The word mead tends to paint a picture of dirty, near-toothless men at sea clanking metal goblets and singing shanties. At least it does for some. But mead isn’t some kind of grog made for rough-and-tumble men of the past. Mead is a sweet, rich, and timeless spirit meant for all walks of life, including immortal life. Mead is also the stepping stone to a whole new world of spirits.
“It’s a lot easier to sell a vodka than to sell a product that no one knows about.” - Dominic DeSano, Somel.buzz
Mead is not beer, nor is it wine (although it has been called “honey wine” by some, and for good reason. The flavor is like the Goldilocks of white wine: Not too sweet, not too dry. Just right.) It is simply yeast, water, and honey fermented together to create a slightly viscous alcoholic beverage. Mead was once consumed by royalty, vikings, and the Greek Gods, with mead being known as “the nectar of the gods.” According to Liquor.com, traces of mead have even been found in Chinese pottery from 7000 B.C., long before beer and wine were invented.
The creation of mead has been thought to be something of an accident. Foragers would drink from beehives that had been flooded with rainwater and naturally fermented from airborne yeast, not knowing of the intoxicating effects. Since then, mead has expanded to include countless different types, each with different names.
Mead that’s made with fruit is known as melomel, while cyser is an apple-based mead, and braggot is a mead brewed with hops or barley. Mead infused with herbs is known as “metheglin”, a type of mead that was once used for medicinal purposes. In fact, the word metheglin comes from the Welsh word for “medicine.”
The most recent evolution of mead has gone beyond flavors and ingredients, affecting the process itself. People have started to distill mead, creating a brand new spirit: somel, also known as honey spirits.
“I wish this was invented 300 years ago like it was supposed to,” says the founder of Somel.buzz, Dominic DeSano, “In the 13th century in France when they discovered distillation, the first thing they probably said was ‘Bring me beer, bring me wine, and bring me mead.’ Mead never made it due to the cost of honey and beekeeping and the scarcity of it all. It’s always about cost.”
Due to the amount of honey it takes to create just one bottle of this spirit, those who have broken into this up and coming industry have had to scour their local areas to find beekeepers that could provide the right amount of honey. This may be difficult and time consuming, but Up North Distillery has risen to the challenge, dedicating a large portion of their distillery to the production of honey spirits.
Up North Distillery is a farm-to-flask craft distillery from Post Falls, ID. It is run by a husband-wife team, Hilary and Randy Mann. Originally they specialized in apple brandy, but after receiving their German still, along with some additional supplies, their distillery has since evolved to carry 100% pure honey spirits.
“We bought [our still] from a gentleman in Montanna who had an apple orchard. He was experimenting with apples and honey and said it’s the same price with or without the honey, so we said we’ll just figure out what to do with it! And my husband loves chemistry and tinkering, so he started experimenting with it,” co-founder of Up North Distillery Hilary Mann says. Since the purchase of their stills, Up North Distillery has started to create three different types of honey spirits: unaged, barrel finished, and barrel reserved. The production of these three honey spirits requires up to 16 tons of honey every year.
“[The main challenge] is working with the TTB. [Honey spirits is] such a new category, so there are no set laws,” Hilary Mann explains. The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is responsible for determining what is and isn’t allowed in each category of spirit, what should be in each recipe, and what is required on every label. Their rules are specific and strict for established spirits like bourbon, whiskey, vodka, and gin. But the rules aren’t as clear for the more uncommon kinds of spirits, if there are rules at all.
“There’s a lot of education that needs to take place because it’s just such a new product.” - Hilary Mann, Up North Distillery
“When I first went to get my Bee’s Knees label it took me at least six months to get my labels approved by the TTB. I just didn’t know what to call them!” co-owner of The Hardware Distillery Company Jan Morris says. “Originally I filed it as a brandy, but that got rejected because it’s not 100% fruit. I just kept sending in labels and finally I called up and they told me what I had to do.”
