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Travelling Suitcase: Rediscovering mead, the ‘nectar of the gods’

Getting a taste of the drink fit for the gods, world’s oldest alcoholic beverage, at Ireland’s new meadery.

Contrary to popular perception, mead is not always sweet. (Photo courtesy: Kinsale Mead Co.)

“Do you know how the word honeymoon came about?” Denis Dempsey, co-owner of Kinsale Mead Co. in County Cork, has a snippet of trivia for the curious. A map of Ireland with beautiful illustrations of the legends associated with mead is unfurled. “It was a medieval tradition to give a newly-married couple a month’s or a moon’s worth of mead. This supposedly ensured a fruitful union and the birth of a son, hence the word honeymoon,” says Dempsey.

The drink fit for the gods is essentially an alcohol made by fermenting honey with water and yeast, with the optional addition of fruits or spices. Its long history goes back to at least 7,000 BC, making it the world’s oldest alcoholic beverage. Pottery jars discovered from the early Neolithic village of Jaihu in northern China have revealed traces of a fermented drink made from honey, rice, and fruit. In Europe, its presence dates to 2800-1800 BC. The Vikings drank this “nectar of the gods” (also called honey wine or ambrosia) as did the Mayans, Egyptians, ancient Greeks and Romans.

“Mead arrived in Ireland in the 5th century when St Molaige/Molaga brought honeybees with him from Wales, where he was a beekeeper in a monastery,” says Dempsey, pointing to the village of Timoleague on the map (not far from Kinsale), which the saint is said to have founded.

Over time, beer and wine became popular and mead fell out of favour. Grain and grapes are easier to grow and cheaper than honey. When mead prices skyrocketed, it sounded the death knell for the drink. In recent times, mead has seen a resurgence, in part owing to the hipsters and their proclivity towards craft beverages and artisanal spirits. Dempsey co-founded Kinsale Mead Co. along with wife Kate in 2016, the first contemporary meadery in Ireland.

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The large production area of the state-of-the-art Kinsale meadery is spick and span, and several tall, gleaming fermentation tanks take up half the room. A single-source orange blossom honey from Southern Spain is used to make Kinsale’s traditional style Atlantic Dry Mead. Kinsale has had historic maritime links with Spain, so it’s only fitting that the honey comes via the old trade route. The water is sourced from the village of Innishannon that sits on river Bandon, 14 km north of Kinsale. The honey, water and yeast mix is fermented for three to five weeks, bringing it to an alcohol level of about 12 per cent. It is then matured for a few months before bottling.

The thick, rich Spanish orange blossom honey has heady citrusy notes, reminding me of a Valencia summer. I also try a couple of other honeys, including one with notes of heather. Dempsey places four shot glasses in front of me and we begin with the Atlantic Dry Mead, citrusy with a touch of apples and pears.

Contrary to popular perception, mead is not always sweet. The Wild Red Mead, the colour of a good Burgundy wine, has blackcurrants and cherries and the limited edition Hazy Summer Mead, in a rich pink, is a mix of berries like strawberries, raspberries, blackberries and more. The heather honey mead is a complex drink with earthy, floral notes. Because of its versatility, mead makes an excellent cocktail mixer. Bees Knees was a classic Prohibition-era cocktail in which honey and lemon were added to mask the flavour of bootleg gin. Dempsey’s take on it uses two parts Atlantic Dry Mead, one part gin, and half measures each of honey syrup and fresh lemon juice. We say sláinte to that.

Prachi Joshi is a Mumbai-based writer.

This article appeared in print with the headline ‘Travelling Suitcase: Mead More’