When was the last time you tasted mead? If Denis and Kate Dempsey have their way, this honey-based drink (which averages 12% ABV) is about to follow in the footsteps of craft beer, cider and gin by undergoing a renaissance here in Ireland.
Kate and Denis hail from Coventry and Rosscarbery in West Cork respectively. They both worked in IT before being converted to mead on a trip to the US. “We’d heard about it in history and in literature, but we didn’t realise how delicious and versatile a drink it was until we tried craft mead in the US,” says Kate. “Then we were hooked.”
When an opportunity to take voluntary redundancy came up at work, the couple decided they were ready for a change. They started making meads with different honeys, fruits and botanicals at home and in 2016, they moved to West Cork and opened the Kinsale Mead Company – the first new meadery to open in Ireland for 200 years.
They now produce four types of mead. Their traditional-style Atlantic Dry Mead is made from raw orange blossom honey, water and yeast. They make two melomel styles, which involves fermenting the same orange blossom honey with fruit. For the Wild Red Mead, the honey is fermented with Wexford blackcurrants and dark cherries and for the Hazy Summer Mead, it’s fermented with six ripe summer berries.
“We also have a fourth small-batch mead made from West Cork honey,” says Kate. “Our Wildflower Mead is probably the first commercial mead made from Irish honey in centuries. It’s only for sale in our meadery and online.”
Currently, the Kinsale Mead Company sources its orange blossom honey from a family-run company in Spain while Paul Kelly at Chanting Bee Apiary in West Cork supplies them with the honey for their Wildflower Mead.
The fermentation process they follow is not dissimilar to wine. Honey is mixed with warm water and a wine yeast is added to it.
“We use frozen fruit for the melomel meads,” says Kate. “As the fruit defrosts, the juice is released and mixes with the honey and water. We control the temperature every day so that we get a smooth ferment. When it reaches the level of alcohol and sweetness we want, we bring the temperature down, rack off the lees and filter. Then we leave the meads to mature for six to 18 months before bottling them by hand.”
Kinsale Mead is finished dry because pairing the mead with food is important to Kate and Denis. “We would like to re-establish some of the terroir around mead,” says Denis. “There used to be so many meaderies in Ireland and if mead had developed in the way wine has developed in France, we’d now have meaderies all over the country, with regional varieties being paired with local food.”
“Mead is wonderful for food pairings and cocktails and a great alternative to wine,” adds Kate. “We are eager to collaborate with chefs and mixologists to bring this light, refreshing drink back into the mainstream.”
Based on their experiments to date, they have found their Atlantic Dry Mead pairs well with salty foods such as olives, oysters and blue cheese as well as making a great mule-style cocktail.
“Our local chocolatier uses our Wild Red Mead in his chocolate fillings and mixologists have used it in everything from spicy gins to Irish Manhattans,” says Kate.
The pair believe their Hazy Summer Mead could become the Irish answer to Pimm’s, and often suggest their Wildflower Mead as a chilled after-dinner drink served with salty cheeses or something creamy like a crème caramel.
Kinsale Mead Company has already won an impressive array of awards. “Our Hazy Summer Mead won gold at the 2019 International Mazer Cup which is like the Olympics of Mead,” says Kate. “We’ve also won Gold and Silver at Blas na hÉireann, gold at the Free from Food Awards and recently a 2 star Great Taste Award for our Atlantic Dry Mead. We are proud to be able to say that we are making world-class meads from our meadery here in Kinsale.”
Their meads are stocked on a growing number of shelves. “We are stocked in around 170 places in Ireland and we have recently ventured into the UK,” says Kate. “You’ll find us in SuperValu, O’Brien’s Wines, independent off-licences and speciality food stores.”
Their plans for the future involve exploring the world of mead even further. “We want to make more unique Irish meads as well as innovating with barrel aging,” says Kate. “There is also so much wonderful Irish food out there and we want our meads to be paired with it to give a true sense of place, a real expression of Irish terroir.”