"dew sent from the heavens and collected by bees."
Mead is ancient, so ancient it is mythological. I gather the most ancient remains have been found in China dating from 7000BC but they think it probably went back further than this. Indeed
the general consensus seems to be that this is the most ancient alcoholic beverage.
"Early foragers likely drank the contents of a rainwater-flooded beehive that had fermented naturally with the help of airborne yeast." Amanda Marsteller - Liquor.com
Seeing that quote I should here acknowledge that much of what I am about to say comes from the excellent article by the said Amanda Marsteller on Liquor.com. Because as always of course, there is nothing new on this website. Somebody has done it all before and much better.
Anyway the Ancients from a wide variety of cultures - perhaps most notably the Norse people and the Greeks embraced mead with much enthusiasm and almost reverence.
"Many European cultures considered bees to be the gods’ messengers, and mead was thus associated with immortality and other magical powers, such as Olympus-level strength and wit." Amanda Marsteller - Liquor.com
I think the magical, supernatural qualities that became associated with it were something to do with the reverence in which bees were held, and also perhaps the colour - most usually gold. Then there were the herbs and spices that were added, some of which were medicinal. Indeed the Welsh word for mead is metheglin, which means medicine - or is it the other way round - with the word for medicine being transferred to the drink. And let's not forget that probably it's main reason for popularity, was that it is alcoholic - quite strongly so - around 12-15% I believe.
The superstitions surrounding it continued well into the middle ages and Renaissance period. And whilst we have forgotten all that, the superstition still persists in the word 'honeymoon'
"The origin of “honeymoon” harks back to the medieval tradition of drinking honey wine for a full moon cycle after a new marriage. All that golden essence would supposedly ensure a fruitful union bearing plenty of children. This mead-based insurance policy was taken so seriously that a bride’s father included a month’s worth of mead in her dowry." Amanda Marsteller - Liquor.com
So I am not sure which was more popular in the middle ages, mead or wine - for wine also dates back a long way of course, not to mention beer. It was certainly popular for a very long time but then faded from view. I'm guessing around the 17th and 18th centuries. Maybe we gave it up in favour of tea and coffee.
Whatever the reason, disappear it did, apart from little pockets in the rural world, until recently when it is being 'rediscovered', and, of course being experimented with. And last night on River Cottage Australia, Paul West showed you how to do it. You can find the video and the recipe here. For comparison Epicurious also has a recipe. It was not something that you can easily try at home though. You need equipment like a proper distilling flask and you need specialist ingredients like wine yeast and wine improver.
If you've got these because you make your own beer, or maybe wine, then you will be good to go though. The only other thing I would say about the recipe is that Paul West said you should use runny honey, but I did find another site which said they used solidified honey and it worked OK.
As to flavourings - well the list is pretty endless. Back in the day there were all kinds, with lovely names, such as:
"melomel, a mead that contains juice or fruit like blackberries and raspberries. Then there’s cyser, an apple-based mead; acerglyn, made with maple syrup; braggot, a mead/beer blend brewed with hops or barley; rhodomel, a very old style laced with roses—and legions more." Amanda Marsteller - Liquor.com
The 'mel' component of some of those words is the honey bit - the French for honey is 'miel' and in Italian it is 'miele'. And as you can see, modern versions look a lot like wine of many different colours. But it isn't wine:
"You might hear mead referred to as honey wine. Not quite. Mead is created by fermenting honey, while wine is made from fermented fruit. And though mead is often flavored with various fruits, that does not make it wine" Amanda Marsteller - Liquor.com
I checked with Dan Murphy, who seems to have quite a wide range from the Moonlight Meadery, at least online, if not in the store - well not ours anyway, but further investigation showed me that this is an American producer. It turns out that it is quite popular over there, and also world wide. René Redzepi of Noma in Denmark was mentioned as one chef who used it in his cuisine. But the Australians are getting into it. Dan Murphy's also has Maxwell of McClaren Vale mead - until recently the only producers, and Max Allen, the Australian Financial Review's drinks man recently wrote a piece on a particular maker - a Frenchman, Louis Costa who now lives in Byron Bay. He came from a Bordeaux winemaking family, but Byron Bay is not a good place to make wine, and so he turned to mead and honey too - apparently there is a lot of honey in Byron Bay. His company is called Aurum and after a lot of experimentation he has settled on "a dry mead made from macadamia honey, and an off-dry sparkling rosé mead infused with hibiscus flowers and strawberry gum." So all very Australian - so much so that he says:
“I can see them working really well as part of a degustation of food made from native ingredients,” Louis Costa
Max Allen seemed to think the hibiscus and rose one would work well as an aperitif and the macadamia honey one as a substitute for pinot gris. They're not cheap of course. So I was pleased to see his slightly over the top review of Sunlight Liquor Sparkling Orange Blossom Mead from the Riverland which is sold in cans and sells for $5.00 a pop. Maybe this is the way to try it out.
"This sparkling mead is made from orange blossom honey infused with bergamot orange and black tea. The bergamot enhances the citrus notes in the honey beautifully – you can almost feel each little juice vesicle in an orange segment popping on your tongue – and the tea brings a lovely creamy texture to the drink." Max Allen - AFR
It sounds quite tempting and refreshing which is not what I had in mind that mead would be. I think I thought sickly sweet and heavy, more like beer than wine, but no - modern mead is considered as a 'dry drink'. But then I guess lots of wine is dry and they are made from sweet fruits.
I think somewhat too hard to make your own. I'll stick to my limoncello - which is super easy and super good.