The Hardware Distillery Company is run by Jan and Chuck Morris. After retirement, Jan and Chuck decided to start a distillery and move into their small vacation cabin in Hoodsport, Washington. The Hardware Distillery Company uses grains grown in Washington state fields, fruit grown in Washington orchards, and honey from Washington beehives. Their distillery’s property is located next to the Hood Canal, surrounded by waterfalls that they use within their spirits.
“Well when we first got our still we had no idea what we were doing, so we were looking around for what we could distill. My son had a raspberry mead that he had made and it was sitting around our basement. We had this 5 gallon still that it fit perfectly, so we distilled it and it was quite tasty! [From there] we decided to make that and we’ve been making it ever since,” Jan Morris of Hardware Distillery Company says.
The Hardware Distillery Company’s line of Bee’s Knees are made from 80% honey and 20% fruit, whether it be raspberry, fig, peach, plum, or cherry. They were the first creations to come out of The Hardware Distillery Company’s stills, but they were one of the last products to hit the shelves. “Straight out of the still it’s kind of harsh. You would think a honey spirit would be really smooth but it’s not. So we barrel age all of our Bee’s Knees for at least 2 years,” Jan Morris explains, “The weird thing is the barrel aging actually takes a lot of the honey and fruit taste out of the product. When it first comes out of the still there’s a really cool honey aftertaste that’s not sweet. Then when we put it in the barrels the honey aftertaste goes away, but it gets a lot smoother. So it’s a tradeoff.”
Since the term somel is up and coming, the definition itself is still up for debate. Some people would like somel to describe spirits made from at least 51% fermented honey, similar to how they determine whether or not a whiskey should be considered a “rye whiskey.” Others disagree, arguing that only 100% fermented honey spirits should be eligible to carry the name, as the word somel is latin for “only honey.”
“There are people that make a true distilled mead - which is what we do - and then there are people that make mead and then add fruit or other additives to sweeten, which in our opinion is not a true distilled mead, [it’s more like] a liqueur,” Up North Distillery’s Hilary Mann says. Up North Distillery is one of the only distilleries making 100% pure honey spirits. While its exclusivity is appealing and impressive, restricting the name may also restrict the opportunities for other people looking to experiment with honey.
Photo by Scott Maurer Designs, Provided by somel.buzz
Somel.buzz, an informational website partnered with the likes of Central Standard Distillery The Hardware Distillery Company, List Distillery, and the National Honey Board, has worked with these partners to create legal specifications for somel. For now it seems that “the proposed standard of somel will follow similar production regulations already in place for brandy” according to Somel.buzz’s founder Dominic DeSano.
“The word brandy by itself means the distillation of grapes. That’s it. That’s what brandy means. You don’t have to say grape brandy, it’s just brandy. But you can make an apple brandy, a pear brandy, even a dandelion brandy. You just have to state that on the label. “So what we’ve done with somel is that we’ve given that ability. You just have to call it out,” Dominic DeSano of Somel.buzz explains.
“As meaderies become more popular, you might find more meaderies seeking out distilleries to distill their product. But very few meaderies make 100% honey mead. [Almost all of them] have other flavors added to it,” Dominic DeSano says, “So the specifications we’ve chosen allows the meads those meaderies make to be turned into somel. If you give a cyser to a distiller, we want them to be able to call that an apple somel. We want people to play and to be able to have an outlet for their products without it being labelled as a distilled spirit specialty.”
Whiskey and brandy take up to 4-5 days to ferment and be ready for distillation, but the high sugar content in honey brings about some challenges. The yeast needs additional nutrients to survive in this environment, making the process significantly longer for some distillers. Up North’s Honey Spirits take about 3 weeks to ferment, while The Hardware Distillery Company’s Bee’s Knees take anywhere from 4-6 weeks to ferment. But since this is such a new practice, it takes time to perfect.
