What's the difference between mead and honey wine? Are they interchangeable, or is there a technical difference? We look at the variation between these two terms.
At Beacon, we often field questions from people who are just discovering the mysterious, delicious world of mead. One of the most common questions is: what do we make, exactly? Is it mead, or is it honey wine? Is there a difference?
The short answer: both terms are perfectly correct. Mead IS honey wine. Which term you use is largely a matter of preference. We choose to call our products mead because it’s the predominant word being used today, and because it helps to distinguish mead (fermented from honey) from beer (fermented from grain) and from typical wines (fermented from fruits). But — tomato, tomahto — the terms mead and honey wine are generally considered interchangeable.
That said, there are some historical nuances that are partly responsible for the variation in terms that we see today.
Mead and honey wine across cultures
When you look back through history at the many beverages called mead and honey wine, you’ll see they all have one thing in common: they are all alcoholic drinks made from honey. Whether it’s an Ethiopian t’ej, a Polish miód pitny (literally “drinkable honey”), or a Viking mead, the main ingredient being fermented is always honey. Sometimes spices or fruit are added, but honey is front and center in these beverages — and often the only ingredient. These beverages have been variously translated into English as “mead” or “honey wine.” But no matter what the name, these beverages are all different cultural expressions of the same honeycomb theme.
Some people occasionally use the term “honey wine” to imply that it contains exclusively honey and water, but this is far from a hard-and-fast rule. The truth is that by and large, the terms are interchangeable.
Mead and honey-wine: is there a legal difference?
In the United States, the reason for the mead/honey wine confusion has a lot to do with a minor legal technicality that has had a lasting effect. Our federal alcohol regulator in the US is the Alcohol & Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (“the TTB”). Most alcoholic beverages need to have their labels approved by the TTB, and for a long time the TTB’s labeling division preferred the phrase “honey wine” to the word “mead.” Therefore, until around 2016, most mead was legally required to say honey wine on the label, and was not allowed to be called mead! You can imagine the confusion this caused. Luckily, due in large part to the advocacy of the American Mead Makers Association, the TTB has issued guidance that allows “honey wine” and “mead” to be used interchangeably on labels.
In short: while we use the word mead, that doesn’t mean you have to! Whatever you call it, it’s an age-old beverage with a fascinating history and a wide culinary footprint to explore and enjoy. To learn more, explore our blog posts about the history of mead and the best ways to buy mead in 2019.