Blame the Portlandia effect - everything old is hip again. Pickling, yarn, Ned Kelly beards … and now mead. The favoured drink of ye olde Vikings is making a comeback, with boutique distilleries using honey to create their own sweet, warming brews.
"Mead has come and gone through the centuries. It was originally referred to as ambrosia and was nectar to the gods in Greek mythology," says Mark Maxwell, whose McLaren Vale vineyard is the largest mead producer in the southern hemisphere. "It's the first recognised alcoholic drink in history ... mead was drunk before wine."
It was a custom for a Viking bridegroom to drink a goblet of mead on his wedding night.Mark Maxwell
The drink is traditionally made by fermenting honey with water and adding fruits and spices, resulting in a rowdy brew with an alcohol content of anywhere between 5-20 per cent. It's also surprisingly the origin of a very well known part of modern life - the honeymoon.
"It was a custom for a Viking bridegroom to drink a goblet of mead on his wedding night - and for the month after he was married - to make sure he sired children," explains Maxwell. "That became known as the 'honey month' which we now know as the honeymoon."
While mead is standard issue in some of our most famous historical yarns - think Tolkien or George R. R. Martin - it hasn't been seen at your local pub for some time.
Enter Angus Smibert, a Coonawarra-based entrepreneur hoping to bring mead to a modern audience. The Adelaide University business graduate was scouting around the internet for a new idea when he read about the rise in mead production in the United States. Smibert bought a few kilos of Australian honey and started mixing his own batches at his family's vineyard, Whistle Post.
"I noticed the way craft beer and cider have been booming over the last five years … and more importantly, how consumers are quite knowledgeable about what they're drinking," he says. "I was confident these drinkers would want to try something different. Mead is a whole new category to explore."
Smibert, 27, launched Smoothbeard, a cider-like sparkling iteration of mead, in December. It's sweet, but not too sweet, with a distinctive honey buzz and a dry finish. Smibert's initial vintage produced 600 cases that are now in bars and bottle shops around inner Melbourne.
Inspiration came from a running joke in the Smibert family. "Dad always jokes about our family descending from Vikings," laughs Smibert. "The story goes that over the last few hundred years, our surname has evolved from Smoothbeard to Smibert. Apparently our beards were always smooth on one side and rough on the other!"
Maxwell currently produces around 100,000 bottles a year of honey wine mead - a stickier drop with a higher alcohol concentration. "It's getting bigger all the time," says Maxwell. "We're selling it in Canada, New Zealand, Malaysia. I've also just been asked by the Zambian government if I'd consult for them. They've got a poor economy and they're looking for ways to value add."
Maxwell is set to follow Smibert into the RTD market with its own sparkling ginger mead, Valhalla, on shelves by Christmas.
"People think honey has health properties, people still think it's an aphrodisiac - and it's got such a good flavour," says Maxwell. "It's more for the discerning drinker rather than just someone looking for alcohol. I can see it being adopted by many well-versed university students."