Yet one drink was prized above all else. With its ancient roots, mead was favored by the wealthy and elite, with one resembling the color of blood prized above all else.

An alcoholic drink drunk throughout different cultures, peoples, and societies

Like many ancient cultures, people in Viking societies drank mead. This is an alcoholic beverage made by fermenting honey with water and then adding ingredients ranging from grains, fruits, spices, or even hops.

Mead has a long and storied history throughout the world. Pottery discovered in China dating from approximately 7000 BCE showed signs of chemicals associated with mead, whilst a description of it can be found in the Rigveda, one of the sacred texts of the Vedic religion, which is thought to be compiled sometime around 1700 – 1100 BCE.

In Europe, mead was supposed to be the drink of choice during the so-called "Golden Age of Ancient Greece" (500 – 300 BCE), with Aristotle and Pytheas both mentioning it in their works. The latter apparently drank mead on the island of "Thule," which is thought to be, according to some scholars, Iceland.

Scandinavian climate and the production of mead

Putting aside Pytheas' early travel account, mead was thought to be extremely popular in Scandinavia. The northern latitudes and harsh climate – minimal sunlight, long and bitterly cold winters, and short and wet summers – do not lend themselves to the growth of grapes. Throughout Northern Europe, and especially Scandinavia, the fermentation of this honey drink was popular even before the so-called "Viking Age."

Despite its popularity, there was one issue: the production of honey. Modern beekeeping techniques were not introduced into Scandinavia until at least the early 17th century. The collection of honey for this drink was a dangerous, time and labor-consuming job. 

As such, mead was never produced in huge volumes or amounts. Furthermore, with such a limited supply of honey produced in Scandinavia, much had to be imported. These factors made mead an expensive tipple, only for the most privileged elite. 

Mead has seen a re-emergence in popularity since the 1970s. It is produced in many countries, including Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, the United States, and even Australia. Photo: Christel Bergkvist / Pixabay 

Imbibing a drink the color of blood 

One of the most famous variations of mead was the "Blood Mead" (Blood Mjød) that Vikings were said to have drunken. A combination of fermenting honey with mixed berries (especially tart cherries) and hibiscus saw the mead turn the color of blood. The hibiscus flower is a perfect sweetener to the tart and bitter flavor of the cherries, whilst it is also said to have some beneficial qualities such as lowering blood pressure.

Making mead is not a quick process. Primary fermentation can take between 28 – 56 days, whilst secondary fermentation normally ages the mead between 6 – 9 months. With all those long and dark winters, with little to do outside, mead was a perfect liquor to help prepare, ferment and age to whittle away those cold days and nights.

Drinking horns, oaths, and myths

In Norse culture, alcohol was a key part of societal and political life. The "promise cup" / "chieftain's cup" (Bragarfull / Bragafull) was an elaborate ceremony involving the consumption of alcohol, often mead. In it, a drinking horn or vessel was passed around by members and often involved the swearing of oaths by powerful people in a particular village or society. A vivid description of this ceremony is mentioned in the Saga of Hákon the Good in the epic Heimskringla by the 13th-century Icelandic man of letters, Snorri Sturluson.

Mead was also heavily mentioned throughout Norse mythology and legends. The so-called "Mead of Suttungr" is a mythical mead that gives total wisdom to whoever drinks it. In one myth, the Gods created a man so wise, Kvasir, that he could answer any question. Kvasir was then murdered by two dwarves who mixed his blood with honey to create the original "blood mead." Drinking this heady brew was supposed to transform the drinker into a wise scholar.

Odin, the Norse god, eventually ends up stealing this mead. Though he drank a few drops, he gave the majority of the mead to the other Gods. This "blood mead" is thought to be a colorful metaphor for poetic inspiration as one of the parts that passed his lips was given to the other gods – with man receiving drops of mead from his anus!

Mead has seen a re-emergence in popularity since the 1970s and is now produced in many countries, including Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, the United States, and even Australia.

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