The honey you choose is the most important ingredient in any mead. I know, this might be a “duh!” moment, but it bears being said. The aroma, color, and flavor of your honey will all carry through into your finished mead – even if it is a cyser, pyment, metheglin, or melomel. The honey is the key!
Before I started my endeavors in meadmaking, I never realized how many types of honey there are. I knew about clover honey, of course, and used buckwheat honey for coughs. That was about it. As I looked into this more, however, there are a plethora of different types of honey, each imparting its own flavor, color, and consistency. Further, they all have their own chemical makeup and pH ranges. Because I am neither a beekeeper nor a chemist, I will not get into this. Read Kenn Schramm’s The Compleat Meadmaker for more detailed information about the chemistry of honey. Even with his lengthy list of honeys, however, I have found several not detailed.
I think the bottom line for choosing honey: if it tastes good, use it. If you would put it in your tea or use it in your baking, if it smells so good it makes your eyes roll back in your head – ferment it!
Also, generally speaking, the darker the honey, the stronger the flavor, so the less you need to use to impart flavor. Conversely, the lighter the color of the honey, the lighter the flavor. When planning mead recipes, I encourage you to think about how the combination of honey and other ingredients would work in other recipes. Will strawberries go better with clover, orange-blossom or raspberry honey? If I use oranges, orange juice, and orange peel, will using orange-blossom honey heighten the effect or be overpowering? Which spices go better with which honey? Do I want a darker, more robust honey to handle the spices, or a light honey to make it more spice-forward? Finding the right combination is part of the fun and art of meadmaking. That is partly why I don’t want to post my recipes until I know they taste good – I’m using many varieties of honey.
Conversely, if there is any off smell…DON’T DO IT. Just walk away. We had some friends who kept a small hive. It was local bees, on local wildflowers, producing raw and unheated honey. That sounded wonderful. Not so much. The honey both smelled and tasted like cat pee smells. Seriously, I’m not kidding. I would not recommend that for mead. However, tasting and exploring the dozens of types of honeys available is fun pastime and can lead to virtually limitless combinations for mead. I recommend starting with local farmer’s markets or healthfood stores to see what unprocessed honey is available in your location. From there, of course, the internet can provide myriad sources of raw honey.
For show meads, the honey is especially important. My show mead with blackberry honey had an astringent, grapefruit taste. This flavor carried through to the finished product. I do not find it unappealing, but others may. Further, the raw, unheated honey might have bits of bees and wax in it. This is not a problem and will come out in time with repeated rackings. If it has not after about 9-12 months (with 3-4 rackings), then I would consider using a clarifier such as bentonite. I have not experienced it myself, but some claim that the more raw the honey, the more powerful the hangover. There is an answer to this: don’t make the ABV of the mead so damn high and perhaps drinking less?