All about Mead. The new dessert wine that’s made of honey and produced environmentally. Gagan Sharma tastes it and is delighted
India’s relationship with honey is similar to that of having an undercover agent in the family. You know them, have grown up with them, but do you really know them? In December 2019, a report claimed the majority of Indian honeys were fake, adulterated, or chemically tweaked. It kindled a conversation about understanding them better. For an oenophile, there’s more to honey than just adding it to their breakfast spreads, in desserts, or in cocktails. There’s also mead, an ancient fermented alcoholic beverage gifted by the Indians to the world, which has been on the rise since its return in a nouveau, polished avatar about five years ago. And amongst its flag-bearers is Arka, an exotic dessert drink from Maharashtra.
Priyanka Save, a mechanical engineer by profession, was producing Fruzzante where she, along with Canadian fruit winemaker, Dominic Rivard, turned fruits into sincerely crafted fizzy alcoholic drinks. Based out of Bordi at the northern tip of Maharashtra, Fruzzante is the world’s first Chikoo (mudapple) winery that also produces drinks with starfruit, pineapple, orange, mango, and strawberry. On one of his visits in 2017, Dominic caught a cold, and to soothe his itchy throat, Priyanka gave him a remedial concoction of warm water, spices, ginger, and honey. Dominic of course loved it, and enquired if it could be infused in their sparkling chikoo drink. This was enough for Priyanka to put her mad scientist hat on and begin experiments around fermenting honey. She has forever been passionate about showcasing the brilliant natural offering of her region and this was her unprecedented chance to bring glory to the neighbouring Palghar tribal belt, whose golden nectar she’s been relishing since childhood. She jumped on the wagon, and a few months later, with assistance from Canadian mead-expert, Jay Hildybrant, Arka was born.
Priyanka says, “honey and mead find mentions in the vedas, they were consumed by the Pandavas, by royalties, and dignitaries. A lot of inspiration for Arka came from those periods. Honey is an extract of flowers, and Arka is the ancient Sanskrit term for that. We understand people relating honey to luxury & sweetness and that’s what we wanted to put in the bottle. Also, we knew it could later be exported, hence the bottle and the label had to bring in Indian elements like the stamp, elephants, etc”. While at it, Priyanka shares ‘Madhu’ was amongst the initially proposed names, a common Hindi moniker for honey. However, Maharashtra’s excise policy prohibits any alcohol being named after a woman’s name! Though stupid and funny enough a rule, I reckon ‘Arka’ aptly exhibits the philosophy of the drink.
When I tasted Arka from its first 2500-bottles batch I was pleasantly surprised. It was aromatic, perfumed, had surprisingly refreshing acidity, a pleasing furriness on the plate, and wasn’t cloying at all. It was something that could be relished often, than be held on to like a botrytised Semillon from South Africa or Australia, or an expensive, occasion-worthy Sauternes. The honey is sourced by the tribals inhabitant of the forests where flowers grow wildly, which moved Priyanka to christening it as ‘wildflower honey’, against multifloral as it’s generally called. Water is also sourced from the nearby stream that provides yeast essential nutrients to work. Unlike wines, where yeast is rendered inactive by dropping the fermentation temperature or adding sulphites, with Arka fermentation is arrested by adding more honey, suppressing the yeast than killing it. This not only sweetens the drink, it also helps retain the honey’s original character that blossoms even more with aeration. The honey is organic, sourced from the wild as it’s supposed to be, mixed with naturally sourced water, no sulphites, no killing of the yeast, Arka is the true ‘arka’ of nature we say!
Arka, described as a wildflower honey comes in a distinctive bottle with a special cork and is imbued with several botanicals
At my first tasting, my instant reaction wasn’t just wow! such a delicious drink, instead it was wow! so much can be done with this drink. You see with dessert wines the idea is to capture the grape’s varietal character, and no flavour additions are permitted. However with meads, there’re no restrictions. Honey being a strong character even if fermented dry retains its sweet flavours, to which a plethora of botanicals can be added. Priyanka knew this from the start. Being an oenophile herself, she allures the mouthfeel of oak and tannins in a well-made red wine. Wanting to duplicate that she started toying with flavours and rose petals came in as a natural progression. They’re considered regal, a symbol of romance, the utmost sign of purity in Indian mythology, and it fitted precisely in Arka’s philosophy. Dried rose petals added that furriness, the grip, and gave it a commendable body that any discerning wine would be lauded for. We tasted it straight from the tanks at the winery in March last year. From the first whiff it arrests you like a cruel mistress and doesn’t let your attention waiver. It comes capsulated with a special cork that allows the mead to breathe and live until it’s consumed, and then it becomes a memory.
After Rose Arka, the team went tad loco and playing with flavours became an obsession. Priyanka found herself naturally drawn to the Palghar belt again, this time for the Konkan Bahadoli Jamun berries. Priyanka confidently says “we look for ingredients that impart flavours, and are close to Indian hearts. Who hasn’t enjoyed these dark, gummy, juicy, teeth-staining berries?”. Rightly so. These local berries have a thin skin that doesn’t allow the drink to get too dark or tannic, but impart enough to be treated like a red wine. Jamuns are deseeded, pulped, and added to the base Arka mead before being sweetened. Much like a wine, it’s then rested in ex-wine neutral oak barrels for about 3 months before returning to the tank for stabilisation, bottling, and shipping off.
Experiments continue, and now Arka will soon have two more cousins. The next one is a limited release batch in collaboration with chef Varun Inamdar. Apart from being a super-talented chef he’s also uber passionate about chocolates, and can single-handedly be deemed responsible for driving Priyanka to set trails with them. South Indian cacao nibs are lightly roasted before being infused in the base of the original Arka mead for about a week before being sweetened, rested, and released. The one after that will fill the bottle with single origin honey from Vidarbha region and famed Nagpuri oranges. That’s a combo that can’t go wrong, right? But, this one may be at least a year’s wait, and knowing Priyanka’ perfectionism, it may even be longer, so we shouldn’t get excited just yet. After all, there’s so much to come after that…
Meads are gluten free, guilt free, and way more versatile than what we have put on the shelves in this short span of five years. They’ve definitely excited us and made us look at our alcobevs in a different light, an environmentally and consciously driven light. Fruzzante brought glory to many Geographical Indication tagged fruits, and now with Arka that family is set only to grow further. What Arka does is it brings along a better understanding of honey, meads, our agricultural richness, and commends the efforts of the families behind the nectars. It’s a celebration of Indian ethos, the rich cultural heritage, and our senses. And if you’re still not convinced, remember what Einstein said – the day bees die humans will have only four years to live. With every sip of Arka you’ll make the earth breathe and be a more sustainable place to be at. It’s the essence worth having.
Arka MRPs – MH + Goa
Rose – INR1095
Original & Jamun – INR1050
By April it would be available in Rajasthan Delhi & Punjab, prices will vary
First Published in Sommelier India Wine Magazine, 2022