James has written for various magazines, including Celtic Guide, Mythology Magazine, and Pagan Forest.
At the darkest and coldest part of the year, what more could you ask for than a mazer of mead? That golden colored nectar of the gods and goddesses with its deep honey goodness that is strong enough to keep you warm as you watch the snow tumble around you. What is better than mead at Yuletide, I hear you asking? Why, a holiday mead of course! Mead made with not just honey, but the spices of the season to keep everyone celebrating as the log burns low.
- 10 pounds honey (I prefer locally bought as it’s usually just as cheap and it’s much more flavorful, but I have used store-bought as well and it works just fine)
- 3 1/3 gallons water
- 1 cinnamon stick (around 4 inches)
- 2 ounces orange peel
- 2 large vanilla beans
- 1/2 teaspoon yeast nutrient (optional, but it helps)
- 1 teaspoon yeast energizer (optional, but it helps)
- Mead yeast (bottle or pouch—I prefer the sweet mead, but you can also use dry mead yeast)
- Flash heat all but yeast and vanilla bean in 1 gallon of boiling water (flash heat is to bring the water up to boiling, then put everything in—this will sanitize the honey and other ingredients). Mix together well (I use a stainless steel pot on the stove).
- Lower the heat and let the mixture sit at 160 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 minutes.
- Chill to 75 degrees Fahrenheit (preferably with a wort/must chiller, but you can also set the container in the sink with ice water).
- Pour the mixture and the remaining water into the fermenter (such as a glass carboy).
- Pitch the yeast (make sure it’s ready per the container’s instructions) and swish around to mix it in and to aerate.
- Let it sit for 2-4 weeks and then move to a secondary fermentation carboy and add the vanilla beans.
- Sit another 2-4 weeks before bottling.
At bottling time, I’ll have boiled eight ounces honey in two cups water beforehand, then add it to the must (mead mixture) once it has cooled down and before bottling. This will make it a sparkling mead with some nice bubbles. I do leave a bit more room in the bottle neck, though, as this process creates additional CO2 (that’s how the bubbles are formed) and I don’t like exploding mead bottles.
Although Samhain is my personal favorite holiday of the year, as far as family get-togethers, Yule takes the blue ribbon. My mother’s side is strongly Catholic, so of course it is celebrated as Christmas, but that is no cause for ill feelings. I can easily accommodate my own practices within the family’s with no problems, as long as I continue to forego midnight mass.
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Christmas Eve at my maternal grandparent’s house was an event I looked forward to year round. Not only did I get to see cousins that lived further away, but it was also where I had my first drink as a young man. I have to say, a small drink of cognac as a ten year old will certainly cause some coughing, but the following years it became a little easier. The ease came partially from knowing what to expect and partially because after that it was Crown Royal, my grandpa’s whiskey of choice. It was what the family would do a shot of together at both Christmas and Thanksgiving. Even though he passed away several years ago, we still do the shot at Thanksgiving when the entire family is together.
So brewing a batch of holiday mead for the Yule season every other year fits in well with my memories and it’s what I use to toast my ancestors with on Yule. I make it nice and strong to keep me warm as I stand out on the back porch toasting my ancestors and the spices I use bring back memories of family get-togethers. When the mood is particularly strong, I’ll pour a full imperial pint glass of mead and add a shot of Crown Royal to it. I call this the Welsh Car Bomb due to my grandpa’s Welsh ancestry. I also only do this when I know it will be my only drink of the night, as it is extremely potent.
I have another personal ritual I do every winter solstice for which this strong winter mead helps keep me warm. In as little clothing as possible (enough to keep from freezing off any important bits and also to keep from scaring the neighbors), I jump and dance in order to push the Earth back onto its proper course so we head towards springtime. Someone has to keep us from spinning into perpetual winter, after all. If you try this, please be careful—be aware of the temperature, how long you are outside, and have knowledge that drinking will keep you from understanding just how much your core temperature is dropping. I keep the ritual extremely short in duration.
The ingredient quantities are for around 2.5 gallons of mead. I bottle mine in pre-used 22-ounce beer bottles and this is enough for fourteen such bottles. It makes around 25 bottles if you use the smaller 12 oz. sizes. The ingredients are fairly linear, meaning that if you want to make five gallons, all you have to do is double everything. My average original gravity is 1.105 and average final gravity is 1.0003 (I let it sit as long as possible to make sure fermentation is complete). This gives an ABV of 13.5%. You can see why an imperial pint of this (20 oz.) with a shot of whiskey in it is enough for a night by itself. You can, of course, make the mead weaker by using less honey or adding more water. I have had low-level meads of around 5-6% ABV that were extremely tasty. If you do this, however, the spices will be completely overwhelming unless you adjust those as well. Personally, I prefer the strong meads and have never made one less than 9.5% ABV. If I want something less strong, I just have a nice ale.
There are many other spices you can use. Ginger and cloves are typical winter holiday spices. Anise (licorice) is as well, but I find it extremely over-powering. Nutmeg is used a lot, but since I use it in my Samhain mead, I don’t repeat it in my Yule mead. Whatever spices you end up using, I hope you enjoy it! Wassail!
© 2015 James Slaven