s Jerkiest Carny told her she was right: “And do you know why it’s not a unicorn? Because children don’t believe in unicorns anymore.”
Next day I woke with a sugar headache that felt like I’d been hit with a mace. And I hadn’t even had that much mead. For days, a taste of disillusionment lingered, along with the faint scent of goat.
Leave a hateful note in the comments — or pin one to my door with an elvish dagger from the SkyMall catalogue — but perhaps you can understand why it took me a while to start mixing drinks with this ancient beverage that, like so many other categories of older food culture, has resurfaced in our contemporary one.
With its long history and connection with agriculture, locavorism and fermentation, mead seems a particularly outsider art in the often-corporate beverage world. Some argue it’s the oldest fermented drink, though the Renaissance fair connection is off-base: Honey is an ancient and virtually global sweetener, and mead has roots in China, India and Africa as well as Europe. (The Ethiopian honey wine tej is arguably a mead variation; how much of a variation depends on how long an argument you want to have.) While honey-based, meads typically incorporate a variety of other fruits, herbs and spices, allowing yeasts to create fermentation.
My mead-avoidance policy had been easy until relatively recently. Trying to avoid mead was like trying to avoid hearing King Crimson’s 1973 album “Larks’ Tongues in Aspic” on the radio: Pretty easy.
But meadmakers have kept to their craft, and new ones have come along. Over the past decade, modern meadmakers (or mazers) have been bringing the drink back. Locally, the biggest dent has been made by Charm City Meadworks in Baltimore, which has been producing some lovely varieties of dry, fruit-enhanced and herbal meads. Bars and bartenders are reintroducing it to those who either don’t know it or turned against it because they experienced it the way I did: cloying, accompanied by a festively dressed ruminant.
“There’s a lot of stereotypes about it,” says chef David Guas, owner of Bayou Bakery, who came to appreciate mead through his work with the National Honey Board. Some of the meads from older makers cemented the wine’s reputation as aggressively sweet, and so sometimes you’ll still see newer, drier meads kept in the sweet dessert wine section. “They don’t always properly categorize it.”
It’s a challenge: The variety is vast. There are still very sweet meads out there, but many others are reminiscent of a tart white wine. Some are more hopped and herbal and beerlike, others brighter and fruity.
I’ve found that, as a cocktail component, some meads don’t hold up as a base without a solid assist from other ingredients. With a good dry gin, fruit or amaro component added, they can do well, but I’ve had several mead cocktails where I kept waiting for interest to kick in and it never happened; mismixed, they can end in a drink that tastes strangely flattened.
But some herbal dry meads make for interesting martini variations; some sweet herbal meads sub well for sweet vermouth. I made a beautifully seasonal rye Manhattan with Orchid Cellar’s Archer, a mead spiced with clove, cinnamon and juniper. Charm City’s original dry with gin and honey syrup makes a nice Bee’s Knees riff. Even the sweetest meads can sometimes play the role of a liqueur or PX sherry, adding richness and that little “what the heck is that?” that can make a drink more fascinating.
An experienced bartender, Arley Marks wasn’t immune from mead preconceptions, but when his friend Raphael Lyon of Brooklyn meadery Enlightenment Wines started bringing him meads to work with, “pretty quickly preconceptions were blown out of the water.”
He ended up coming on board. Now the owner/operator of Honey’s, the tasting room and bar for the meadery, Marks says their dry cherry mead “brings a Christmas-y, piney note to the classic Martinez.” At the bar, the Dagger Martinez is served with the base of the glass dipped in Eastern hemlock needles (non-foragers can get the seasonal hint with the rosemary sprig garnish we’ve suggested as a replacement).
In his seasonal Cranberry Delight, Guas pairs Charm City’s Wildflower mead with a caramelized honey and ginger syrup and charred cranberries. Make the base in advance and pour the effervescent mead fresh for each drink; it’s perfect for holiday parties.
Meaderies are popping up all over the place; according to the American Mead Makers Association, the number of commercial meaderies in the United States has increased tenfold since 2003, going from approximately 30 to 300 in early 2016. Given the renewed interest in vermouths, I could see mead providing new terrain for exploration. But with few exceptions, the demand for particular brands hasn’t been great enough to push most beyond their home markets. New spirits and liqueurs often ride to success on the back of a great cocktail, but with such variety in available meads, it’s a harder trip for any single one of them to make. In some ways, I think that localization only makes them more interesting: You can have a great Negroni anywhere in the world, but a great mead cocktail? That’s likely to stay in the neighborhood.
It’s a different neighborhood from what you remember, and mead has stood the test of time, Guas points out: “It’s just not your friar-dressed-in-brown-robes-comes-in-a-jug-from-Robin Hood-movies anymore.” Given a couple of years, if more bartenders start playing with mead, it may come to be more associated with punk rock and tattoos instead.
Allan is a Hyattsville, Md., writer and editor. Follow her on Twitter: @Carrie_the_Red.
Dagger cherry mead is available online through the company’s website, enlightenmentwines.com.
2 ounces barrel-aged gin, such as Breuckelen
1 ounce Dagger cherry mead (see headnote)
2 dashes orange bitters
1 barspoon maraschino liqueur (not the liquid from a jar of maraschino cherries)
Small rosemary sprig, for garnish
Fill a mixing glass two-thirds with ice. Add the barrel-aged gin, mead, bitters and maraschino liqueur; stir for 30 seconds, then strain into a coupe glass or a “Nick and Nora”-style cocktail (martini) glass.
Garnish with the rosemary.
From Arley Marks, owner-operator of Honey’s in Brooklyn, and Honey’s bartender Torrey Bell-Edwards. Tested by M. Carrie Allan; email questions to email@example.com.
8 to 10 servings
Chef David Guas recommends using Charm City’s Wildflower mead here, but if you end up with a non-sparkling mead, Guas suggests adding a little club soda for effervescence. He also likes to use a 1-1 blend of clover and wildflower honeys for the syrup.
We found the mead at Old Line Wine in Beltsville; Batch 13 and Cordial at Union Market also carry Charm City products.
For the syrup and drink base
1 cup honey (see headnote)
1 cup fresh orange juice
5 to 6 ounces fresh ginger root, peeled, then minced or grated (1/2 cup)
1 cup fresh cranberries
2 cups unsweetened cranberry juice
For the drink
4 ounces mead
For the syrup and drink base: Bring the honey to a boil in a large, deep saucepan over high heat. (It will froth and bubble; the large pot is needed to contain the volume.) Cook for 8 to 10 minutes, or until it turns dark amber and emits a slightly bitter scent, but be careful not to overcook, and adjust the heat as needed. Turn off the heat.
Gradually add the orange juice, being careful to avoid the whoosh of steam, then stir in the ginger. Let it steep for a few minutes (just long enough for the ginger to soften a bit), then transfer to a blender (or use an immersion blender) to blend the syrup. Strain it through a fine-mesh strainer and reserve; discard the solids.
Heat a small cast-iron skillet over high heat for 5 minutes, then gently stir in the cranberries and allow them to char for 5 to 6 minutes; they will hiss and pop, and some will start to blacken.
Transfer the cranberries to a 1-quart (or larger) pitcher. Add the honey-ginger syrup and the cranberry juice. The yield is about 4 cups. Cool completely and store in the refrigerator if not using right away.
For the drink: Fill a highball glass two-thirds full with ice. Add 4 ounces of the drink base, including several cranberries, and top with 4 ounces of the mead. Stir gently and serve.
From David Guas, chef-owner of Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery in the District and in Arlington. Tested by M. Carrie Allan; email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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