Hippocras is not Mead

Fred Hardy, fcmbh@access.digex.net

From Mead Digest #427

This is a post from Fred Hardy about whether Hippocras is a mead or a wine. The string started with the following post:

Subject: Bunratty Mead/Meade
From: dburke@eden.com (Daniel R. Burke)
Date: Mon, 7 Aug 1995 13:02:03 -0500

When my wife and I were in Ireland last summer, we were exposed
to our first  mead - a product of the historic Bunratty meadery
at Bunratty castle.  It  was love at first sip, and we bought
some some bring home with us.  We've  been nursing it carefully,
until we could find someone going back that could  bring us some

Imagine our surprise then, when selecting a port in our favorite
liquor  store here in Texas, when we saw "Bunratty Meade!" 
Elated, we grabbed a  bottle amazed at our good fortune, and
scurried home with it.  Only to  discover later that this is
Meade, with an "e", not Mead.  The label states  "A white wine
flavored with honey and herbs."

So obviously, this is not mead.  The question is though, why? 
Why would  someone go to the trouble of producing an imitation of
mead?  Is there  something in the export laws that make it
necessary?  Or do they assume that  the American palette wouldn't
appreciate a true mead?  Anyone have any  insight into this
curiosity?  All things considered, tho, it ain't bad!


The following is Fred's response...

Actually, Dan, what you bought was true Hippocras. This has been mistakenly defined as mead in most so called authoritative works, as well as a mead category in the AHA. We can classify things any way we wish, and names often mean different things to different folks. The confusion over Hippocras is such a case.

One of the earliest authoritative works on mead is Wassail! In Mazers of Mead by Lt. Col. Robert Gayre, published in 1948. Charlie Papazian added a few pages of mead recipes and the book was republished as Brewing Mead in 1986. Charlie added no new insights to historical accuracy.

Col. Gayre, like all of us, found what he was looking for, even when it wasn't. There is almost no source of recipes that are reliable prior to the 16th century. Hippocras was very popular throughout the Middle Ages in England, but from such scraps and clues that are available it was never mead as we know it. It was, and your experience indicates, still may be, dry wine flavored with herbs and sweetened with honey. Col. Gayre's focus was on fermented honey (mead) as the universal drink of everyone who did not drink wine or beer. Whenever he saw honey mentioned he apparently read "mead." His failure to differentiate between fermenting a mixture of grape juice and honey (piment, or pyment, which is a type of mead) and finished wine with honey added (a honeyed drink) is the basis of the confusion.

There are many references to Hippocras dating from those early times, but they only say wine mixed with herbs and honey. That could mean just what it says, or it could mean wine fermented with honey and containing herbs. The good Col. chose the latter interpretation.

Cookbooks that date from the late Middle Ages (after 1500) mention Hippocras as dry wine to which is added spices and honey. Often cooked, this is a sweet drink usually served after the meal. These cookbooks call for sugar, or sometimes indicate honey as an alternative sweetener. Sugar, however, was not common in England until the late 15th century. Prior to that, honey was the only sweetener.

The great shortage of honey in the late 15th, and into the 16th century explains the use of sugar in the recipes. It is further explained by the source of the recipes - passed down by word of mouth from earlier times, and not recorded until the 16th century. The recorder would have used ingredients which were generally available to the reader.

The name of the honeyed beverage is derived from Hippocrates, the father of medicine (c. 300 - 400 BC) who used herbs for their medicinal value. The herbs were soaked in alcohol (wine) to make a tea which was given to the sick. The tea would often have been bitter, and honey was added to relieve (cover?) the taste. The Hippocras sleeve was the name given to the cloth the mixture was poured through to remove the herbs after mixing. A primitive tea bag.

In the Medieval castle the mixing was the duty of the keeper of the butts of wine and ale (the Butler), who tasted the mixture to insure 1. it was mixed in the correct proportions, and 2. it was not poison. Your Hippocras was made with white wine, which was probably true to the Greek source. In England, however, the proximity to France's Bordeaux region probably dictated the use of red wine. Additionally, after the Norman Conquest, England and Normandy were one kingdom. The king controlled suppliers, imports and exports, which virtually guaranteed the use of red wine.

This recipe for Hippocras was taken from Fabulous Feasts by Madeleine Pelner Cosman. Ingredients: 1/2 tsp. ginger powder, 4 broken cinnamon sticks, 4 grains of cardamon, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/8 scant tsp. pepper (optional), 1 qt. good red dry wine, 4 blue heliotrope blossoms for coloring. Procedure: place spices in large pot and add wine. Bring to a boil and simmer, tightly covered, for 7 minutes. Add heliotrope blossoms and slowly simmer another 3 minutes. Remove all whole spices and flowers. Serve warm with a slice of lemon.