Inside a nondescript building on a desolate corner in East Williamsburg, a mead revolution is brewing in one of Brooklyn’s coolest new bars. If mead and revolution don’t sound like they belong in the same sentence, it’s time to get your head out of the shire.
Aptly called Honey’s, this space is not only a mead-driven cocktail bar but also serves as a tasting room for Enlightenment Wines, NYC’s first meadery. Behind the cutting-edge establishment is cofounder Raphael Lyon, who’s come a long way since his days making alcohol out of Capri Sun (yes, that sugary pouch of liquid crack you grew up drinking in the 90s). He and his partner, Arley Marks, who previously headed up Mission Chinese’s bar program, have purposefully built their funky new space to accommodate the continuous exploration that has led them to where they are today.
In the back room, barrels of Lyon's latest honey wine ferment under bushels of sumac hanging from the ceiling, drying out for future use. At the sleek, industrial bar out front, a sip of Floralia—a mead made with foraged juniper, lavender and marjoram—and a snack of miso-cured ramps make it immediately clear to anyone stopping by:
Forget what you know of millennia-old mead—the honey wine fermented with flowers, fruit or herbs. This newfangled beverage is about to have a serious moment, and not just because “everything old is new again” in the land of the L train. Rather, it’s because mead “fits right in,” Lyon explains.
2015 Nought White Mead
Somewhere at the intersection of the country’s booming drink trends—natural wine, dry cider, craft beer—you’ll find Enlightenment's mead front and center: dry, funky and herbal in taste. Lyon and Marks are showing New York that mead is so much more than the cloying, commercial honey wine most people know. The bars PDT and Booker and Dax are already stocking their shelves with it, as well as restaurants like Agern, the buzzy new Nordic spot from Claus Meyer and Gunnar Gíslason.
Thinking of mead simply as “wine from honey” misses the huge breadth of flavors and styles offered, in part because of the wide range of herbs and fruit used during the fermentation process. “A lot of meads are highly controlled,” Marks says, but Enlightenment’s meads are all unfiltered and, for the most part, contain no added sulfites.
The mead masters prefer the drier, untouched style because it lets the botanicals and flavors really shine—and, with drinkers embracing no-fuss, cloudy natural wines like never before, the timing couldn’t be better.
Keeping things local, all ingredients come from New York State, be it the raw wildflower honey used in most bottles or the dandelions, apples and elderberries incorporated into the process.
“What’s great about mead,” Lyon explains, “is that it gives a broader taste of the terroir.” Unlike grape wine, where the bottles typically reflect the terroir of one vineyard, mead captures greater biodiversity, thanks to the addition of flowers, herbs and fruits from various areas. The combinations are limitless; mead making is just as much an art as it is a science. No wonder Lyon’s email signature reads “wines, meads, potions.”
Lyon, the mazer (mead maker), and Marks, the mixologist, met in Providence where Lyon was hosting underground music shows and Marks was spearfishing and running a one-man sushi joint. After Lyon moved back to his family’s farm to launch Enlightenment Wines, the first wine CSA, Marks headed to NYC. The two reconnected and turned Lyon’s small upstate mead operation into the full-fledged brand and effortlessly cool bar that opened in Brooklyn just a few months ago. Today, you’ll find Marks running the front of the house at Honey’s, crafting cocktails like the St. Crimson Negroni—made with black currant mead, Italian bitters and local Greenhook gin—while Lyon forages, ferments and bottles Enlightenment Wines’ mead around back. Lyon also designs the bottle labels.
Their mission is to show people that good mead has been here all along and is highly relevant to today’s trending flavor profiles. Hence the name Enlightenment. It's all about “the experience of trying things for the first time and not comparing it to something else,” Lyon says.
Starting in October, they’ll offer hands-on workshops and seminars with famed fermenters like Andy Brennan of Aaron Burr Cidery and Bianca Miraglia of Uncouth Vermouth, covering everything from “vinegar making for health care” and “alcohols made by incarcerated winemakers” to “herbal potions by local witches” and, of course, natural mead and cocktails.
Whether you get to Mead Academy (sign up here for more info) or not, drinking more mead is officially your fall homework assignment. And you’re going to want to stay ahead of the class, because as Lyon says, “We’ve just dropped things in the market that never existed before, and it's not going to stop.”