Honey Wine Recipe: The Oldest Wine in History
It is the oldest wine in history, steeped in mythology and enjoyed by cultures all across the world – it can only be honey wine, AKA mead.
History buffs and literary junkies will already be very familiar with the background of this unique and enduring wine. It was known as the ‘drink of the gods’ in Ancient Greece, and the ‘wine of poetry’ in Nordic folklore, which claims that anyone who drinks mead mixed with the blood of Kvasir will become a famous poet or scholar.
It is enjoyed by the hobbits of Middle Earth, the men of the North in Game of Thrones, and it is even name-checked in the oldest English-language poem of all time – Beowulf.
And now you can try it for yourself.
Although it has been in circulation for more than 5000 years (according to the most conservative estimates), honey wine has fallen by the wayside over the past century, so if you want to know what all the fuss is about you’re just going to have to make it yourself.
Honey wine is an incredibly versatile drink, and the recipe below can be adapted in endless different ways. If you like your mead to be thick and sweet, double the quantities of honey. If you want a mead that’s bursting with flavour, use raw honey from an area which has a high concentration of fragrant flowers. And if you want to pretend you are a Norse king at a grand feast, leave your mead to mature for five years or more – you will be rewarded with a royally complex and worryingly drinkable honey wine.
If you’re feeling cultural, you could even take inspiration from other countries which have their own versions of the popular drink. In Ethiopia it is brewed with the bitter leaves of the gesho plant and called ‘tej’, while Russian‘myod’ is mixed with berry juices and aged for at least 12 years.
Or you could branch out and try one of the many mead-based drinks such as melomel (which refers to any wine made from honey and fruit), or metheglin (honey wine made with added spices and/or herbs). The options are pretty much endless!
This article will teach you the basics of honey wine making, as well as sharing a few tips and tricks for a truly unique brew. So if you want to get your mead on…just read on…
Section 1: What equipment you will need to make honey wine
In the olden days, all you needed to make honey wine was a reliable supply of rainwater, some raw honey, a barrel and a LOT of patience (without the addition of yeast, the fermenting process could take a year or more).
In the 21st century, things are a little different. The wine-making process will be massively improved and accelerated if you invest in good equipment right from the outset.
IMPORTANT NOTE: Don’t forget to sterilize EVERYTHING before using it. You can do this ‘olde worlde’ style by scalding the equipment with hot water (heated in a cauldron above an open fire of course), but I’d rather use a couple of campden tablets, which are cheap, quick and effective.
If you can’t find glass demijohns, plastic ones will do. In a pinch, you could even use an empty gallon carton of milk – just make sure you sterilize it properly beforehand, and that your airlock really fits.
Quick Tip: If you're new to making wine at home, and don't want to purchase all of the equipment separately, make sure you check out our Homemade Wine Starter kit. This contains all the equipment needed to get started right away!
Get Your Equipment Below
Food Grade Bucket
Demijohn / Carboy
Clear Wine Bottles
Section 2: What ingredients you will need to make honey wine
- 2.5lbs (1.13kg) honey (for dry mead); or 3lbs (1.3kg) honey (for medium mead); or 3.5lbs (1.6kg) honey (for sweet mead).
We will discuss the different types of honey that you can use below, but with honey wine it is always advisable to use the very best quality honey you can find.
For honey wine you can choose between champagne yeast, or white wine yeast. You may even be able to track down mead yeast, but regular wine yeasts will do the job just as well.Follow the instructions on the packet to find out how much to use and how to add it to your wine – each brand will be slightly different.
If you can’t find this, don’t worry too much about it – it’s not essential, but it really helps with the fermentation process. Follow the instructions on the packet for information on how to use it.
Section 3: Quick step by step instructions on making honey wine
STEP ONE – How to choose your honey
Mead enthusiasts will tell you that the most important step in making honey wine is choosing the right honey. And they’re not wrong.
The honey you use will keep on affecting the flavor of your wine even if you panic and add sugar, raisins or lemonade to improve the taste. Yes, good honey is expensive, but mead is not known as the ‘drink of the gods’ for nothing! If you scrimp on your honey right at the start, you will end up with a cheap wine that Zeus would reject on sight – and you don’t want to make Zeus angry, do you?
So how do you choose your honey?
