Mead Will Flow As Viking Enters Valhalla

by Alex Garrick-Wright -

Mead - it’s a drink 9,000 years in the making. The oldest alcohol known in the world, mead was the tipple of choice for the Norse, who drank it in great quantities from horn vessels at feasts in their mead-halls.

Despite Shetland’s proud Norse heritage (and love of a dram), mead has been conspicuous by its absence from the Shetland drinking scene until only very recently.

When Alistair Morgan founded Viking Mead Ltd in 2017, he wanted to do something unique. Inspired by the Vikings’ self-reliance, he decided to give their brewing a try. Mead’s a remarkably simple drink, utilising only water, honey and yeast to create alcohol, and yet capable of great complexity.

There are very few commercial mead-breweries in the UK, and almost all of them produce ‘honeywine’ mead. Made with wine yeast, the product is a sweet, wine-like elixir of around 12%. This wasn’t what Alistair was looking for - he wanted something more suited to a drinking horn than a glass.

Viking Mead’s first brewery was in an old croft house at the end of a long, dirt track, a few minutes north of Shetland’s ancient capital, Scalloway. There, Alistair experimented with fresh local water, honey and ale hops until he found what he was after - a refreshing, ‘session-strength’ mead at around 5%. He named it Skald, after the Norse storyteller poets who would captivate the mead-halls with the tales and sagas of gods and heroes.

Skald is a light, citrusy affair with a long, smooth honey aftertaste, effervescent and pale golden in colour. It was soon in local shops and restaurants, and Alistair found that it was being sought out by brewers and mead aficionados across the UK.

“It was the product I wanted to make,” Alistair said, “And the fact that it is a bit different… from a marketing perspective that’s a bonus. I didn’t really think about that side of it too much - I just knew what I wanted to make, and I think it is going to be a unique selling point for Shetland: this is the only place you can get it.

“So, it’s mead, but not as you know it.”

The only problem was one of scale - the crofthouse brewery was only capable of producing one batch at a time. With each batch taking a minimum of a couple of weeks, that meant Viking Mead was only able to produce enough for local businesses, with no chance of expanding to larger markets.

Fortunately, a unique opportunity presented itself. In April 2017, the Valhalla Brewery went up for sale in Unst, Shetland’s northernmost isle. The founder, Sonny Priest, had decided to sell the business after 20 years of producing local ale - and Alistair found his solution.

“It was just on the Shetland radio I heard about it, and it must have been a good couple of months before I even contemplated it - I’d just been so busy setting up the mead and my focus was going to that. It didn’t even enter my head.

“A bit of time went by… and I thought ‘Well…’”

After meeting Sonny and testing the brewery out, Viking Mead began to slowly - and secretly - move into the large premises at Saxa Vord, on the north-side of Unst. Now Viking Mead Ltd is the official owner of the Valhalla Brewery, and will continue to make its signature line of ales in addition to the mead.

“We’ve been kind of back-and-forth since October; just getting familiar with the equipment, layout, and Sunny’s been showing us bits and pieces,” Alistair said, adding that much of his time recently has been spent learning the art of ale-making, which is only very slightly different to brewing mead.

The brewery certainly offers room for expansion. The new premises boasts one large 800l fermentation tank, and four smaller 600l ones, allowing for a number of different batches on the go at once, at around 1200 bottles each. Miles beyond the capacity of the crofthouse brewery, Valhalla offers the chance for Skald to truly achieve its potential, as well as allowing for a whole range of different meads.

So what now for Viking Mead? Alistair is optimistic that Skald literally brings something new to the table in Shetland, and that there’s a place of distinction for it among Shetand’s other world-famous gastronomic products.

“My passion is food and drink,” Alistair said, “so to bring a new flavour and a new product, and see what goes well, especially in terms of Shetland food… I really enjoy finding out what goes well with it - not just ‘a drink’, but a drink with an experience.”

So, if you’re looking for a Shetland drinking experience with a decidedly Nordic edge, get a bottle of chilled Skald, fill up a drinking horn, and enjoy with a bowl of smoky reestit mutton soup. It’s an experience as enjoyable, surprising and unique as Shetland itself.

Posted in: Local Food