Mead isn’t just for vikings and medieval monarchs any more. Dating back to 7000 B.C., the fermented honey wine has passed through the lips of Greek gods, Ethiopians, Chinese imperialists, and Norsemen alike. And now yours, thanks to mead’s explosive reintroduction in today’s drinking scene.
Leading the charge for New York City’s mead resurgence are mead maker (also known as a “mazer”) Raphael Lyon and mixologist Arley Marks. Along with partner Anthony Rock, the friends are busy making magic inside Bushwick meadery Enlightenment Wines and its adjacent tasting room, Honey’s. Lyon and Marks chatted with WSWD about their first tastes of mead, their use of botanicals, and the intimacy of bringing a bottle of wine into your home.
What Should We Do?!: When was the first time each of you tried mead?
Raphael Lyon: The first time I tried mead was when I made it! This isn’t as strange as it seems. Until very recently, if you wanted to know what mead was, you needed to make it yourself or know someone who did. There are more commercial options out there nowadays, but, historically, mead—like many fermented things—was made in small batches at home or for a small estate in relatively small amounts.
Arley Marks: The first time I tried mead, it was Raphael’s. I think it was out of a nondescript bottle at a show in Providence, [Rhode Island], where we were both then living. My education and interest in mead have really come from the products he has been crafting over the years.
WSWD: Raphael, you come from a family of herbalists. What sparked the realization that you could utilize that knowledge and bring about the second coming of mead?
Lyon: Once I started educating myself about the history of mead, it became pretty obvious that mead making and the use of botanicals—both to preserve the mead and to preserve the medical properties of the plants—have always gone hand in hand. In fact, it’s hard to find a traditional mead that doesn’t incorporate some kind of plant or fruit in it. You can see this in the tradition of grape wines, as well. The whole category of vermouths and amaros is also wrapped up in the history of herbal medicine.
WSWD: From start to finish, how long does it take to produce a bottle of mead?
Lyon: This is really up to the mazer who makes the mead. Traditionally, as a seasonal item, about a year would make the most sense for a minimum amount of time. Of course, there is always pressure to speed up the process if you are a commercial mead maker. You can try to compensate for proper aging with the use of filtration and chemical adjuncts—but there is a loss in quality, and it’s one of the reasons we avoid using those processes.
WSWD: I’m not surprised to see that Enlightenment’s labels are bold and eye-catching. Who conceptualizes the look and feel of each one?
Lyon: As the mead maker and designer of these bottles, I take the responsibility of design very seriously for a variety of reasons. The most important one is that taking a bottle of wine or mead into your home is a very intimate choice. A buyer will most likely share that bottle with friends or family or someone they love. It will be on the table amid the food you eat and while you talk about important things in your life. I find it’s kind of horrific that someone would want to put an advertisement into that personal space. The bottles are designed so that they are elegant and interesting, but not overbearing. Many people save them and reuse them as water bottles after they drink the contents. That is success for me.
Taking a bottle of wine or mead into your home is a very intimate choice.
WSWD: What are some of your favorite infusions that you’ve made thus far?
Lyon: We just released the Dagger mead; it’s in the tradition of an amaro—bitter and sort of an aperitif. Made from tart cherry juice and honey, it is fermented with yarrow, hemlock, juniper berries, and chamomile. It combines some of the great resources of New York State, as well as some of the traditional winter herbs of the natives of this region. It’s both totally new and totally authentic to our place here.
WSWD: What’s something that most people don’t know about mead?
Lyon: Unfortunately, many people’s first impression of mead is that it is either very sweet or very strong. The truth is that mead can be all kinds of things. We specialize in natural dry meads, around 12 percent alcohol, so they are much more like a dry table wine than anything else.
The mistake people make is thinking that because we start with honey, the mead has to be sweet. All fermented products start off sweet—grape wine starts out with sweet grapes, and beer starts out with sweet malted grain! The process of fermentation changes the sugar to alcohol, regardless.
WSWD: How do first-time drinkers respond to mead when they try it?
Marks: I am consistently surprised by people’s reactions. It turns out they love the mead that we are making. Previous to tasting Enlightenment Wines at Honey’s, most people have never tried a real mead, meaning a natural mead without added sugars or artificial flavorings. Once folks have tried our stuff, they often end up drinking it all night. Approximately 60 percent of our sales come from mead, followed by cocktails—a number of our meads make great cocktail ingredients—and local beer.
WSWD: If you could plan your ideal day in NYC, what would you do?
Marks: If I had a day free from work obligations, I would start it off with a coffee “to stay” at RoundK near my house in Chinatown. Then I’d probably take the B train to Brighton Beach—I love walking around and exploring the markets. There is also an amazing Arab neighborhood out there. I find a lot of inspiration in the ingredients, colors, and smells that can’t be found anywhere else in the city. Then I would eat some lamb with hand-pulled noodles at Cafe Kashkar, another favorite spot.
Arley Marks’s Faves…in a NY Minute
Place to take out-of-towners?
The Sol LeWitt lobby of the Conrad Hotel for a drink.
The Met Breuer.
Place to people-watch?