“If you really know what you’re doing you can make somel in the same amount of time you can make whiskey. [But with whiskey] you have to put it in a barrel and wait for nature, for the elements, to make it mature. And that can take years,” DeSano explains, “But with somel, it’s already got the elements. It’s got it all from the bees. And it’s got one more element that a lot of the other stuff doesn’t have, and that is sound. The vibrations of the bees.” Many distilleries have experimented with sound during fermentation, such as Tequila Alderete who plays Mozart while their agave ferments in order to provide the yeast a relaxed atmosphere.
To an outsider looking in, one might think somel tastes like honey. But in reality, it can have a variety of flavors, similar to that of the spirits you already enjoy. “The [unaged honey spirit] ends up tasting like a cross between tequila and rum, but instead of molasses you have honey” Hilary Mann of Up North Distillery says. Despite the differences in ingredients and length of process, both Up North Distillery and The Hardware Distillery Company have both described their aged honey spirits as tasting similar to bourbon with a little added sweetness.
“It’s a really great alcohol for making cocktails. The Merry Cherry Bee’s Knees makes the best Manhattans.” The Hardware Distillery Company’s Jan Morris says. While one honey spirit may taste floral and light, another from across the state may taste worlds’ different. This is because honey itself is a regional product, exposing the local plants and flowers and highlighting their best qualities. The unavoidably local nature of honey makes for the perfect ingredient in craft spirits and the perfect way to celebrate your surroundings.
“...it has to be more than just putting a honeybee on the label. It has to be telling that story, where that honey came from, how they get the nectar from the flower and create the honey from there. It’s all about the story.” - Keith Seiz, The National Honey Board
“The National Honey Board really wants to promote people like us who use a lot of honey. Because the more people become accustomed to integrating honey in their diets, the more demand there will be and the more support there will be in solving this collapse,” Jan Morris explains. “It helps people be more aware and makes honey more a part of their lives.”
The National Honey Board held the very first National Honey Spirit Competition last year. The winners included distilleries from both sides of the somel debate. It also included spirits flavored with honey and products made with honey but distilled at a higher heat, meeting the qualifications for vodka, but not somel. But neither of these kinds of spirits would be considered a somel, due to the fact that honey was added later in the process, playing no part in the fermentation.
The only requirement to enter the National Honey Spirits Competition last year was to use 100% real honey in the product. This year, the National Honey Spirits Competition is back with new revisions, including the separation of honey spirits and spirits flavored with honey. “We just want to support anybody who’s making efforts [to promote the use of honey] and we know that it would be good for consumers and the honey industry if there was an official designation for [honey spirits],” National Honey Board’s Keith Seiz says.
Photo provided by the National Honey Board
The National Honey Board is dedicated to the safety and survival of the honeybees. And with that comes the promotion of honey, whether it be in food or beer or spirits. Spirits are one of the most recent points of interest for The National Honey Board, suddenly ranking as #4 on their list of top industries utilizing honey in 2016. “We started doing research in 2017 and started to slowly find out that tons of distilleries are interested in working with honey,” Keith Seiz says. “So we started doing competitions and the Honey Spirit Summit, which is a two day class down at Moonshine University on how to use honey in various spirits.”
“For spirits, we had a lot of interest from distillers using honey so we wanted to create a competition. Because frankly, most consumers think of Honey Jack, Hennessee Jack, Jim Beam Honey, thing you can buy at the supermarket,” Seiz explains, “And there’s nothing wrong with that, but they usually tend to use honey to make a product sweeter. With this competition we’re hoping to show people they can use honey in a lot of different ways.”
“It’s not a gin [and] it’s not a brandy...It’s just really unique.” - Jan Morris, The Hardware Distillery Company
Innovation cannot exist without some trial and error, but the excitement is worth the struggle. If somel becomes an official spirit category it can open up new opportunities for beekeepers and distillers alike, along with giving honey spirit-enthusiasts a consistent name to look for in stores and online. The more people know, support, and enjoy honey spirits, the more we’ll need honey, ultimately contributing to the revival of the honeybee population. It may not sound like it’s possible but change really can happen one bottle at a time.