Honey Spirits - Mead made in the Peak District

Mead District Sparkling Mead

Mead District Sparkling Mead - Credit: Archant

James and Ineta Mather’s range of exciting gins and meads created from their home in Monyash has proved an instant hit, locally, nationally and internationally. Catherine Roth reports.

James and Ineta with distillery meadery dogs

James and Ineta with distillery meadery dogs - Credit: Archant

Honey Spirits is bringing one of the world's oldest alcoholic drinks back to Derbyshire albeit with a contemporary twist.

Husband and wife team James and Ineta Mather created Honey Spirits four years ago and launched their first gin two years later before introducing a selection of meads. James, who comes from a seventh generation line of lawyers, decided to break with family tradition and instead pursue a career in winemaking that took him all over the world. However, after 20 years in the industry he and Ineta were keen to create their own business. Returning to the UK they used James' knowledge of the alcohol industry and Ineta's knowledge of bees and botanicals to create Honey Spirits.

Bees are at its true heart. The honey products - from local apiaries - form the basis of the mead whilst the bee bread and propolis add flavour and aroma to the gins without the sweetness. It is perhaps not surprising when one learns that Ineta grew up in Lithuania, a country that has great respect for bees. Indeed the Lithuanian word for bees resembles that of 'friend' and its male and female Bee Gods - Bubilas and Austeja - form an important part of Lithuania's culture.

Today James and Ineta sell a variety of handcrafted meads and craft gins inspired by the Peak District as well as Lithuania. James says, 'We wanted to create our own brand and bring in the traditions of both places.' These include Derbyshire's beautiful landscapes and Lithuania's strong culture of homeopathy where, as a child, Ineta would regularly forage for herbs. Now living in Monyash, she and James continue this foraging tradition, gathering herbs and berries for their gins. These include Apoteca Original, which contains 22 botanicals, and their signature Horseradish Gin, inspired by a trip to Vilnius in Lithuania when James and Ineta enjoyed a smoked mackerel dish paired with Horseradish Vodka. James says, 'The flavour was really different with a wonderful power and spice so we decided to create a horseradish gin!' Ideally served as a Gin Bloody Mary or as a neat shot (carbonating it with tonic water brings out too strong a flavour), it goes particularly well with smoked fish or meats and Ineta uses it as an ingredient in smoked mackerel pâté. In addition they also release seasonal limited editions three to four times a year that have included raspberry and blackberry.

Checking the hives

Checking the hives - Credit: Archant

Creating something a little bit different and unusual is what Honey Spirits is all about. They introduced mead when James was looking for an alternative to beer, following an allergy to barley. He says, 'We're challenging people's perception of mead. They think it's very alcoholic, very sweet and very traditional but we're producing a thoroughly modern style of mead. When people try it they're surprised by how it tastes - it's something very different and they're even beginning to swap their Prosecco and Champagne for it!'

The mead is made with local honey and bee products, collected by Ineta from beehives around the Peak District, whilst added hops gives bitterness and complexity. James says, 'We're finding mead is going through a renaissance. It has been taking off in the USA for the past seven to eight years and at one stage three new meaderies were opening around the world every single week. We're just really at the start - the market is growing and over the next five to 10 years we think it's going to start booming.' James attributes part of its appeal to television programmes such as Game of Thrones and the Vikings. Indeed, such has been the demand they have now introduced a sparkling rosé mead.

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James and Ineta use 100 per cent honey in their products, rather than diluting it with a wine or apple base, and - as with their gins - add no chemicals, fining agents or stabilisers. James explains that whilst honey is very difficult to start fermenting, once it does it's a very hard process to stop. He says, 'Our approach is to have as minimal interaction as possible with the fermentation. We went through many tests trying different yeasts but have now found a specific yeast strain and perfected the fermentation techniques.' The mead - a mixture of water, honey and yeast - is fermented until completely dry and the sediment has fallen out.

James says, 'When you ferment honey, you get the flavours of the plants the bees have been visiting. Our Mead District range uses honey from hives based under linden and elder trees so you have the wonderful flavours of linden blossom and elderflowers coming through.' It was important to James and Ineta that people knew exactly where the honey came from, which is why they created the Derbyshire Meadery label.

Apoteca gin

Apoteca gin - Credit: Archant

Deciding how long to leave the mead before it is ready for bottling depends on the honey and the outside temperature, not to mention the all important taste testing, to which Ineta brings her acute taste and olfactory senses. Then the sediment and yeast is raked off and honey added to produce the level of sweetness required. The final part of the process involves carbonation to create the sparkling meads.

The mead has an alcohol strength that varies between 5.5 per cent to around 18 per cent before being aged in barrels until it's ready. James says, 'Our Heather Mead is currently ageing and its interaction with the porous oak just softens the mead so it won't be quite as fiery. The barrels are ex-sherry casks from a whisky distillery so some of those flavours are being imparted into the mead bringing in really interesting flavours.' This also provides scope for developing additional flavours. One of their gins is currently ageing in a barrel that previously contained a heather mead.

Honey Spirits also produces limited editions of its mead, some of which will be included in its Terroir series. James says, 'We want to celebrate the unique flavours of the Peak District. Terroir is a winemaking term and represents a very unique place, year and flavours - you may never get the same flavours again. If we find a really special honey in the beehives we'll include it in our Terroir series.' He continues, 'We found an exceptional heather honey on Curbar Edge. We made 50 bottles, which sold out very very quickly.'

Until now James and Ineta have distilled and brewed all their products at home. However, with business continuing to grow they will soon be opening a distillery and brewery in Flagg, which will enable them to vastly upscale production. They already supply locally and nationally as well as exporting their products to China and Japan with plans to expand into Spain, Russia and the USA.

The location of their new distillery and brewery also provides a historical context for the mead. James says, 'When you think of mead you think of the Vikings. Flagg started off as a viking mining settlement so locating our distillery and brewery there is a nice link back to the past.' As well as the brewery/ distillery James and Ineta have plans for a tap room with tastings as well as workshops.

Whether it is foraging for botanicals, tending to the hives, distillation, blending, tasting, bottling or deep cleaning, there is always something to do. But it is more than just a job - for James and Ineta it is a labour of love. James says, 'We get to work in the most beautiful place in the world. We have some of the cleanest water and air, and botanicals and honey from amazing sources.'

Over the last few years, gin has taken the drinks market by storm and with James predicting a similar revival in mead drinking, Honey Spirits is set to be busier than ever. However, James is keen to stress that the small company ethos they were founded on will continue. He says, 'We will continue to use the best quality products and let the flavours shine through. We want to stay true to who we are and be known as a benchmark for quality Peak District products.'

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