Well, in a perfect world you will have your own working beehives which produce raw honey season after season. Raw honey looks a little like honeycomb, and it should turn to liquid when you touch it. Don’t have your own hive? Don’t worry - you should be able to find raw honey at your local farmer’s market, whole foods market, or farm shop – alternatively, contact your local apiary society and ask nicely if you can relieve them of some of their stock…
If you can’t get raw honey, organic is the next best thing. With organic honey, the label should tell you a bit about where the honey comes from, and what flowers were used during pollination. The floral source will play a big role in the final flavor of your mead. Good quality organic honey will usually be quite opaque in the jar, and you might be able to see little bits of pollen residue suspended inside.
It is also important to test the water content of your honey before using it in wine-making. The higher the water content, the less flavor you will get, so try to choose a thicker honey which has not been processed too much. To test the water content, just dip a spoon in and let the honey fall onto a clean counter: if it trickles gently down in sticky globs, it’s good to go; but if it falls quickly off the spoon and runs along the counter, you should probably choose a different brand.
Most importantly of all, taste and smell your honey before using it – this is the main ingredient of your honey wine after all, so if you don’t like the way the honey tastes from the outset, you probably won’t enjoy drinking the finished product.
STEP TWO – Preparing your wine
Once you have your honey, preparing your mead is as easy as ABC;
A) Boil one gallon of water and leave it to cool. Alternatively, you can use one gallon of filtered water or bottled water instead – or go old skool and collect fresh rainwater before boiling it over a stove.
B) Allow the water to cool for ten minutes (this is really important as you don’t want to ‘cook’ the honey) then add the honey and stir until it has completely dissolved.
And that’s basically it!
If you want to add in any extra ingredients (e.g. cloves; lavender; orange blossom; strawberries), this is the time to do it. Use your own discretion when adding herbs and spices, but in my experience less is usually more. You don’t want to overpower the honey flavor, and bear in mind that there is still a long fermentation process to get through, so anything you add in now will have a lot of time to infuse into your mix.
Once your wine mix is in the fermentation bin, seal the top and leave it to bubble away for at least two weeks. This is known as the ‘primary fermentation’ and it can be pretty spectacular – the yeasts react strongly with the sugars of the honey to produce a rush of bubbles to the surface of the mixture, which swirl and whirl away like they have a life of their own. Store the fermentation bin in a cool, dark place and give your mixture a stir every couple of days.
Because honey wine has a higher-than-average sugar content, this part of the fermentation process takes longer than it would with other homemade wines. Be patient, and don’t be tempted to stop the fermentation prematurely. You will know that the primary fermentation is finished when the bubbling subsides. This can take anything from two weeks to a month, or maybe even a little longer.
STEP THREE – Into the demijohn
When the bubbling has stopped, it’s time to move the honey wine into your first demijohn (or empty milk carton!) so you can begin the ‘secondary fermentation’.
If you were using raw honey or you added any extra ingredients into your wine in the previous step, you will need to strain your liquid out before pouring it into the demijohn. To do this, simply take a well-sterilized saucepan or bowl (minimum one gallon capacity), and securely attach a straining bag or muslin cloth over the top of it. Pour the honey mixture through the cloth and discard the leftover bits of residue.
HISTORY LESSON: In the olden days of yore, mead was strained through a ‘hair bag’, which was typically woven out of horse-tail hair or even human hair. A close weave was vital, and horse hair was preferable, as it is non-absorbent and easier to work with. Of course, you can just use a muslin cloth, or even a fine-meshed sieve.
When you are happy with the clarity of your honey wine, you can start moving it into the demijohn. Use a soup ladle and/or funnel to carefully pour it into the demijohn. If the liquid doesn’t quite come up to the top of the bottle, you can add in a little bit of filtered or bottled water to top it up.
Now you simply attach your bung and the airlock, and set it aside in a dark, cool place to ferment again for at least another month.
STEP FOUR – Ending the fermentation
For the first few days after it has been moved into the demijohn, you will notice a few lines of tiny bubbles rising up from the bottom of the bottle and gathering at the top. This means that the secondary fermentation is underway.
Keep an eye on the bubbling, and you should notice that the bubbles start to slow down after a couple of weeks. After four or five weeks, there might only be one bubble appearing every minute or two – that means that the secondary fermentation is complete.
However, before you start bottling your mead, I highly recommend that you rack your wine at least once.
