Mead is an alcoholic beverage created by fermenting honey with water, sometimes with various fruits, spices, grains, or hops.
The alcoholic content ranges from about 3.5% percent alcohol to more than 18% percent alcohol. The defining characteristic of mead is that the majority of the beverage’s fermentable sugar is derived from honey.
Mead can be light or rich, sweet or dry, or even sparkling. In the Middle Ages it was usually similar to sparkling table wine. Mead is made in modern times as a sweet or dry wine of low alcoholic strength.
It is widely thought to be one of the oldest alcoholic beverages, with evidence for the consumption of a fermented beverage made of honey, rice, and fruit dating to the 7th millennium BC in China.
The earliest surviving description of mead is possibly the soma mentioned in the hymns of the Rigveda, one of the sacred books of the historical Vedic religion and (later) Hinduism dated around 1700–1100 BC.
The Abri, a northern subgroup of the Taulantii, were known to the ancient Greek writers for their technique of preparing mead from honey. Taulantii could prepare mead, wine from honey like the Abri.
Referred to as “nectar of the gods” by ancient Greeks, mead was believed to be dew sent from the heavens and collected by bees. Many European cultures considered bees to be the gods’ messengers, and mead was thus associated with immortality and other magical powers, such as divine strength and wit. For this reason, mead continued to factor heavily in Greek ceremonies even after its eventual decline in drinking popularity.
Aristotle discussed mead in his Meteorologica and elsewhere, while Pliny the Elder called mead militites in his Naturalis Historia and differentiated wine sweetened with honey or “honey-wine” from mead. The Hispanic-Roman naturalist Columella gave a recipe for mead in De re rustica, about 60 CE.
Alcoholic drinks made from honey were also common among the ancients of Scandinavia, Gaul and Teutonic Europe, and in the Middle Ages, particularly in northern countries where grapevines do not flourish.
Mead holds particular importance in Norse mythology, especially in the legend of a fabled beverage with magical powers known as “Poetic Mead.” As the story goes, mythological gods created a man named Norseman Kvasir who was so wise he could answer any question. When he was eventually killed, his blood was mixed with honey, and whoever drank this honey-blood mead took on Kvasir’s power of intelligence. And it’s likely this myth that inspired Danish craft mead producer Dansk Mjod to make its Viking Blod Mead, which is flavored and colored red from hibiscus.
In Celtic and Anglo-Saxon literature, such as the writings of Taliesin and in the Mabinogion and Beowulf, mead is the drink of kings and thanes. Chaucer’s Miller drank mead, but by the 14th century spiced ale and pyment (a sweetened wine similar to mulsum) were superseding it in popularity.
During the Middle Ages, Queen Elizabeth possessed her own royal recipe for mead and Chaucer wrote of mead on more than one occasion. Shakespeare drank mead. In Germany, judges were served mead and army troops were provided mead for fortification.
Mead was a popular drink in medieval Ireland. Beekeeping was brought around the 5th century, traditionally attributed to Modomnoc, and mead came with it. A banquet hall on the Hill of Tara was known as Tech Mid Chuarda (“house of the circling of mead”). Mead was often infused with hazelnuts. Many other legends of saints mention mead, as does that of the Children of Lir.
Some monasteries kept up the traditions of mead-making as a by-product of beekeeping, especially in areas where grapes could not be grown.
In Russia, mead remained popular as medovukha and sbiten long after its popularity declined in the West. Sbiten is often mentioned in the works by 19th-century Russian writers, including Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy. Some beer producers attempt to revive sbiten’ as a mass-produced drink in Russia.
Mulled mead is a popular drink at Christmas time, where mead is flavored with spices (and sometimes various fruits) and warmed, traditionally by having a hot poker plunged into it.
Mead can also be distilled to a brandy or liqueur strength, in which case it is sometimes referred to as a whiskey. A version called “honey jack” can be made by partly freezing a quantity of mead and straining the ice out of the liquid (a process known as freeze distillation), in the same way that applejack is made from cider.
The term “honey wine” is sometimes used as a synonym for mead, although wine is typically defined to be the product of fermented berries or certain other fruits, and some cultures have honey wines that are distinct from mead. The honey wine of Hungary, for example, is the fermentation of honey-sweetened pomace of grapes or other fruits.