Return of the drink loved by Vikings and ancient Celts

By Andrew Thomson
BBC Scotland

Image source, Christopher Mullin
Image caption,
A long-lost tradition of making mead has been revived in the Perthshire hills

High in the hills above Pitlochry in Perthshire a former soldier has embarked on a new mission to revive an ancient Scottish drink.

Mead, which is made from fermented honey, was much loved by Celtic tribes and Viking warriors.

But, over the last few centuries it has largely disappeared with beer, wine and whisky knocking it off its pedestal.

However, Christopher Mullin has now restarted mead brewing in Scotland and is recreating recipes dating back thousands of years using archaeological evidence.

His army career as an intelligence officer took him to numerous military headquarters around the world, but after retiring from the armed forces he has now set up his own base, the Rookery, in a converted stable building amid the hills and forests of Glen Brerachan.

Image source, Christopher Mullin
Image caption,
Christopher Mullin foraging for ingredients of the drink
Image source, Christopher Mullin
Image caption,
The foraging can turn into a family outing

Christopher's interest in mead stems back to his time studying Gaelic at the University of Aberdeen when he learned about it through studying Beowulf and other early literary works from across the British Isles.

There was one other key reason for its appeal - honey.

Speaking to BBC Radio Scotland's Kitchen Café programme, he said: "The process I use is not unlike making wine as I ferment the sugars in water but my sugar source is honey. That's absolutely sacrosanct. It must be honey.

"I don't add white sugar. I don't add anything else as a fermentable. "

He added: "Honey is almost like a magic potion. It's an amazing product to work with. It's malleable, it lasts forever, you can get different varieties of flavour, it's resistant to infection and it is anti-bacterial.

"One of the things I am really proud of is I don't use any chemicals in my production process. I don't use fining agents but more importantly I don't use sulphates or preservatives because honey itself is a preservative. It's just a wonderful thing to work with."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
The Vikings were fond of the odd tipple or two of mead

Much of the honey used is sourced from an apiary just a few miles down the road from the Rookery. The location of the business also makes it an ideal location for foraging for other key ingredients.

"I add adjuncts which is a brewing term for things to give the mead additional flavour," said Christopher.

"Most of these come off the hill that we brew on. Most of my adjuncts are native species, such as mountain ash berries or hawthorn berries, because I am really interested in the history and archaeology of Britain.

"Most of what I do either was definitely done by our ancestors or probably done by them. The evidence I use goes back 4,500 thousand years and people have been around here for a good 10,000 years before that. I gather things our ancestors were out picking at similar times of year to me to make similar products."

Image source, Christopher Mullin
Image caption,
Foraged berries and other ingredients for making mead

In the Rookery a new concoction with its origins in the Bronze Age is currently brewing. It is based on archaeological evidence of mead production gathered from the Machrie Moor standing stone site on the Isle of Arran.

Christopher said: "It is a honey and grain and flour brew which is what most of those really old brews were. I have brought together two of my hobbies - making booze and archaeology.

"Sometimes it is an interpretation so I am getting close to what was maybe being made thousands of years ago. But this one, which should be getting released next year, is as close as possible. It is not an interpretation it is practically a reconstruction. "

Image source, Christopher Mullin
Image caption,
Christopher Mullin is making mead from a Bronze Age recipe

Mead was the drink of choice for the elite for the early people of the British Isles, but by the Middle Ages imported wine from the Mediterranean had become more common.

However, Christopher said the real decline in mead's popularity can be linked with changes in the way beer was produced, which vastly increased its shelf life.

He said: "The big game changer for mead is the introduction of hops. Once hops comes in beer lasts longer. It now becomes a commercially viable product made by men rather than women at home.

"Beer becomes cheaper so you can now get drunk on a penny instead of a shilling. And economics takes over.

"So mead falls by the wayside and becomes a niche historical curiosity. And that takes us to the modern day where you have got in the UK probably about five or six of us making properly made meads and I am the only one in Scotland. I am the Scottish mead industry right now."

And Christopher said it is something that is definitely worth bringing back.

He said: "The flavours that are possible are just legion. From dry and herbal through wine like and sharp. Through fruity through complex through focused through sweet. It's just a great thing to be experiment with and play with.

"It's great in cooking too. Where you can use beer, wine, sherry you can use meads. The best bit though is you get to taste the past."