‘Racking’ sounds complicated but it’s actually a very straightforward process that removes any leftover sediment and residue from the mixture, leaving you with a higher quality of wine. Although you have already strained your wine once, during fermentation a few yeast solids and sugar granules can form and drop to the bottom of the bottle. They are microscopically tiny but even the tiniest spec of sediment can give your wine a cloudy finish which is less than professional-looking. Luckily, this is easily sorted out.
To rack your wine, you will need to gather your second demijohn and your siphon tube.
Very carefully place your wine-filled demijohn onto a table, making sure you don’t disturb the sediment at the bottom. If you do, wait a couple of hours before beginning the rack.
Now, remove the bung and airlock and lower the siphon tubing into the honey wine, stopping it before it reaches the sediment layer on the bottom.
Take the other end of the tube and start to suck – yes, suck. This is the only way to get the wine moving through the tubing so you can start filling up the empty demijohn. And as a happy bonus – you’ll get to have your first taste of the wine!
Try not to drink too much of it during the racking process – it still has a long way to go before it a drink worthy of the gods, and believe me, it’s worth the wait.
As soon as you taste wine, dip the siphon tube into the empty demijohn and watch it fill up. Then put the bung and airlock back onto the new wine-filled demijohn, and leave it back in a cool, dark place to sit for another four weeks.
Discard the sediment at the bottom of the first demijohn, and sterilize it immediately.
STEP FIVE – Time to bottle up!
If you are making a melomel, you might find that you have a lot of fruit sediment still lying at the bottom of your demijohn four weeks after your first rack. If this is the case, rack it off one more time (or as many times as necessary) before bottling, waiting four weeks between each rack.
When you’re happy with the clarity and color of your wine, you can start bottling it up!
This is actually quite similar to racking. Again, you have to put the wine-filled demijohn onto a table, and line your six bottles up below it. Again, dip your siphon tube in and start to suck, then use the siphon to fill up each one of your bottles in turn.
Now all you have to do is cork your bottles, and add a label with the bottling date, wine ingredients and anything else you’d like to add (a few verses of Nordic poetry perhaps?). And wait…
STEP SIX – When can you drink it?
Mead gets better with age. As much age as possible. Some mead makers believe that you shouldn’t touch your mead for at least ten years after its been bottled, while others say 12-15 years is the optimum time.
If you can’t wait that long (and who could blame you?), you could technically start drinking it after a few months in the bottle, but it won’t be nearly as good. Dry meads (i.e. meads made with less honey)will be ready to drink sooner than sweet meads – in fact, you could probably start drinking it within a year of bottling. But when it comes to sweet meads, I suggest you try to hold off for at least two years, and keep one extra special bottle aside for as long as you possibly can – just so you can (eventually) taste the difference.
When you’re finally ready to drink your mead, why not make a bit of a celebration out of it? Invite your friends to come over for a medieval feast of chicken, bread and mead drunk out of chunky tankards. Drink to your good health and pour one out for the gods (just to keep them happy).
Alternatively, keep your mead for the most special occasions, sharing the sweet nectar only with your nearest and dearest as you toast to your success, reminisce on good times and share stories around an open fire – just as the Vikings once did.
Tell us how you will be drinking your honey wine, and how you got on with your recipe. If you tried out any alternative ingredients, how did they work out? Personally, I like a slightly floral mead, so one of my favourite add-ons is a handful of elderflower petals or a sprig of lilac. Yes, it means more racking, but that’s all part of the fun!
Share your adventures in mead-making in the comments box below, and if you’re still waiting for your mead to mature – I promise you, it’s worth it in the end.
Section 4: Conclusion
I hope that this article has shown you that with minimal ingredients (and a LOT of patience), you too can enjoy the world’s most legendary wine.
Honey wine is an extraordinary thing to make – there are unlimited variations on the recipe and technique, but no matter which one you try, it’s hard not to think of our hard-drinking ancestors diligently sourcing their honey, boiling their water, and watching the fermentations. This is a truly historic drink which connects us with our ancient past, and conjures up all sorts of magical myths and stories.
This is what I love about wine-making, and I hope you love it too. Since the beginning of humanity, wine has brought people together, and when you make your own wine, you are honoring this tradition and making the end product even more special.
Honey wine is such a special drink, that simply has to be shared with family and friends, and I hope that his recipe helps to make that a reality for every one of you.
Get in touch with your feedback and let us know how your honey wine turned out. And if you enjoyed making this wine, have a look at our other homemade wine recipes too.
Finally, feel free to share this article with anyone who enjoys a glass of the good stuff – let’s make mead popular again!